By Lee Crockett Darcy
I’ve attended Mrs. Jones’s school at Homestead since I was eight years old. Mrs. Jones runs the school with her son-in-law, Dr. Mason, in his big yellow house east of town. With the school being so close to home I’ve traveled here daily, walking into Hicksford and riding to the school in Dr. Mason’s carryall. I’ve always wished I could attend as a boarding student—anything to keep me away from the noise my little sisters made. Lilian wailed with colic for what seemed like her entire first year, and I tried to help soothe her as best I could. Charlotte—who we call Charlie since she acts like a boy—was much worse. She drove us all mad with her constant shrieking and running about. Lilian improved as she got older, but Charlotte never did. I think Father would have sent them away if he could.
From the moment I started going to Homestead, it became a beacon of sunshine to me. Nothing gave me more pleasure than arriving at the boxwood-lined brick walkway leading up to the yellow clapboard house, where everyone had a place and a purpose. There I not only studied the civilized arts, I also met girls from all over the South. Most of us were native Virginians, but a few hailed from more far-off places like Georgia and Mississippi. Not all the girls loved the school as I did. Some even had the audacity to call Homestead “the big yellow barn”! But maybe they didn’t have insufferable little sisters at home.
When I reached the upper form, it was hard to acknowledge that I would be finished with school in another year. I had been so excited to finally be admitted to the elder students’ classroom, and I couldn’t believe my time there had passed so quickly. I enjoyed my classmates’ company and adored our teachers: Miss Abbott, Miss Randolph, and Mrs. Jones herself.
Ever since talk began about secession and war, the school was filled with excitement. Sometimes the mood was so overwhelming I found it difficult to study. Some of the older girls had beaux at home, and they simply couldn’t wait to bear the agony of sending their sweethearts into battle. I heard them whispering during recess—sometimes even in class!—but I couldn’t always hear what they were saying. We all followed the papers closely. Of course ladies shouldn’t be interested in such political things, but Dr. Mason and Mrs. Jones believed that part of our education should include keeping up with important news. I didn’t think Father would really approve of this, but Dr. Mason said that as wives and mothers of our future leaders, we ladies must have at least a rudimentary understanding of what was happening.
An expectant air hung over us all that spring and into the summer, as if everyone were holding their breath and waiting for something to happen. Late in July, Dr. Mason came into our classroom and asked Miss Randolph for permission to address the class. We all put down our books and paid attention, glad for any break from studying in the summer heat. He gave us the happy news about the Yankees’ defeat near a town to the north called Manassas, and the entire schoolroom burst into cheers. Miss Randolph sat down, covering her mouth with her hands, looking skyward with gratitude.
The news made studying that day absolutely futile, so Miss Randolph cancelled classes and decided we would spend the afternoon in celebration. It was like a party! Mrs. Jones even made lemonade, a rare treat. The five of us eldest girls sat on the porch, terribly excited.
“How much longer do you think it will take us to really defeat the Yankees?” Mary Maclin asked.
“Oh, not long at all!” Ruth Edwards decided. “You heard what Dr. Mason said. This battle was a sound defeat. And I’ve heard all sorts of stories about how Yankees are only worried about making money. They’re too scared to fight like our boys.”
“Do you think there’ll be any more fighting? Do you think we’ll see any of it?”
“Bother the fighting. When will we get to see our fighting men?” Sallie Walker exclaimed, her shrill voice a little too loud.
We all giggled but tried to muffle the sound with our hands.
“Shhh!” Martha Land shushed us, but she was laughing too. Mrs. Jones would have frowned upon such topics for her young ladies, and we all knew it.
“Martha, did any of your sisters go courting with a soldier before?” Mary asked.
“I don’t think so,” Martha replied. She had seven older sisters, so we all turned to her for their lessons learned. “I know they will now, though!”
“Mama always said that soldiers were so rough. Would it be all right for a gentleman’s daughter to go courting with one?” I dared ask. “When Mama was a girl in Richmond—”
“Of course it would!” Mary interrupted. “Southern soldiers would be more refined and well behaved than any other kind, I imagine.”
“I wonder if anyone from home was in the battle,” Ruth said quietly. She sighed, no doubt thinking of her sweetheart.
“I can’t think of a single boy from home that wouldn’t have joined up,” Sallie said. “It doesn’t matter. If he couldn’t prove he was a soldier defending the South, I wouldn’t have any interest in him anyway.”
“Me, either,” Martha and Mary declared in unison.
“Me, either,” I echoed. In truth, I always had trouble imagining what the proverbial “he” of whom we always spoke might be like. The girls seemed to switch daily on whether they would prefer a Knight in Shining Armor or a Tall Dark Handsome Stranger who needed reforming.
“I wonder if any of the men wore any of the things we made for them into the battle,” Sallie mused, already love-struck.
Ruth nodded smugly. “I’m certain they did.”
“I’m surprised Sallie has any hair left after all the curls she cut off to put in the socks we sent!” Mary said.
The rest of the girls burst out giggling. Sallie blushed and threw a lemonade-soaked sprig of mint in Mary’s direction.
“Ooh, what I would give to be in Richmond tonight!” Ruth declared.
Martha sighed, her gaze wistful. “Or on any other night, for that matter.”
* * * * *
As always, thinking of Richmond made me think of Mama. I wondered if she had heard the news about our victory.
Dr. Mason took us town students home after dinner. With no classes in session there was little sense in our staying. It was well after noon when I arrived home, and I called out to let everyone know I was back sooner than usual, but no one waited for me in the house. I found Charlie first. She was outside with our brother CJ, tending the garden.
“Have you heard the news?” I asked.
She glanced up, appearing annoyed. “What news?”
“About the Confederate victory at Manassas!”
“Oh, there was a battle, then?” CJ asked, feigning disinterest. “I wondered if there would be one this summer.”
I didn’t expect any questions from Charlotte—the brat—but I did wait for CJ to ask more. To my surprise, he just continued working. I tapped my foot to show I was waiting to share more, then I realized I had gotten mud all over my shoes. Those two made me so angry I wanted to spit at them, but of course a lady wouldn’t do something like that. I turned to go to the kitchen, hoping Sarah and Lilian would be there to give me a better reception. After all, it was Saturday, baking day. But I didn’t get so much as a hello from either Sarah or Lilian.
“What you doing home so early, Miss Catherine?” Sarah asked suspiciously. She and Lilian were both up to their elbows in flour.
“Where’s Mama?” I asked, ignoring her question.
“Upstairs in her room. Where else would she be?”
I hadn’t heard Mama calling down to me when I’d first come into the house. Now I ran back inside, thundered up the stairs, and burst into her room. I hadn’t thought to allow enough time to see if she was even awake, so I was shocked by the darkness in the room. The window shades were drawn, and the sheer white summer curtains puffed into the room when the door opened, letting in a momentary lapse of light.
“Catherine!” Mama exclaimed.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” I said, clinging to the doorjamb. She waved away my sentence as she sat up in bed. “Have you heard about our victory?” I asked, absolutely unable to wait.
She didn’t hear me. “Could you pour me a glass of water from my pitcher over there?”
Of course I obliged. She lifted herself up slightly then settled back on the bed pillows. Her eyes nearly rolled into the back of her head with the effort. I handed her the glass of water and reached to fluff up the pillows behind her.
“How are you feeling?” I asked, guilty I hadn’t thought to ask that first.
“About the same as usual, I’m afraid,” she said, straightening her dingy white coverlet.
I hoped when I got older and finished school, Father would allow me to take Mama to a sanitarium in the mountains, someplace that would be more beneficial for her health. In the meantime, I looked around her grandly furnished room and saw it was coated with a layer of dust thicker than anywhere else in the house. Evidently Sarah had been neglecting her duties in Mama’s room, or else Mama had thrown her out again. I located a discarded rag on one of the bureaus and set about taking care of the dust, trying to think of a way to bring up the battle again.
“Have you heard the news about the Confederate victory?” I asked.
“Do you think you could send for Sarah and have her make me some tea?” she asked at the same time. It was customary, of course, to take care of Mama’s wishes first, but she must have at least heard part of what I said for she looked at me with surprise. “What?” she asked, her tea temporarily forgotten.
I repeated what I had said, and she shook her head, giving me the perplexed gaze I had expected all along. I told her the news of the battle at Manassas, and she looked more shocked than I could have ever imagined! Her eyes grew wide, and she actually got out of bed and ran downstairs! I had never seen Mama move so quickly before. I followed her unladylike trot, proud that I’d been the one to bring such important news. Mama even ran out of the house, and after looking around, she started running even more. Father was working quite a distance from the house, but I could see him tending to his duties in the hayfield.
“Corwin!” she shouted when she came into earshot. We were both out of breath by the time we reached him. “Catherine’s just brought the news in from town. The Confederacy has won their first victory. Isn’t it marvelous?”
“That isn’t news. The wire in town received all kinds of reports about the battle two days ago.”
She stood and stared at him, out of breath. “Corwin, I know you’ve wanted to see the Confederacy prove itself before you aligned with them, but you always aspired to get into politics. You never intended to turn out just as a simple farmer. Now is your chance! The Yankees will be defeated, and there will be more need than ever before for clerks and other kinds of workers since we’re creating a whole new government. And since Richmond’s so close, you can do that and still not neglect your family’s holdings here—”
Father interrupted her. “Prove itself!” He snorted, still working. “One bunch of inexperienced, terrified boys chase off another, and they call it a great victory.” He stopped and looked at her. “When did I ever say anything about waiting for the so-called Confederacy to prove itself?” He looked around and saw that all the field hands had stopped swinging their scythes. They were listening, too. “Get back to work!” he shouted.
“You never said so, but I had to assume there was a reason you were turning your back on your homeland and your family.”
“Melissa, I’ve told you a thousand times that I don’t have time for your prattle. Now get back to the house where you belong, and keep your nose out of affairs that have nothing to do with you!”
Mama puffed up with pride, as if she intended to do battle, but after a moment she retreated. I turned to follow.
“Catherine!” Father barked. “You see that you never bring news that will upset your mother like this again, do you understand?” I nodded, but the gesture wasn’t enough of an answer for him. “I can’t hear you!” he roared.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered, then I turned to catch up to Mama.
“You get more like your mother every day!” he yelled after me.
I didn’t look back. Even with all the changes happening in the world, everything remained exactly the same here.
Lee Crockett Darcy is a self-proclaimed History Geek and Reading Fanatic. She is not related to Davy, but she did marry a charming Mr. Darcy. Lee currently resides in southwestern New Hampshire.