Dedicating this chapter to April65, many thanks for your support :) I really appreciate it :)
The War Between the States would continue for another year and a half and our household would continue much in the same fashion as before. The only significant difference was Arthur's disappearance. We had heard nothing from him since the day he had slipped out of the kitchen door to try and warn Mr. Browne. Poor little Evy would often asked about him, but no one could answer her questions. All we could do was hope and pray that wherever Arthur was, he was alright. No more word came from Jeff either, or Lt. Harper. I could only guess if they were alive. I would also find myself thinking about Sammy, Robert, and Colonel White, wondering how they were doing, and if they were safe. After their visit, I found myself very torn. Now I had friends and family fighting on both sides of the war and my greatest fear was what would happen if they should all meet on the field of battle.
One after another, the days would slowly pass. Prissy continued to whine about how life was unfair to her, Elsie continued to threaten to throw her out someday, George continued to quietly plow along, Kristoffs was very frail, but he also kept holding on and not give up, just like the rest of us.
I continued to wonder about my past, but at the moment, I had no way of finding anything out. The mystery of my grandfather's death was something I could only ask Ben about, and Ben wasn't here. Colonel White was gone and I couldn't question him about the romance that led to my conception and birth. So I did the only thing I could do. Uncle Andrew always said good things come to those who wait, so I followed his advice and waited.
In November 1864, General Sherman marched through Georgia, burning and plundering just about the entire state. I will not say that the news of his march didn't fill me with fear. I was so afraid that he might just go through every state in the Confederacy, and then we would be lost for sure. This house was the only shelter I had left, and I didn't want it lose it, I had lost enough in this war as it was. It was painfully obvious that the South was losing, and while I didn't dare voice any of my opinions out loud, I just hoped the Confederacy would hurry up and lose so our men could come home again.
It was on this frightful note that 1864 came to a close and before I knew it, 1865 was upon us.
One day, in late April, I went to the library to put away a book I had been reading with Evy. She was making wonderful progress in her reading, and had a real thirst of adventure stories. Today we had finished Gulliver's Travels and after slipping the book into its proper place, I slowly walked along the large bookshelves, reading the titles of the books. The fact that the room was unheated, making the place damp and cold in the winter months, was beginning to ruin many of the books. This saddened me but there was nothing I could do about it. Soon I came to the Dickens shelf, and paused there to inspect the condition of the books. Charles Dickens was my favorite writer, and Uncle Andrew had always been faithful to purchase his novels the day they came out. I was very particular about the books and made sure they were placed in alphabetical order. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed that Bleak House was standing right after Oliver Twist instead of A Tale of Two Cities. I knit my eyebrows together at this discovery and pulled the book out with the purpose of returning it to its proper place. Since the book was in my hands, I found myself leafing through it, and as I did I thought I noticed some kind of mark in on one of the pages. Who would dare put markings in my book? I turned back the pages and sure enough, someone had underlined a passage neatly in pencil:
For I saw very well that I could not have been intended to die, or I should have never lived; not to say should never have been reserved for a happy life. I saw very well how many things had worked together for my welfare, and that if the sins of the fathers were sometimes visited upon the children, the phrase did not mean that I had in the morning feared it meant. I knew I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers and that before my Heavenly Father I should not be punished for birth nor a queen rewarded for it.
There were many reasons why Bleak House had always been my favorite of all Dickens novels, and the character of Esther Summerson was one of those reasons. I had identified with her right from the start, and found comfort in her story. That aside, I was still very curious as to who had underlined the passage and why they had done it. Taking the book with me, I left the library and went in search of Elsie. I found her in the kitchen, kneading dough.
"Somethin' the matter, Sarah?" She asked, looking over at me, "from the look on your face I'd say you was troubled."
"I was in the library and I noticed that someone marked up my book. I was wondering if you knew who had been reading it last." I held up to book so Elsie could see. She paused her work to take a close look. After reading the title, however, she turned back to the dough, her face troubled.
"Well?" I impatiently asked.
Elsie didn't answer for quite some time. At last she sat down and motioned for me to do the same. She brushed some loose hair out of her face, leaving a white strip on her forehead from her flour covered hands.
"I'm guessing it was the colonel who did that," she softly said.
"Colonel White?" I incredulously asked. "What makes you think that?"
"When Sam shot you, remember how you told us to fire two shots into the air to get the colonel's attention?"
I nodded my head.
"Well, some of his men heard the shots and reported them to Colonel White. He in turn sent that sergeant, what was his name...Hosehigh, that's it. Sergeant Hosehigh rode to the house and after discovering you had been wounded rode back to the colonel who got the surgeon from the regiment to come and take a look at you. The surgeon pulled out the bullet and sewed up the wound, but you didn't come round for two days and the fever ran so high and you were literally at the point of death that he decided to do his kill or cure method with the cold water. It was that evening when Colonel White himself came to see how you were getting along. He didn't leave your side that entire night, and I know he didn't sleep a wink. He just sat by your bed, holding your hand much like how Massa Greensten did when you came down with pneumonia. Many times I would come to the door and was tempted to go in, but I jus' couldn't. I somehow knew this journey through the dark had to be made by just the two o you. Anyone else would be an intruder. The colonel spoke to you, said a great many things, but except for God in Heaven, no one heard what he said, and I'm thinking he meant for it to be that way. They were words he would never have the courage to tell to you if you were conscious."
I had become very serious from Elsie's tale, my grey eyes growing serious and thoughtful.
"He kept a candle burning the entire night, and had a book with him that he would read from time to time. Just as the sun began to rise your fever broke and Colonel White called me and said you were out of danger. He said he would take his leave and would appreciate my discretion on his being there. As he departed from the room, he took the book from the table and I noticed it was the very novel you are holding in your hands right now. I'm guessing he's the one who put the markings in it, though why he would do such a thing is beyond me."
I once more opened the book and read the passage. Was my father trying to leave a message for me? Was he trying to reassure me that I was not to blame for the way the story of my life had played out, that it was not my fault I had been born out of wedlock, and I should not feel ashamed because of it. Was he trying to tell me that his sins did not reflect on me? Assure me that the mistakes of his past were not to stop me from leading a happy life, filled with love and care?
As I closed the book, my heart regretted that I had not spoken to the colonel while he had been here. I was ashamed that I had robbed this man of his peace of mind. My fear mixed and confusion had wasted what could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity. Would it really have been so difficult for me to have at least written him a note, saying I knew who he was and assure him I no longer hated him, and that I was even getting used to the fact that he was my father?
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Sarah," Elsie spoke again, noticing my distress, "but he had been so particular about you not knowing."
"No, no," I softly said, "it was right of you to keep silent, after all, he asked you to, though I am glad you told me now." I put the book on the table and reaching into my pocket, pulled out the little white hanky. "You know, Elsie, I am a thief."
Elsie looked at me with surprise, "are you now? And what is it that you stole? Perhaps I should go alert the authorities."
Her sarcastic sense of humor brought a faint smile to my lips as I showed her the handkerchief. "This belongs to Colonel White. He lent it to me that day when Sawnders struck me, so I could wipe away the blood the blow had caused. Due to all the confusion I put it in my pocket and forgot all about it until the next day. I washed it in cold water and got the little blood stain off, but instead of returning it to its owner, I kept it." I unfolded the hanky and spread it out on my lap, my index finger tracing the initials. "I kept it, because I wanted to have a little piece of him, a part of him you could say that would remain with me. You know, even though I washed it, it still smells a little like him."
"And how would you know what he smells like?" Elsie snorted, standing up again and resuming her kneading.
"The man cradled me in his arms that night Sawnder nearly...nearly had his way with me," I explained. "So I think I have a pretty good idea of what he smells like." I gave a sigh, "There is so much about him I wish to know. Through Sammy I discovered he has my mother's last diary, and he carries it around with him, but I just can't figure out why."
"Well then, for mercy's sake, why didn't you ask him while he was still around? Wasted a perfectly good opportunity if you ask me," Elsie shook her head.
I scowled, she really didn't have to rub it in. "I wasn't comfortable with it back then," I tried to justify myself.
"That's just too bad for you then, cause now he's gone and you'll never find out."
"Says who?" I backfired, "if I know Uncle Andrew, he might just stage another meeting."
"Like the poor man's soul has nothing better to do," Elsie rolled her eyes, "Sarah, I hope this will be a lesson to you to not put things off. For all you know the colonel was killed in action!"
Oooh, I hadn't counted on that. Those words only added to my troubled thoughts and I sat musing over them. They were interrupted quite abrpttly when the kitchen door was suddenly banged open.
Elsie and I looked over and gasped. Standing in the doorway, covered from head to toe in mud and sweat was Arthur!
He stood panting for a couple of seconds before blurting out, "Lee surrendered to the Union Army!"