Two days had gone by since the evening of the celebration and the plantation was quiet. People passed through the rooms of its interior with soft footsteps; so as not to disturb the master of the house.
Mathew was very ill and had been ever since his collapse. He lay in his upstairs bedroom, pale and weak, and there wasn't much to be done for him. All the doctor could tell the family was that Mathew's heart was weak and the only thing left to do was to make him comfortable.
James leaned against the wall outside his father's chamber, watching rain fall softly out the window opposite him. The steady rain tapped rhythmically against the glass and the only other sound was the soft tick of the grandfather clock which stood, polished and gleaming against the wall beside him.
He felt a light touch on his arm then and looked down to see Muriel looking up at him. She'd just emerged from one of the guest rooms down the hall. Libby had lent her a cream-colored day-dress, and she wore the garment now, but it looked disheveled, as if she had put it on without much thought. She looked sleepy. Her hair fell in glossy waves about her, and her eyes were half closed and foggy. James had to smile. He thought she looked lovely. He reached out and pulled her into his arms, feeling her warm frame curve against him. He sighed, breathing in the scent of her hair. "Good morning Darling."
She burrowed against his chest and attempted to stifle a rather undignified yawn. He couldn't help himself and he laughed, cupping her face with a hand and kissing her gently. "Sleep did not come so easily last night?" His voice remained low, keeping the quiet of the house.
She yawned once more, covering her mouth with a hand and eliciting another quiet laugh from James. "It's not that."
She smiled. "I haven't slept so well in a long time. I was actually tempted to stay beneath the blankets when I heard the rain this morning."
He nodded. "Of course, you may do as you like here."
She uttered a soft laugh. "Now just who is spoiling whom?" she asked, nestling her head beneath his chin and giving a contented sigh.
"True," he murmured, kissing her hair, "but you deserve every bit of it."
The two remained in each other's arms, enjoying the few moments of tranquility as well as the time alone together. The last two days had been filled with worry and strain. The couple had both recognized the needs of the house and so they hadn't seen much of each other without his family present. James had kept watch over his mother and Muriel had looked after Libby. Both women were baring up as well as expected under the circumstances, but the anxiety over Mathew's condition had left the entire house on edge. Muriel glanced towards the door behind which lay James' father and then returned her gaze to him. "How is he?"
James sighed. "We'll be better able to talk in the parlor I think, come," he said, guiding Muriel down the stairs and into the parlor.
They sat in the room, and James was just about to speak when a woman appeared at the door. "Sir, breakfast is ready if you and the girl are wantin any."
James stood. "Thank you very much Hanna," he said, walking with Muriel towards the large dining room.
"Yes Sir, I'll go wake Libby and the Mrs.," Hanna said, ascending the stairs.
James led Muriel into the dining room, pulling out a chair for her and then seating himself.
"How long has she been with your family?"
He smiled. "She was here before I was born,"
Muriel nodded, and then looked at the food around her. She saw plates of fruit, eggs, a pitcher of milk and a pitcher of tea. There was a platter full of sliced
Ham beside another plate full of biscuits, and then her eye fell on a pale blue bowl, which James held. The food in it looked like porage, covered by a dark gravy. She watched as he spooned some of the stuff on to his plate. "What is that?"
He looked up at her. "Would you care for some?"
She took the bowl in her hands and dished out a scoop of the thick substance.
James watched as she took a bite, and then laughed as she swallowed with a grimace and with obvious effort. "Am I to assume Ms. O'Shae, that you have never tasted grits before?"
She scowled at him. "Do your duty to them James. I love the tea you serve, but those aren't my taste," she said, placing a slice of ham on to her plate and then reaching for the dish of eggs.
James stood as his mother and sister came into the room and he moved to pull out chairs for both. "Did you sleep well Mama?" he asked, lifting
The pitcher of tea and pouring her a glass.
Abigail settled herself in her chair, folding her napkin in her lap. "Yes, thank you dear."
Hanna entered the room then, carrying a bowl of sugar and a jar of honey. A girl followed her. Muriel could see that the girl was no older than her little sister, and could also see she was struggling to carry a large pitcher of water. Without thinking, she rose from her seat and went to the girl, lifting the pitcher and carrying it towards the table. She set it down and walked briskly after the girl towards the back door which led out to the kitchens, drying her damp hands on her skirt. She'd forgotten that she wasn't wearing an apron. She only stopped when the clatter of dropped cutlery and a gasp caught her attention. She turned and saw the family staring at her.
Abigail and Elizabeth both looked incredulous. Muriel looked at James, and saw him standing beside his chair, watching her carefully.
Abigail spoke and Muriel looked towards her. "Maggie, you may leave now." Muriel looked back at the girl, who was still standing in the room, gaping at her with wide eyes. "Maggie… you may leave… now," Abigail repeated, her tone firm and clipped.
The tone of command seemed to cut through Maggie's surprised reverie. "Yes Ma'am," Maggie murmured, turning and scurrying from the room.
James walked over to Muriel, resting a hand upon her arm and guiding her back to her seat.
She gave him an apprehensive look, understanding the gravity of the insult. He gave her a reassuring smile and let her take her seat before sitting down himself.
"James, will you give the blessing?" Abigail asked, her voice still strained.
"Yes Ma'am," James answered, folding his hands and bowing his head.
Muriel discreetly crossed herself, all the while making sure James' mother wasn't watching her. James said grace and afterword, the rest of the meal was eaten in silence. As Abigail rose from her seat, Muriel spoke up. "I am so sorry Mrs. Sinclair."
Abigail turned, her expression tense. "I will allow a display like that this once, because you are not of this place, but never again." She turned then, walking quickly from the room in a rustle of skirts.
Muriel looked at James, her eyes wide. James glanced at Muriel and Libby briefly, then stood. "Excuse me Ladies," he said, walking after his mother, reaching her before she had Ascended the stairs. "Mama, may I speak with you?"
She turned to him. "Yes, what is it James?"
"Why did you speak to Ms. O'Shae so harshly?"
"I'll not discuss this here," she said through clenched teeth. She turned, walking quickly up the stairs and James followed her. Years of training prevented her from storming into her room, but her steps and posture were rigid as she went and sat at her vanity, beginning to brush out her hair. James hesitated at the threshold, watching his mother in the mirror. Abigail caught her son's eye, and with a sigh, she spoke. "You may come in James," she said, her tone gentler than it had been earlier.
He entered the room and stood, his eyes still on his mother. Her lovely face was drawn and her eyes were tired, the delicate skin beneath them dark from lack of sleep. The two stared at one another in the glass for a few moments before she spoke again. "James, I realize she is young, and not of this place, but you could have at least told her of our ways." The edge in her tone had returned, and she began to brush her hair in harsher,
"She was only doing what came naturally to her. She never meant to insult anyone."
Abigail gave a resentful scowl, setting her brush down with a hard slap, and began pulling her hair up and away from her face. "You do all you can for her. You'd throw over your own fortune if she asked it of you, and yet you sit and do nothing while your own father lies helpless, breathing his last."
"Mama you can't be certain he is-"
She turned to face him, her hair falling in a dark curtain about her pale face. Tears glistened in her eyes. "I know he is difficult, and I know the past between you, but James, please. He is your father, and he is slipping away. Please go and talk to him?"
He stepped toward her, lifting a white handkerchief from his pocket and offering it to her. "I'll go talk to him Mama. Please, don't cry."
She nodded and sighed. "Thank you, James, and do forgive me for speaking of Ms. O'Shae in that way," she said, her expression softening.
He bent and kissed her cheek. "I forgive you Mama." He straightened, and headed for his father's room. His mother was right. He ought to try and settle things as well as he could before it was too late. He entered the darkened room, hearing immediately the harsh sounds of
his father's labored breathing. He went to the bed and looked down at the man. The person lying among the bedclothes hardly resembled his father. The pale, thin
man, looked utterly exhausted and very old. James realized his mother had been right. His father was indeed slipping away. The only other time he had been this familiar with death, aside from the war, had been when he had lost his grandfather. How he had grieved when that good, kind man had died, and now, as he stared at the sick man in the bed before him, he felt distress at having no urge to weep, to mourn his own father.
There had always been distance between them. Only when James had been a small child had Mathew shown him something even resembling affection, but there had never been hatred, until James had stood against him.
He sighed, trying desperately to find something to say and not knowing the words. "Sir?" Mathew turned his head towards James and looked at his son through sunken eyes. "Sir… I.""
Mathew motioned to the water pitcher beside the bed. James poured him a cup. He held the cup to his father's lips and the man sipped, staring at his son the entire time. When James had set the glass aside Mathew drew in a breath and spoke. "Get… get out," He rasped, his head falling back against the pillows.
James felt the frail hope inside him shatter, unaware until that moment, that it had existed to begin with. Pain gripped his heart, squeezing hard. He suddenly felt as if he were a boy again, once again rejected. Sadness slid heavily over him. Over the years, Mathew had been able to make him so angry he couldn't think clearly, but in the end, what hurt most was the realization that; it was still his father's love he wanted, and he knew now, he would never have it. He stared at his father for a moment, then he turned, and walked from the room.
He moved down the hallway and saw his mother walking towards him. He saw her smile as she caught sight of him and his heart grew heavier.
"Did you speak with him?"
James stood before her. "Yes, we spoke,"
Her eyes were alight with hope. "Did it go well?"
"It went as well as was possible."
She lowered her head, closing her eyes for a moment, and then she nodded. "Please tell Libby to come up when you see her." She then hurried off towards Mathew's room.
James went down into the dining hall. He found Muriel and Libby still there, the two of them sipping tea and talking easily. "If you'll pardon me Ladies. Libby, Mama is asking for you."
Elizabeth rose, quietly excusing herself from Muriel's company. The look on her face had gone from one of relaxed happiness to something drawn and somber. She paused beside James, reaching for his hand. "Is it Papa?" Her voice sounded afraid, and very young.
James took her hand, drawing her into a comforting hug. "Yes. Mama wants you to come up and see him," he said gently.
She let out an almost inaudible whimper and hid her face against his shoulder, hugging him tightly. He rested a hand against her hair. "It'll be all right Sugar… it's all right."
She pulled back after a moment and nodded, her face composed. After one last look at both him and Muriel she moved for the stairs.
James went to Muriel and pulled her to her feet. "I am sorry for earlier James," she said.
James nodded. "Would you come outside with me?" The look in his eyes was one of restrained pain, and she squeezed the hand he still held, nodding. She let him lead her out and on to the front porch. The rain of earlier hadn't stopped but the air held a clean, fresh scent, which Muriel breathed in as they sat in the porch swing. "Mama asked me to apologize to you for her behavior."
Muriel nodded. "How is your father?"
James sighed. "It won't be much longer now,"
She slid her hand into his, finding that there were no words of comfort she could give. His head was lowered, his eyes staring at their entwined hands without seeing them. "Mama asked me to speak to him. I sat with him for a time, and when I at last found
something worth saying to him, he sent me away. When she asked how it had all gone I told her things had gone as well as they could have. I didn't want to see her suffer anymore because of him, but I couldn't lie to her either. I hope she understood."
She gently squeezed his hand. "You did all you could and the rest was his choice. I admire you for trying to mend things."
He gave a vague, sad smile, his expression still far away and full of pain. When he spoke, his voice was soft, distant. "I wanted to have things settled between us, for Mama's sake, but even as I spoke with him I knew better. I believe he loves my mother and sister, but he's always seen me as troublesome, an annoyance… always in his way. When I was a child, I wanted to spend time with him, but I always seemed to be ignored. It is a terrible truth to realize, but he does not love me."
Muriel had never seen him look so sad, so lost and somehow small. She felt her heart break at his revelation and tears stung her eyes. She rested her hand against his cheek, turning his face to her. "Oh James, my love I am so sorry."
He nodded. "The bible commands us to honor our parents. He is dying and I don't know how to help," He paused, grimacing and drawing in a shaking breath. "Or, God forgive me, even if I want to," he admitted, lowering his head and breaking the gaze between them.
Muriel stroked his hand gently with her free one. "It's terribly difficult to do what we must when those for whom we are trying fail us."
He closed his eyes, and let out an exhausted sigh. "Lord yes. I know longer know what to do."
She gently kissed his forehead, feeling tears sting her eyes. She hated to see him in such pain. "When I feel as you do, I always think of our Lord on the cross. The ones he came to save, the ones he loved were torturing him, were killing him, and still, he prayed for them, because he wanted heaven for them in the end. Your father, is just like those crucifiers. He is still a soul in need of salvation. Your faith may teach something different, but my faith teaches that there is always hope for a soul, until their last breath and they deserve prayer and intersession until the end of their life." As he had done so many times when their positions had been reversed, Muriel lifted his chin gently in one hand, raising his head to look at her. "All of your life you've been a better man than he, and, though I know how trying it is for you my Love, I also know you won't change now. If you can, pray for him, for his sake, and for the sake of the savior who loves you both?"
He pulled her to him, thinking only of holding her as tightly as he could. She would never know how deeply her words had touched him. He had felt his faith slipping away as he had seen atrocities committed on these lands, as the war had dragged on, and then he had met her.
He knew with certainty that God had placed her in his life. Through this woman, this gentle creature who lived out her beliefs in everything she did and said; he felt his soul refreshed, and a Christian faith which he had doubted in the past few years, was slowly being renewed. "I love you Muriel. I love you so much," he whispered, wishing he could better convey the depth of emotion he felt at that moment.
Her smile lit her entire face. "I love you James."
They kissed, and for a time, nothing could, or needed to be said as they took comfort in each other. After a few warm moments, he released her from his arms, at the same time, gently breaking the sweet, mesmerizing kiss. She rested her hand against his face, smiling when she felt him lean into the curve of her palm. "Do you feel all right now?" she asked, her gaze moving briefly towards the house before returning to him.
"Yes. I will pray for his soul, just as you asked. I can't begin to describe what a gift from God you are to me. All I am certain of is, I will never be able to repay the debt."
Suddenly, the two looked up as the front door banged open and Elizabeth ran out, never minding the rain wetting her dress. "James, bring the doctor!"
The day of Mathew Thomas Sinclair's burial was warm and sunny, with the sky perfectly clear and blue. The gathered people stood about his grave, the women
Crying into their handkerchiefs as the men stood beside them, staring straight ahead, feeling much too warm in their suits and jackets.
Muriel stood beside James, wearing a dress of dark blue which Elizabeth had lent her. Her eyes were dry, and though she knew it should be, her mind was not
on the graveside prayer being said.
She stared at the grave and her father's face floated to the surface of her mind once more. The last time she'd seen him, he had been too pale, much too thin and she knew she had to get home. What if she was too late? What if he was gone, then the farm would be gone too.
"Muriel? Are you all right?" James asked, turning her to face him.
She looked behind his shoulder at the sound of sobbing and saw his mother and sister standing there, holding one another with no one else to comfort them.
"I'll tell you another time," she answered, still watching the women.
James followed her gaze, and then walked towards the pair. He reached his mother and sister and spoke softly to them both. Muriel came and stood beside him, gently taking Elizabeth's trembling arm. She drew the girl away, keeping a respectful distance from James and his mother.
"What are we going to do now?" Libby whimpered.
Muriel slipped a comforting arm about the girl's waist. "You needn't worry about that now. You and your mother will be all right."
Another sob shook through Libby's trembling form. "But with papa gone, how will we live?"
"James will see to everything. You know he would never let anything happen to you or your Mama."
"I just feel … so lost. I can't explain it any better … I'm so sorry!" Libby wept, covering her face with black gloved hands.
Muriel put her arms about the girl, holding her and remembering her mother's death afresh. She had been like this, had sobbed inconsolably
at some points, only able to rest in the arms of her brother's wife, asking the older woman why, and receiving only soft, but sincere words in return.
The words had been the only comfort Christina could've given, and now, they came back to Muriel. She began to speak, resting a hand against Libby's bonneted head. "I know when my Ma died, I felt just the same, but this won't swallow you Lamb, even if that's how you feel now. Your Papa is home with God, in a better place than this one, and he'll be there to greet you when the lord calls you home. You'll be all right Libby; things will be all right." She gently held the girl, feeling Elizabeth's sobs begin to subside.
Libby stepped away a few moments later. "Thank you, Muriel." She sniffed, drying her eyes with a black handkerchief.
Muriel nodded, smiling at the girl. "You're welcome Libby."
Libby looked in the direction James and Abigail had gone. Her lovely face was still pale, but she looked both composed and determined. "I'd better see to Mama," she said, and with a final, grateful smile at Muriel, she turned and walked away.
James watched as his sister and mother embraced. Both women still looked very sad and troubled, but they looked better than they had, especially Libby.
He had seen Muriel comforting her a few moments before, and he wondered what she had said to cause the change in his sister. He looked about for her, and instead saw another woman walking towards him. She was dressed in skirts and a bonnet of green, a black cockade pinned to her left sleeve. He sighed, and went to meet her, feeling it was better to have it over and done with as soon as he could. "Ms. Spencer, how thoughtful of you to come," he said, bowing to her and lifting his hat.
Adelaide reached him and stepped to his side. Without so much as a questioning glance to see if he approved, she slid her arm through his and took his hand. "Oh, James this must be simply terrible for you."
James wanted to pull away, but chivalry prevented it. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the soft blue of the sky. "It is more difficult than you can imagine."
She made a sympathetic noise and rested her head against his shoulder. "Poor darling," she cooed, resting her other hand against his arm, "What will your family do now that your father is gone?"
"You needn't concern yourself with such matters Ms. Spencer. My family will be well provided for."
She gave a rueful sigh. "I suppose you're right. I only wish there was more I could do?" She peered up at him, her face close to his. Her eyes were wide, and James guessed she was attempting to look mournful.
He pulled out of her grasp and looked down at her. "I thank you for your kindness in coming to honor my father, but there is nothing more you can do for
me, or for my family. I must be going now, but thank you once again, and please, give your condolences to my mother and sister when you see them?" He turned from her and walked away across the grass.
He saw Muriel, and the sight of her was touching to say the least. She stood alone before his father's grave, her head lowered and her hands clasped in prayer.
He approached her, watching the breeze stir the rich spill of red hair which fell down her back. The only thing holding her hair in place was a blue scarf, made from the same material as the dress she'd sewn. He watched the ends of the scarf twirl in the breeze, brushing against her cheeks. Her face held a look of peaceful concentration, her eyes closed, the long lashes brushing against her fair skin. He heard her speaking in a soft, reverent tone, her hands clasped together at her waist. "Lord, bless him and keep him, for his faith is something only you can know. Forgive him his sins, and bring him into your kingdom. Dear Mother, watch over him, and intercede for him if he is not lost to darkness. Amen,"
She gave a start of surprise and whirled to face him. He saw something clutched in her hands that he at first took to be a necklace. Upon a closer look, he saw it was a rosary, fashioned from carved wood. He had only seen one once before, in a town his company had come across a priest had blessed the men before they'd gone on their way, and he had been holding a rosary in his hand. James had asked what it was and the priest had told him. The rosary Muriel held was tiny compared to what the priest had carried, and fashioned of wood and yarn, but there was no mistaking it. He looked up at her as she began to speak. He took in her pail face, her wide eyes, and was suddenly startled to realize she was frightened, nearly terrified as she attempted to pocket her beads. "I'm sorry James, I was only -"
The rosary slipped from her trembling fingers and he deftly caught it before it could fall to the ground. He stepped toward her, a reassuring smile lighting his face. "I couldn't expect any less from you my Love." He wanted to take her in his arms, but was aware of how such a public display would look to those in attendance, and so he discretely took her hand, placing the rosary back into her palm. "Why were you frightened when I spoke to you? I know your faith and I know of the items you use in prayer. Believe me Darling, I am intrigued by them, not offended."
Once she'd safely stowed the beads she stepped closer to him, gripping his hand tightly and speaking in a whisper. "Because I don't know the faith of your family, and I was unsure how anyone else would react. Sometimes, it is dangerous for a person to show the Faith openly."
He stroked the back of her hand gently with his thumb, and when he spoke his tone was soft, but firm with a promise. "No harm will come to you, not while I am here."
She smiled. "When you asked me earlier if everything was all right, in truth I was thinking of my own father, and my rosary is a comfort." She gave a soft laugh, shaking her head. "It's just as much a part of our faith as the Lord's prayer."
He nodded, still gazing at her. "I would like to learn more about that faith someday."
She nodded. "And I would like to teach you, though I'm always learning more."
He smiled, remembering when they had first met. "Then we will learn together."
She took his meaning instantly and smiled, at last beginning to relax. "I love you."
He lifted the hand he still held and kissed it. "I love you." His eyes moved to the grave behind her." Would you stand with me as I pay my respects?"
"Of course I will,"
They walked to his father's grave and stood, the warm mid-morning breeze blowing around them both. James was silent for a few moments, but as he began to
speak, he felt something heavy at last lift from his mind and heart. He doffed his hat and drew in a breath. "I will never agree with your beliefs, or
your choices in the life you led, but you made sure your family was well cared for. You never raised a hand to my mother and sister, and you were never unkind to either of them. For that at least, I am grateful. Whatever your judgment from God maybe, I can only believe it was just."
Muriel squeezed his hand, standing on tiptoe and kissing his cheek. He turned, offering her his arm. She smiled and slid her arm through his, her hand resting gracefully on his sleeve. "Was it all you wanted to say?"
He nodded. "It is enough." She smiled up at him, and they went in search of Libby and Abigail.
Two weeks passed, and James completed the work of settling his father's affairs. Mathew had not had time enough to properly name another man as heir of
the plantation, and so the estate went to James. He accepted it, but made certain that when Elizabeth married, her husband would be the one to inherit the family's fortune. His mother and sister had been faring well over the past weeks. The customs of mourning had been a refuge for Abagail especially. The stopped clock as Mathew had lain in state before the funeral, the quiet of the house, the draped mirrors, the privacy, all of it had allowed her to grieve in peace, for however long she'd needed to. She had
told James time and time again that it was truly a blessing to have him home. He knew that she depended on him now, and that had made the letter which he'd sent off a little easier to write, but not much.
Now he sat in the study his father had once occupied, holding
a thick envelope in his hands. The parcel had arrived that morning, but he still hadn't opened it. He sighed, knowing he had better get it over and done with. He couldn't put things off any longer than he already had. He opened the letter, and quickly skimmed through the papers, finding the response from Colonel Williams among them, and feeling both relief and pain as he read it.
He looked up from the page as a step sounded and saw Muriel peeking at him from around the doorframe, her face framed by a fall of glossy hair. Pain lanced through his chest at seeing her. Doing what he knew he needed to would break her heart as well as his.
"Dinner is ready James."
He stood, dropping the papers on to the desk, the rest could wait a little longer. He walked up to her and pulled her into a gentle, warm kiss, not caring if anyone came upon them. She returned the kiss, giving a contented sigh. She held him close, letting one hand linger on his cheek even after she'd pulled back from him. He smiled, unable to do anything else at seeing the look on her face. She was happy to see him, and this lightened his mood. "What have you been doing
all morning?" he asked.
She smiled, taking his offered arm and walking with him towards the dining room. "I've been spending time with Libby. We didn't want to disturb you at your work. I know how busy you have been, but I was hoping you were free to come out with me after dinner?"
Throughout the meal, she was considerate and sweet, as she had been ever since his father's death. Having been through the loss of her own mother, she knew the customs and rituals of mourning very well. James watched her as she conversed quietly with Libby, wondering, not for the first time, how it was that he had ever deserved her. At last, the meal was over and he walked with her out and onto the front porch. They sat on the swing they had rested on the day his father had died. He realized then, just how long it had been since they had been alone together. He smiled and wrapped her in a tight hug. He felt her give a contented sigh as she snuggled into his arms, and the same sigh flowed from him as he buried his face in her hair. They both realized that they'd expressed the same sentiment and they laughed together. "Lord I've missed you," he whispered.
She kissed his cheek, hugging him tighter. "I've missed you too."
They separated then and she grinned at seeing him settle himself, stretching his legs out and resting his arm along the back of the swing, looking as relaxed as he had on the night when they had first kissed. He smiled as she moved into the curve of his arm, and curled up against him, tucking her feet beneath her skirts and resting her head against his shoulder. He gently kissed her forehead. "I realize how much my father's business has kept me away. How have you kept yourself amused?"
"I've spent most of my time with Libby. We've been sewing a great deal. Her skill is fair."
He nodded. "Thank you, for treating her so well. It helps her to have you here," he said, giving her a soft, grateful kiss.
She smiled and nodded. "I like her very much. She is such a sweet girl. I always wanted a sister closer to my own age and I feel as though I have one now." She laughed. "I've been taking advantage of your library. I've never seen so many books."
He grinned. "Read as much as you please."
"I will, but it isn't the same without you there. I've missed our time spent reading together."
James again thought to tell her of what he knew, of what the letter contained, but he banished that thought from his mind almost as quickly as it had come. It had been so long since either of them had been this relaxed and happy, and he wanted to indulge them both for as long as he could. Adam's parting words went through his mind once again and he intended to keep true to them. He would fight as hard as he could for her, for the two of them and the life they both wanted. He smiled, kissing her cheek. "We'll have much more time for that once we have our own home."
She grinned, nodding. "I can hardly wait."
"Do you miss your family Darling?"
She nodded and they sat for a long time beneath the shade of the tree, talking about the farm, and what their life would be like there. As he had promised, Muriel had been able to write to her family when they'd reached his home, and she wondered sadly if her letter had arrived, of what the news had done to them all. Their conversation moved from her family, to the war. "People here are so worried. I can see it when I look at them, and I've been reading the newspapers," she said quietly, her hand slipping into his.
He nodded, squeezing her hand. "I don't know what will happen, only that I believe the South will suffer dearly, and I don't know how to tell Mama or Libby."
She moved closer to him, her grip on his hand tightening, and met his eyes. "The Union army is coming, isn't it?"
She moved into his arms then, clinging to him, and when she spoke, her voice was strained with fear. "Pray my Love, pray through all of it?"
He held her tightly. "I will, I promise."
For a few moments, neither could speak. He had never been worried about her ability to hear such news, but he could feel how frightened she was, and admittedly, he felt just as she did. She didn't leave his arms, but when she spoke again at last, she sounded more steady, more encouraging, than she had earlier. "At times, prayer was my only source of strength when I was in camp, or in the fighting."
"Such a brave woman," he murmured.
"I might have been brave, but I didn't feel as though I was, and then, when the shooting was over, all of those wounded men,"
"Did you find it difficult to maintain your disguise at those times?"
"Yes, I did. I remember one boy… he was hurt so badly and I could only sit with him and give him water. He was so young. He was Irish too and I kept thinking about my brothers as we sat there. He could see who I really was, but he didn't say a word. All he wanted was to go home… not to die in that place…" Her speech finished in a whisper as her throat became tight. Hot, stinging tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. He held her, letting her press her face against his chest as she began to weep. "Oh… Brian… I was only a few weeks away… Why did he have to die?"
He remained silent, knowing he could give no words of comfort which would help. She rested in his arms, letting the tears wash the pain out of her once more. She grew limp against him as her grief left her, but her crying ended in a sigh so forlorn, that it made his heart clench. He kissed first one cheek, then the other and then he kissed her lips, tenderly wiping the tears from her face. "I'm so sorry Darling. I wish I had reached you sooner."
She shook her head, leaning in for another kiss. "No Love, there was nothing to be done." She pillowed her head against his chest, closing her eyes.
He rested his cheek atop the crown of her head, giving a long, sad sigh. "I used to sit and listen to the men calling out, lying wounded in the fields, and I would always wonder why we were doing these things to ourselves."
She nodded. "War is necessary at times. I will always believe that, but it doesn't seem worth the effort when you're out in the thick of things,"
He nodded his agreement. "Do you think this war is necessary?"
He smiled sadly. "As do I, but for reason's no one in my family could even begin to understand,"
She rested a warm hand against his face, her thumb stroking his cheek. "I understand your reasons and so does God. Remember that he sees the good that you do even if no one else does,"
He hugged her to him, kissing the top of her head and breathing in the scent of her hair. "Adam called you an angel, and I can't disagree with that."
She laughed softly, her cheeks coloring. "Oh, away with you."
When they at last heard the bell for supper, both were reluctant to leave. The wind had picked up as evening approached and the air around them was much cooler than before. James took off his coat and put it about Muriel's shoulders, causing her to smile. He drew an arm about her waist as they walked for the house. The wind seemed to blow
through him. He knew he would have to speak to his mother soon, and that thought made the breeze seem even colder. He held open the door for Muriel, and then followed, dreading what he knew must be done.
His mother's smile as James told her of his plan did nothing to make him happy about it, but he smiled back and nodded as if he was. The two stood in his father's study, the letter from his commanding officer granting him leave, lying on the desk before them. "James, this is so wonderful of you," Abigail said, going to her son and hugging him close, her face seeming to glow with the morning light spilling into the room.
He returned the embrace. "I had hoped you would be pleased,"
She kissed his cheek. "I know now; I won't lose you to this terrible war."
He nodded, and had just turned to go when she spoke again. "James, have you told Ms. O'Shae of your plans?"
He turned back. "That is what I intend to do now,"
Abigail sighed. "Oh dear, the poor thing will be heartbroken."
He nodded, lowering his gaze from her. "Yes."
His mother rested a hand on his arm. "Things will turn out well in the end Darling, and in time she will understand all of it. I am glad you at last realized
this life wouldn't suit her."
James looked up at her. "What are you implying?" he asked, struggling to keep an even tone.
Abigail arched a dark eyebrow. "You aren't still intent upon marrying her, are you?"
"I've proposed to Muriel, and she has accepted. I will not break that promise to her, or to myself, regardless of how you and Mathew felt or still feel."
Abigail gripped his hand in both of hers, her eyes pleading. "James with your father dead a good match is all that will sustain us!" she cried, her tone bordering on panic.
"Mama. He never meant for me to succeed him. "
"That doesn't matter now. The estate is yours! With a good match, you can-"
"Mama I don't want it!" He hadn't been able to keep from raising his voice and he winced at her shocked expression.
"But… it is your duty to preserve this life. Everything you see here was meant for you! We will keep what we have if you stay!" she pleaded, the words rising to a desperate, frightened wail.
He led her to the settee and sat her down. He sat beside her and held her shaking hand. It had come to this after all, and he was frightened at what his revelation might do to her, but she had to know. He began to speak, his voice gentle, but grave. "Mama… look at me, please?" She raised her head, tears still shimmering in her eyes. "Mama… we are going to lose this war. The Northern army is coming. I don't know what they will do, and I promise I won't leave you until I know you and Libby are safe, but this life," He gestured to the study, "We will lose what we have now, and my being here, whom I marry, will make no difference in the end."
He watched her carefully, relieved she hadn't collapsed from shock. He guessed she had known the reality of the situation, but had been denying it as best as she could. He saw emotions warring on her face, fear, disbelief and sadness. At last, she seemed to decide something and she reached for her son. Abigail pulled James into a tight hug, easing his head down to rest on her shoulder, as she had done when he had been very small. "I'd heard talk of the war from our neighbors. I'd noticed how scarce some things were becoming, like dresses and silks. More and more shops are closing in town and no one goes to Atlanta anymore if they can help it. Yes, Dear, I know how things are, but I didn't want to believe it was true."
James felt his heart break for her. "I'm so sorry Mama. I'd give anything to keep this from happening."
She gave his shoulder a comforting pat. "There isn't anything to be done for it, I can see that now. Whatever happens, there won't be anything for you here… however this terrible war ends," she concluded, lifting his head from her shoulder so she could look at him.
James shook his head. He no longer wondered where he had gained the ability to except the necessary reality of a situation. His mother was stronger than he had ever realized.
"If a different life will make you happy, and if it will make amends for some of what your father put you through, you may leave when the time comes."
He kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Mama. Whatever happens, I will not leave until I have made certain you are taken care of."
She smiled. "I love you James."
He returned her smile. "I love you Mama, and I never meant to cause you pain or frighten you with what I said. I simply wanted you to understand."
She nodded. "It would cause me pain if you were miserable for the rest of your days. I don't wish that for either of my children,"
He smiled. "I know." He rose then, and with a last look at her, he turned and left the room.
He found Muriel seated in the parlor with Libby, the two of them sewing and chatting companionably. Over the past weeks, the two young women had spent many an hour sitting and talking over needle work. Libby had praised Muriel on her skill and had gladly shown her some of the delicate embroidery which she'd added to a gown or two. James guessed that Muriel had done more mending of clothes than anything else and her need to be of some use, even in such a light chore endeared her even more to him.
For a moment, he thought of asking her to stay at the plantation, but dismissed that notion quickly. She needed to go back to her family. If he could send Muriel to safety, he would do it, despite how much pain it would cause them both.
"If you'll pardon my interruption Ladies, Muriel, I must speak with you in private please?"
Muriel nodded and rose from her seat, taking the hand James offered her and letting him lead her out and onto the front porch. The day was another glorious one, warm and clear. He offered her his arm. "Shall we walk?"
She smiled. "Of course."
They walked some distance from the house, and beneath the shade of a tree, he stopped and turned to her, clasping both her hands in his. She was startled to feel that he gripped her hands more tightly than usual, and even more concerned when she felt his fingers trembling slightly. He drew in a deep breath, his face strained by pain. "After my father died, I knew there was no one else left to care for my mother and sister. They can't keep up the house and they haven't the first idea of how to protect themselves. I sent a letter to Colonel Williams, requesting leave due to hardship and he has granted my request." She watched him blink back tears and when he spoke again he was unable to keep the tremmor out of his voice. "I have to stay behind Muriel."
She stared at him for a few moments, and he felt pain stab through him as he saw her eyes fill with tears. She let out a soft sob, her lovely features twisting in pain. "I thought it might come to this, but I dreaded to find out."
He pulled her into his arms, feeling tears sting his eyes. She clung to him, her face buried in the folds of his shirt, crying and trembling. A few moments later, she lifted her head to look at him, and cupped his face between her shaking hands. She pulled him into a brief, but intense kiss, feeling him tremble as
he held her. "I promised you… that you would be free of this place. If you can't leave, I will stay with you."
He pulled her to him and kissed her gratefully. She did not want him to suffer alone any longer beneath his father's shadow. Lord, but he loved her so much. He broke the kiss, blinking away his own tears and looking down at her, stroking her wet cheek with the palm of his hand. "Dear, sweet girl," he whispered, tenderly kissing her forehead. "Darling… you can't stay. It's no longer safe here and I couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to you," he said, his voice breaking on the last word.
For a few moments, indecision played across her tear-streaked face, but at last she sighed, squeezing her eyes shut and nodding sadly. "I understand," she whispered.
She moved back into his arms, and they clung to each other, as if a malicious, ruthless force were already attempting to part them. "Muriel I will come back to you. I swear it," he said, his voice now free of its earlier tremor. It sounded as firm and convicted as it always did each time he had promised her something.
She pulled back and looked up at him. "However long it is, I'll wait for you," She pillowed her head against his chest, the sound of his beating heart in her ear. She felt him bend his head to hers, felt him rest his cheek against the smooth wave of her hair. She gripped him more tightly to her, feeling her throat tighten and more, seemingly relentless tears sting her eyes and spill onto her cheeks. How could she do this? How could she leave this man whom she loved more than anyone else? She raised her head and looked up at him, fighting to see his face through her tears. "James, I don't know what to do. I know you're right, that I have to go, but…" Her voice faltered and she swallowed the lump back in her throat, drawing in a shaking breath. "Love I don't know if I have the strength to leave you." She gave a soft, helpless shake of her head. "I love you so much." On impulse, she raised herself on tip toe and kissed him. The kiss was intense as it had been before, but this time, he could sense the fright and desperation behind it.
He kissed back for a moment, gently, but steadily cupping her face in his hands. When he broke the kiss, she opened her eyes and met his gaze. Though the look in his eyes still held pain, she also saw a resolute, steady calm. He slowly shook his head. "I know you Muriel O'Shae. You'll find the strength to do this, because you know it is right. If I hadn't learned anything else in your company, I've learned that." He kissed her gently, comfortingly, once more. "Just before we left camp, Adam made me promise to fight for you, and I mean to do that. I mean for us to have the life we both want. I will come back to you when my mother and sister are taken care of. Do you believe me?"
She was suddenly reminded of when they had first met, when his eyes had held the same look of complete, honest sincerity, when he had asked her the same question. She smiled, reaching up and resting a hand against his face. "Yes." He pulled her to him once more, and as they kissed, Muriel could only pray silently that God would choose to reward them.
The next morning dawned warm, and with an equally warm, persistent breeze, but white clouds blotted out the strongest of the sun's light and the day
was covered in shadow. Muriel, James, Libby and Abigail all stood outside of the manor next to the carriage which James would use to take Muriel into town. He didn't want to put off her leaving any longer than he had already done; times had simply become too dangerous.
Muriel said goodbye to each woman in turn, receiving a warm hug from Libby as she said fair well. "Please be safe Honey," Libby whispered, holding Muriel tight.
Muriel nodded, smiling and giving Libby a kiss on the cheek. "I'll do my best Lamb."
Muriel grinned, giving her friend's hands a squeeze. "You have to promise to do the same,"
Libby smiled back. "Done."
Muriel pushed a stray curl of gold hair back behind Libby's ear. "Bless you, Libby, and may God keep you safe."
Elizabeth nodded. "May he do the same for you Muriel," she said, and then stepped back beside her brother.
Abigail stepped forward and Muriel curtsied to her. "Thank you for all your kindness Mrs. Sinclair. I was truly blessed to be here."
Abigail smiled. "Not at all my dear. It was our pleasure to have you, and we are very sad to see you go." She squeezed
Muriel's hand. "Good luck to you Ms. O'Shae, and God's speed on your journey home."
Muriel nodded. "Thank you, Ma'am. I wish you the same luck, and pray that you remain as safe as you are now."
Abigail thanked Muriel once more, and then James helped her into the carriage. He climbed in beside her and pulled the door closed. He had refused to let anyone else take her to the train, not wanting anyone to intrude on their final moments together. He lifted a hand in a wave to his mother and sister, then clucked at the horses and the carriage rolled out through the gate and on to the road.
James felt Muriel take his hand as the carriage moved along and he gave it a gentle squeeze. "I'll write everyday if I can," she said, and he heard the unsteady note of pain in her voice.
Knowing that subject was too painful for either of them to broach he asked, "Do you have enough provisions?"
"Yes, what you gave me is enough. I'll not have you thinking it isn't and handing out more."
He gave a soft smile and nodded, his eyes still serious. "I can purchase you more if-"
She squeezed his hand, gently shaking her head. "I'll be all right Love."
He looked back at her for a long moment, seeing a look in her eyes he'd only seen on the faces of men who'd breathed the smoke of the guns, who'd lain in the
frozen mud as shots thundered on around them. She had been a soldier, had seen the same horrors as he had, and she hadn't forgotten how to behave like
one. The rest of the ride was quiet, for both feared if too much was said their resolve would crumble like loose earth and duty to both their families would be swept away without a thought. Neither could let that happen, and so they sat as the carriage drew closer to the train station, their hands entwined tightly together.
When they reached the station, James bought her a ticket. The two made their way towards the train, seeing white steam billow up into the sky as the engine
Worked. When they reached the platform, James turned her towards him, seeing tears brimming in her eyes. The moment was upon them, and suddenly, he had no words to say. Both had believed they would be prepared for this moment, but now, it was so much more difficult than either would have thought. She tried to speak, and his name fell from her lips in a choked whimper. James swept her up in an embrace so tight and strong that, for a moment, neither of them could breathe. He kissed her almost fiercely, banishing all from his mind except the feel of her, the warmth of her mouth, the silken hair which fell down her back, the strength in her small hands as they brushed against his face. He pulled her closer still, feeling her heart race against his own. He wanted her to feel if she could, how much he loved her. He wanted to fill his senses with her, to capture and hold all which made her the woman he would love forever.
Muriel held him, feeling him pull her closer as a sob shook him. She had become lost in his kiss, his touch, the feel of his arms wrapped strongly around her, but now she knew that pain threatened to claim him, and she would not let it. She pulled back from him, her breath shallow in her lungs. "It'll be all right Love. Don't be sad now, it'll be all right." She tried to offer him some of the same reassurance he'd given her the day before, even as tears poured from her eyes. He didn't say a word, only pulled her into another kiss, this one much gentler than before, but with just as much feeling behind it. Though he tried to do as she had said, he could not push the pain at their separation aside. He felt as if a hand were on his heart, twisting and squeezing it until there was no life left. As if somehow able to sense the pain he was in, she once again broke the kiss and met his gaze, her hands resting against his face. The look in her eyes was just as alive with emotion as her brothers had been when he'd demanded that James never leave her side. "I love you James. I will always love you! Whatever comes… hold to that."
He pulled her to him, clutching her against him as tightly as he could. "I promise my Love… I promise," he whispered, covering her wet face with kisses.
The train whistle blew, a long, shrill cry, which sounded to the two of them like a wail of grief. They looked towards the train and saw the doors open, passengers climbing aboard and the conductor signaling for others to follow suit.
Muriel turned back to James and on impulse, undid the sky-blue scarf which had been holding her hair back from the day's breeze. She handed the piece to him, her hair blowing about her like flame itself. "Take it, please."
He took the scarf and slipped it into a pocket. He cupped her face in his hands then, his gaze intense as it met her own. "Muriel… I swear to God I will come back to you. No matter how long it takes. I promise."
"I know you will." She pulled him into another kiss. "I'm promised to you James. You have my heart forever."
He gathered her in his arms then, and for what he feared would be the last time, he kissed her as her hair blew about them both. They stood, clasping one another there as life went on around them. Passing people reacted to the pair, some with empathy, some with bitterness, but Muriel and James ignored them all, losing themselves in each other for the time they had left.
Time seemed to slip through their fingers like water, and before long, the conductor's final hail could be heard. They pulled back from each other, their eyes meeting. "I love you Muriel."
She nodded. "I love you James."
He felt her pull back from him and turn towards the train. He saw the steam from the engines swirl about her, watched her blue skirts twirl in the breeze, and he knew she was leaving, and suddenly, he couldn't bear to let her go. He stepped forward, stretching out a hand to catch her. "Muriel," he gasped, his words a strangled plea.
She turned back to him, meeting his agonized gaze. She ran the last few steps, flinging herself into his arms and clinging to him, sobbing. "James I love you!"
"God help me, I can't let you go," he whispered, his throat choked by tears.
She took his face in her hands, looking up at him through a shimmering prism. "I know you James Sinclair, and you can." Her words were heartbroken, but he heard truth in them as well.
He nodded, letting her pull gently from his arms. The last thing he felt of her was the brush of her hand against his own as she hurried for the train. He wiped ineffectually at his now streaming eyes with a sleeve and swallowed hard. Some part of his mind told him he had to pull himself back together, but he felt as if his soul were being wrenched in two and he only had to look at Muriel to know she felt the same. Through some force, some will not of his own, he stood back. He watched her board, watched her find a seat with a window that faced him. He saw her face, so brave and sad, framed by her brilliant hair. She raised her fingers to her lips, kissed them, and held her hand out towards him, fresh tears shining on her cheeks. He returned the sweet gesture. "I love you," he mouthed, hoping, somehow, she would understand. He never had the chance to find out. With a jolt and a loud rush of air, the train began to move. James fought to catch one last glimpse of Muriel, but a moment later, steam once again billowed up into the sky, and she was gone.