29 December 2009

A Victorian Christmas: An Excerpt from Book II of My Manuscript

1863 December 25, Friday
St. Albans, Vermont

Cutters, black and shinning with fresh wax, and horses leading with the crisp sound of jingle bells coming from their leather harnesses, were parked in masses in front of the large, brick Colonial-style mansion of Governor Smith’s. The airy laughter and sweet voices of eligible girls and the charming, handsome, deep voices of the men followed right beside them. These men who were either not in the service of our country, or home for the holidays on furlough, or because the cause of injury at the front, were respected by even the oldest, sternest of matrons. No man or woman who were not received or respected in all of Franklin County would be caught dead if they were to come to the annual Christmas party Governor Smith put on.

I watched, jealous of these young folks my own age who were still alive. Girls who were plainer than me seemed to be enjoying themselves, flirting with the most available handsome gentleman at their arm. Myself, on the other hand, watched with envy in my mourning state at these bright and happy girls with beaux flocking to them with gleaming smiles and the exchange of warm kisses on their mitten covered hands. At first I was merely thankful that I was able to go out and join my first true social event—a Christmas party. Now as I walked with the Mathis family into the Smith’s mansion, as we greeted those we knew and were familiar with, I couldn’t help but feel depressed.

The warmth of the house was busy with lively chatter. Girls giggled and squealed as they greeted their friends with kisses, and exchanged holiday wishes with their male companions. I was to look somber, in my mourning gown that was buttoned from my waist to my chin, which wasn’t at all hard considering that I felt the least bit gleeful as I watched these young women having fun as I once had. Oh, how I missed those days. And for once, I felt like I needed to put Robert aside, and succumb to my selfish ambitions. Then as quickly as the thought came into my mind, I pushed it away—I should just be glad I was able to come out on Christmas to the party of the season.

We walked through the marble floored halls of the house and up the large stairway. The stairway was a sight to behold. All of crimson and tan colored marble, with an Asian rug draped and nailed right down the middle of the stairs. Young women in their beautiful frothy gowns, their slim shoulders bare, and the ruffles at their chest revealing a slight view of white bosom, lined the banister. Even the plainest of girls made them selves look pretty with the confidence they held in these majestic ballroom gowns that were new just for the occasion. Gentlemen of bachelor state stood at the base of the stairway calling up to the girls and making comical jokes just to make the girls giggle—the men, smiling with pride at the attention the girls paid them.

Up the stairway we went through a throng of people who were gathered in front of large French doors, which were adorned with pine boughs and a large American flag and Vermont flag. We all waited patiently as we slowly migrated toward the ballroom. The French doors entered into the largest ballroom in all of Franklin County—and where the largest party commences. It was a tradition even the relations of those who resided in Franklin County could not pass up. Everyone had to come otherwise the year would not be complete without it.

The ballroom was brightly lit, alive with vibrant colors of garlands and red ribbon hung along the walls, gathered together in the center of the chandelier lit ceiling. Men in their best suits, neatly greased hair, and smelling strongly of cologne, danced around with the lovely women of Franklin County. The women, dressed in silk and velvet gowns from red to the palest blue, smiled happily with rosy cheeks, as their perfectly curled locks bounced at their powdered shoulders. The ten-piece orchestra on their small stage sported a lively waltz that made everyone laugh and smile with happiness as they danced around the marble floor. Everyone was cheery with the festive spirit and one couldn’t help but be caught up in the happiness of the holiday.

From my perch beside Widow Mathis, along with all the older respectable matrons—such as Mrs. Chisholm, Mrs. House, Mrs. Childe, and Mrs. Smith the Governor’s wife herself, and of course Marguerite who “shouldn’t be on her feet too long in her delicate condition”—I enviously watched the dancers. I sat there listening to them gossip about everyone in the room and their relations. At first I was intrigued with their idle gossip, but after a while I became bored hearing about Fanny’s new beau from Maine or what Mr. Custis said to Miss Dutch the other night at the Laurence’s gathering, and could you believe that he would even have the gumption to sign her dance card? Now I found myself slouching in my chair and my toes tapping beneath my black gown where no one could see. It was so necessary for a woman in mourning not to be having a good time, now wasn’t it?

I looked around, at all the young people my age, having a spectacular time, dancing and flirting with one another. I watched Gaby as she danced with Landon and laughed with her friends Christine McGregor and Shay Buckingham. Then there was Seth who was trying very hard to get a young girl to dance with him. She only giggled and blushed, refusing, but obviously enjoying every moment Seth persisted. And of course there was Kara who didn’t feel the least bit of a need to bring down her pride in order to dance with a handsome man—for there were many who tried quite hard to get a hold of her dance card—she was quite content standing beside the punch bowl with a couple of her friends, trying so hard not to think of Bradley at a time like this. Seeing that I found every Mathis enjoying them selves, except for John…where was John?

My eyes searched my surroundings, seeking for his figure. He was nowhere to be seen. I sat up, trying to receive a better view. I looked through the mass on the dance floor—he was not there. My eyes scanned the room, looking along the many tables where food was piled high, and searched the perimeter of the ballroom where many people lined the walls as they chatted and sipped punch in fine crystal cups. But John was gone. He had disappeared from the lively atmosphere. Maybe he was sitting in one of the many alcoves that were curtained off by red velvet drapes lined with golden tassels. I thought for a moment that I would go search for him, but then thought better of it, and decided I would stay seated, resuming myself beside the renowned ladies of St. Albans, Vermont.


I started and quickly turned to the voice beside me. It was John, the man I had been looking for. Why isn’t it the devil himself? “John,” I responded, nodding slightly as I regained composure.

He stepped closer to me and looked down at my feet that were still tapping and beginning to peak out from under my gown. John smiled and laughed. The first laugh I had heard from him all day. My lips curled slightly as I tried hard not to grin and encourage him.

“May I have this dance?” He asked sincerely, holding out his hand to me, searching deep into my eyes, and looking rigid and yet handsome in his uniform. His hair was greased and he smelled rich of cologne and cigar smoke.

The chatter between the women halted. I could feel them staring at both of us as they held their breath. Widow Mathis was the only brave one to respond to John’s outrageous gesture.

“John Mathis, Ella is in mourning,” she said sharply.

John only smiled and looked at his mother. “And too young and beautiful to be doing so. It is her decision—”

“Yes,” I said, a smile spreading across my lips without much effort as before. I put my mitted hand into his callused one and kept my eyes on his as I stood to my feet.

“I declare! What gumption that son of yours has, Mady! And the fastness…” I heard the gasps of the ladies who sat beside Widow Mathis, and I knew as soon as I was out of hearing distance I would be the topic of discussion—but I did not care. Tonight I would have a good time and I would enjoy my time with John.

I took John’s arm, his hand placed lightly over mine, and his face beamed. I could feel everyone’s eyes on the two of us as we took our place on the dance floor with everyone else. For once I didn’t care what others thought of me or how my reputation would stand after tonight—all I wanted was to dance, feel young again…and to laugh.

John bowed and I curtsied as the music started up. It was a lively dance, a heel-toe polka. John took my hand and put his other hand around my waist. With my free hand I held up my gown as we dashed along the dance floor, my feet following his lead. John grinned at me and I giggled happily. I felt alive again. I felt like myself, the person I really was.

Dance after dance, smiles were plastered on both of our faces, as he held me in his arms. We glided along the marble dance floor, never tiring or stopping to catch our breath. Finally the lively dancing began to slow and we paced ourselves as a plump woman came upon the stage. As the music still played she introduced the song.

“This is a ballad which was suggested by a recent incident. On the battlefield of Gettysburg, among many of our wounded soldiers was a young man, the only son of an aged mother. Hearing the surgeon tell his companions that he could not survive the ensuing night, he placed his hand upon his forehead,” the woman put her black-laced mitt to her forehead dramatically, “talking continually of his mother and sister, and said to his comrades assembled around him, ‘Break it gently to my mother’.”

I stood still, stunned by her address of the song as she began with her soprano, her hand placed somberly to her bosom. John still had a hold of me and he began leading me along the dance floor once again as we waltzed.

See! Ere the sun sinks behind those hills,
Ere darkness the earth doth cover,

You will lay me low, in the cold, damp ground,

Break it gently to my mother!

I see her sweet sad face on me now,

And a smile doth o’er it hover;

Oh God! I would spare the tears that will flow;

Break it gently to my mother.

Good bye, my mother ever dear;

Sister, you lover your brother;

Comrades, I take a last farewell;

Break it gently to my mother.

Oh, say that in battle I’ve nobly died;

For Right and our Country’s honor;

Like the reaper’s grain fell the deaden rain,

Yet God saved our starry banner!

My sister, playmate of boyhood’s years,

Will lament her fallen brother;

She must try to soothe our parent’s woe;

Break it gently to my mother.

As she took on the chorus once again, I stopped my feet, making John halt in our place. I looked away from him, avoiding his concerned face that peered down at me.

“I must return home, it is nearing ten. Katie will be waiting up for me,” I told John, taking my hand from his.

“Surely Kay has put her to bed already,” he said, taking a step toward me.

I looked up at him, “Please, John,” I pleaded. Couples danced around us as we stood there. “This is the first night I have not been there to put her to bed. I am certain she is having a hard time sleeping tonight.” John didn’t say anything. He just stared at me, his eyes looking sad and his lips pursed together. “Please—she needs me.”

John sighed and held out his hand to me, “Come, lets go home.”

I took his hand and he drew me close as we left the dance floor. We went toward the door and found Gaby sitting with Landon while they chatted and sipped on punch. They both looked up as we approached and their lips closed in mid conversation, silence coming between them.

“Tell Ma I had to escort Miss Coburg home. She has to check on Katie,” John instructed.

Gaby only nodded and the two of them watched us as we headed out of the ballroom and out of site. We passed by people coming and going in the hallway and reached the entryway. A woman with reddish hair fetched our coat and hats, eyeing us suspiciously as we headed out the door. The cold air rushed in our faces, making a shiver run up my spine.

“Good evenin’,” the Smith’s valet-butler greeted us with a smile and a tip of his hat. “Which one is yours?” He asked, gesturing to the many cutters lined in front of the Smith’s mansion.

“Let’s see,” John said, squinting in the dark. “I believe it is that one.” He pointed to a shinny black cutter that happened to look like all the others. A man’s shadow stood against it, his cap covering his face against the chill. “I believe we parked there.”

The butler gestured us to follow him through the maze of cutters in the snow. John’s arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me closer to his side. I felt the warmth of his body as we moved forward, following the tall butler toward the cutter that was supposedly ours. As we approached it, the man leaning against it looked up, and we could see it was Thad. He bore a tired smile and rubbed the stubble on his chin.

“Time to venture home already, sir?” Thad asked, quickly stepping forward and opening the cutter door for us.

“Yes, Thad,” John said, patting him on the shoulder. John helped me into the cutter and then boosted himself in, sitting beside me.

“Merry Christmas!” The Smith’s butler called, as Thad closed the door.

John and I waved farewell, as the cutter pulled away—beginning the journey home. I watched John in silence as he lit the lamp inside, the dark slowly melting away. We sat in silence, both consumed with our own thoughts. The cutter slid gently over the snow and I could hear sleigh bells jingling lightly as we moved through the dark of Christmas night. I smiled to myself and shrugged, warding off the cold that threatened to take over. I felt John move in his seat beside me, getting comfortable. Watching him from the side of my eye he leaned his head back on the cushion of the seat and let out a long sigh. His eyes closed and I turned my head to watch him. He sat there looking so peaceful and so near I wanted to reach out and touch him, to hold him close and tell him that the war would be over soon and there would be no more dying. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I held myself back, afraid of too many things.

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