Elsie and I set about to washing the dishes. She had just poured the hot water into the sink when we heard the kitchen door open. I glanced over my shoulder and hastily turned back towards the dishes, Sammy had just entered.
“I thought Sarah had asked the colonel to make sure his soldiers didn’t go walking around,” Elsie said to him, but her voice was kind and happy.
“I just wanted to talk to you,” Sammy explained. It was strange hearing his voice again, I had almost forgotten what it sounded like. “I haven’t seen or heard from you in five years, and I can’t pass up an opportunity like this, I might never get another.”
A knock made the three of us look up. The door cracked open and Robert timidly walked in.
“I’m sorry to disturb but, oh, Climb, you’re here. Does the colonel know?”
Sammy straightened out, “no sir.”
“Hmmm, well then I guess you are lucky I appeared when I did,” Robert chuckled, “or you would be in big trouble with him.”
“Elsie,” I introduced, “this is Robert Hosehigh, the son of my former landlord.”
Sammy’s eyes widened and he turned to Robert with a stunned expression. “You…know…her?” He pointed to me.
“I knew her before anyone else,” Robert smiled, “I’ll never forget when my mother called me and place tiny little Sarah in my arms. I was eight years old then.”
“Nice to meet you sir,” Elsie said, “Sarah always spoke very highly of you. I have to say, yous look a lot better than I imagined.”
“Pardon me?” Robert was very confused.
“In the picture Sarah had of you, you looked positively frightful.”
Robert blinked at her several times before the truth dawned on him. “Ah, yes, that,” he laughed, “yes, that was my feeble attempt at art.”
“I still have it you know,” I giggled.
“Oh no, I wish you would have thrown it out,” Robert shook his head. “Sam, what are you doing here?”
“I came to talk to my sister.”
“Elsie is your sister? Ah, right, you were a slave here once. Sarah said something about gardening.” Robert let out a chuckle, “to think that you were once a gardener?”
“Is there anything wrong with being a gardener, sir?” Sammy’s voice became strained. “Permit me to say how my garden, that is, Sarah’s garden, was the envy of the entire neighborhood.”
“You don’t say? Well, I should very much like to see it.”
“I am afraid that is impossible,” I softly said, “the flower garden no longer exists.”
“I noticed that,” Sammy glanced over at me, “what happened to it?”
“I turned it into a vegetable garden; after all, you can’t eat flowers.”
A silence hung over us for a few seconds. Elsie motioned for Sammy to come to the corner of the kitchen, obviously she wanted to ask him for all the details about her family. Sammy reluctantly went over to her, casting a dark, almost jealous glance at Robert and myself.
“I can’t believe how different your life is now,” Robert spoke at last, “what a drastic change.”
“Drastic change doesn’t quite describe it correctly,” I agreed with him. “It was so strange how I went from being an unwanted outcast to a well bred lady. Now the ragged child, and the fine lady are both gone,” I pulled my hands out of the hot, greasy water and studied them
“Come now, Sarah, you are every bit the fine lady you were made to be.”
I cracked a smile, “in the present circumstances, I find it hard to think of myself as a fine lady, just like I find it hard to think of my mother as once being a fine lady. But enough of me, better tell me something about yourself?”
“I am married now, and have three children.”
“You’re married?” My eyes brightened.
“Well, I wasn’t born a bachelor,” Robert laughed.
“Is that all you are going to tell me? I haven’t seen you in fifteen years; so much has happened in that time. Your father is dead, I know that much, what else?”
“There isn’t really much to say. I was determined to make a living for myself no matter what it cost me. I did not want to end up like my father. I made a goal in life, to pull my mother and myself out of the poverty we lived in. I worked at the docks for two years before becoming apprentice to a watchmaker. It was during this time that I began seriously courting Emily O’Darren.”
“No!” I gazed at him in disbelief. “Robert, you hated her! I remember you constantly tormenting her. Even at sixteen you gave her no peace.”
Robert’s eyes twinkled. “Everything changes with time, Sarah. Wobbly, lopsided, gangly Emily blossomed into a beautiful woman. She was having a hard time, her mother was dead and her father had broken his leg and was ill. I started helping her out a little and before I knew it I was in love with her. We had a three year engagement because I had to establish myself in the trade and earn enough money to live on. Even now, ours is a modest life, but we are happy. I have two sons and a daughter. She doesn’t look anything like you, Sarah, even though she is your namesake.”
“Robert,” I was touched, “you shouldn’t have.”
“Why not? You were quite the sister to me, Sarah. Dear little Sarah, I believe, had you remained with us and grown into the beautiful young woman you were destined to be, I might have easily fallen in love and married you.”
“Robert,” I waved my hand and blushed. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Sammy turning his head a little, I think the words ‘fall in love’ and ‘married you’ caught his attention and he was trying to figure out what we were talking about.
“What of you?” Robert asked. “I am surprised to find you are not married yet. You must have had a long line of suitors. It will be a true shock to me if I were to find out you didn’t.”
“Says her,” Elsie suddenly put in, “Sarah had more suitors than she is willing to admit, she’s far too modest.”
“Elsie,” I groaned.
“Now, now, Sarah, the man wants to know. He told you all about his life, return the favor.” Elsie came over closer to us.
“There’s nothing to tell,” I stated in a firm voice. “Yes, maybe I was courted by several men, but I didn’t marry any of them.”
“You remember Miss Thompson?” Elsie asked Robert.
“Indeed I do, the screaming girl?”
“The very same. Her brother was probably the most persistent suitor of Miss Rose. He even proposed to her twice.”
“Twice?” Sammy’s eyes clouded.
“Why didn’t you marry him, Sarah?” Robert was very interested by now.
“Uncle Andrew didn’t approve,” I said, “and I didn’t like him. He wasn’t a very pleasant man, arrogant and in love with himself.”
“Did he get the point the second time you refused him?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
“When he left for the war he was sure that when he returned Sarah would change her mind and marry him,” Elsie smirked. “Thick headed is the perfect word to describe that fool.”
“So, what will you do when he comes back?” Robert asked.
“He’s not coming back,” I quietly said, “Albert Thompson was killed in action at the battle of Shiloh. It’s been about a year and a half since we heard of his death.”
“Albert is dead?” Sammy couldn’t quite believe his old rival was really gone.
I nodded, “as are Mr. and Mrs. Thompson.”
“So what will become of Miss Thompson?” Robert questioned. “From what I understand, she has no family now.”
“Prissy has an aunt somewhere in North Carolina. Unfortunately, at the moment it isn’t really possible for us to get her there. The roads are blocked by enemy lines, and we have no mode of transportation. She will stay with me until the war ends, I guess we’ll see how it goes from then on.”
“You are very kind,” Robert smiled at me.
I shrugged, “I owe her as a neighbor. Besides, she is also engaged to my cousin…”
My sentence was interrupted by Sammy, who choked on the water he had been drinking and let it spray from his mouth. Robert reached out and thumped him on the back.
“You alright, Sam?” He asked.
“No!” Sammy gasped, “do you know anyone who is alright after they choked? Massa Jeffrey is going to marry Miss Thompson?”
“Don’t remind me of that horrible fact,” Elsie groaned. “If it were up to me, I would have thrown that troublesome girl out, but Sarah and Lulu have more patience. Not that I wish the girl any harm, but she makes life so difficult. Spoiled rotten and self centered, she is as bad as her brother was.”
“We will fully decide everything when Jeff comes home,” I brought the subject to a close. “If Jeff comes home,” I added as an afterthought and turned my attention back to the dishes. The water was already cool and I had to hurry if I wanted to get the grease off the plates.
“What about you, Elsie?” Robert looked over at her, “are you married?”
“Certainly not,” Elsie replied in an insulted tone, “I have yet to find a man worthy of me.”
I giggled and Robert raised his eyebrows.
“My sister has a very high opinion of herself,” Sammy put in.
“I just know my worth, and it is far above any man I have ever met,” Elsie explained.
“I see,” Robert was very amused. “And what would you do if you did meet a man worthy of you?”
“Well, I guess I’d marry him, but I know he don’t exist so I don’t even bother looking.”
Robert was trying very hard not to laugh. “I like you, Elsie Climb,” he said with a broad smile.
“Thank you, Sergeant, I don’t know if I can fully say the same about you.”
We were all laughing by now.
I washed the last plate, poured the water out and dried my hands. “It has been nice talking, but I have to go.”
“Where too?” Robert inquired
“I must put Evy to bed,” I explained, “allow me to bid you all a good night.” I gave a small bow and left the kitchen. I hadn’t gotten very far though, when a hand grabbed my arm.
“Why do you keep doing this, Sarah?” Sammy’s voice asked. “Why do you keep running away from me?”
I sighed and turned to face him. The house was covered in darkness and I could just barely make out his frame.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” I mumbled, “I…I…I just don’t know how to handle all this.”
“Handle you and your just showing up out of nowhere into my life. Things were complicated enough as it is and today…today it just all got multiplied by tenfold.”
“Why don’t you want to talk to me,” he persisted, “you could always talk to me before.”
“That was before,” my voice was soft but earnest, “things are different now. You and I…well…we are on opposite sides of the war.”
“Oh, Sam,” I breathed, “you’re not making things any easier in my life right now.”
“Stop calling me Sam,” he barked, “I hate it when you call me that.”
“I’m sorry, I just…well…” I gave a frustrated sigh, “what do you want from me, Sammy?”
“I haven’t seen you in five years,” Sammy was about as frustrated as me. “I want to know how you are and what you have been doing.”
I allowed my voice to soften a little, “I am as you see me, and I have been fighting a war.”
“Is that really all you can tell me?”
“I don’t know what else to say, or how to say it.” I tried to free my hand, but he held it firm.
“Today, when we rode to the house,” he told me, “I didn’t recognize you at all.”
“Oh, that’s old news,” I rolled my eyes, “all everyone can tell me these days is how altered I am.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean the fact that you are thin and careworn. No, it was because the Sarah I knew ran when an invalid aunt raised an eyebrow, and wept at the slightest harsh word. This Sarah was confronted by an entire army and she stood firm, holding her ground and even demanding things. And I can’t help wondering where is the old Sarah, the Sarah I left behind so long ago?”
I thought of the night I had last seen Sammy. It had also been pitch black, and we had spoken to each other in hushed tones, but how different a girl I had been then, how different everything had been. “She’s gone,” I whispered in a cracked voice, “she was burned with the cotton fields and looted with the house. She lies buried in the cold ground, she is lost somewhere on the field of battle, wherever she is, Sam, she is never coming back. I am afraid the old Sarah is gone for good.”
His grip on my hand tightened a little, but he said no words and for a moment the two of us just stood there in the dark and silence.
“Climb, is that you?” We heard Colonel White’s voice. I yanked my hand free and ran off before it became obvious who Sammy had been talking too.
Opening the door to our room, I saw Evy waiting impatiently for me.
“What took you so long?” She asked with a long, drawn out sigh.
“I’m sorry,” I masked all my troubles with a smile, “did Lulu give you a bath?”
“She did, see I’m already in my nightgown. Will you read to me a story?”
“Of course I will. Come, let us read about the first Christmas.”
“Will I get presents tomorrow?” She questioned with bright eyes.
I sighed. “No, Evy, I’m afraid we don’t having anything to give.” The dear girl had only been introduced to the idea of gift giving when she came to live with us, and I felt bad that she had had so little time to enjoy the joys of Christmas.
“I hate this war,” Evy grumbled.
I laughed, “I think everyone does, but don’t worry, one day it will end.”
“Who do you think will win?”
“To be honest, Evy,” I confessed as we settled on the bed with the Bible, “at this point I really don’t care.”