Hey, all! I have made a decision. It’s a pretty big decision for me. I decided to take one of my completed works and post it, scene by scene, here. Every Friday. At some point, I will offer the entire novel for free to anyone who signs up for my mailing list. So, be on the look out for that. The novel I selected is titled “Off to War”. And here is the first scene!
Chapter One, Scene One – News
Elizabeth Thompson stopped to check her reflection in the mirror as she tucked a stubborn, errant blonde curl back into place. She fanned her flushed face. It would not do for John’s parents to see the aftereffects of her running down the block to make it home. But it wouldn’t require a close examination for anyone to see that this is exactly what had transpired. Must everything in her appearance betray her? Her hair was tousled and her dress disheveled. Working to re-pin her hair proved difficult. Then she smoothed over the folds of her deep blue dress as best she could.
To her delight, her ministrations worked to improve her appearance somewhat. While it was true her hair didn’t have the same polish to it that it had when Nancy had finished with her that morning, at least it it appeared intentional. And though her dress was no longer neat and pressed as it had been fresh from the iron, everything was in its place. She hoped it was enough.
Drawing in several deep breaths, Elizabeth closed her eyes and clasped the cross John had gifted her one long-ago Christmas. John. Just thinking of him brought a smile to her face. He was everything to her: best friend, confidant, beau, and, unofficially, fiancé. The features of his face: his dark brown eyes, square jaw, chiseled nose and brow, and brown hair, were as familiar to her as her own reflection. Even now, she envisioned those angles she had come to know so well. Her vision of John smiled at her and then chuckled. His voice’s melodic smooth baritone entranced her. After allowing herself several moments to revel in her daydream, she pulled herself away from the dream John for sake of the real one.
Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Elizabeth poked her head out of her door and glanced at the case clock in the hall. They would be here any minute! Her heart beat a little faster as she moved from the mirror in her room over to the window to keep vigil over their coming.
Elizabeth allowed her mind to wander back to their conversations of late. She and John had talked and dreamed about marriage, but nothing had been set in stone. This was not for fear of their parents’ reactions. Quite the contrary. They knew their parents would be all too happy to hear of their plans. For now, it was their secret. It was, perhaps, a poorly kept secret. She would wager almost anything that their parents altogether expected their intentions to marry.
As she watched, a carriage pulled up and four familiar figures exited. He was here! With all due haste, she made her way through the hallway, down the stairs, and toward the front door. John and his family were regular dinner guests at the Thompson house. It was not only because of John and Elizabeth’s close connection, rather, the frequency with which the families engaged in social interactions stemmed from their fathers’ relationship. They were in medical practice together. This situation had been what spurred an initial friendship between John and Elizabeth. The ladies of the home had also become close friends. Because of these close connections, it had long been the wish of their parents that John and Elizabeth be joined in matrimony. So, all things considered, the two families supped together at least twice a week.
Soon, the door chime rang through the house. Elizabeth had just made it to the grand entry. And, as much as she wished she could, she dare not open the door. That would be an atrocious breach of protocol. Instead, she waited until one of the maids made her way to the door. The seconds ticking by felt like hours as Elizabeth waited to lay eyes on her beloved. At last, one of the housemaids, Amanda, appeared and opened the door to admit John, his parents, and his sister. Elizabeth’s face lit up as her blue eyes met the deep brown ones she had come to know so well. And John moved toward her, embracing her as if it had been years since they had seen each other, not mere hours. But she welcomed it all the same. He risked pressing a kiss to her cheek as he pulled back.
“You are beautiful this evening, Elizabeth,” he said, taking her hands in his.
“Thank you.” Her face warmed, thinking he was being kind. She knew she was a mess. Her hands felt small in his.
John’s parents and sister passed them, nodding to Elizabeth. Smiling in greeting to them, she nodded as well. Was it just her imagination or was there something off in his mother’s affect? Some sadness in her eyes? But there wasn’t much time for her to ponder whatever it might be as they moved on toward the parlor where Elizabeth’s parents waited, leaving she and John alone for a moment.
After his parents passed out of sight, John raised one of her hands to his lips, pressing a kiss to it. And whatever thoughts she was having about his mother vanished in her swirling love for him.
“I’ve been counting down the minutes all afternoon,” he said, his voice seeming even deeper.
“As have I.”
He took her arm and, turning them toward the parlor, took slow steps toward the chaperonage of their parents.
“There is something important I must speak with you about,” he said, his voice distant in that moment. His eyes were fixed on something in front of him, not quite meeting hers.
“We’ll take a stroll after dinner.”
“You’re going to make me wait through the whole dinner?” she moaned.
He lifted a finger to touch her nose, smiling. “Yes. And I know you can be patient.”
She halted in her tracks and gave him a pout that was only half real, but definitely exaggerated.
“I’m not telling you,” he insisted. “Now come on, Lizzie.” He laughed, pulling at her arm. “Or our parents are going to start wondering where we went.”
She conceded. His parents had allowed them their brief unchaperoned moment, but there were boundaries to their trust. So she followed him to the parlor where their parents were already in deep conversation about…what else? The war between the states.
It seemed the war was all anyone could talk about these days. Elizabeth tired of hearing about it. All the more as the whole thing seemed so ridiculous to her. The South didn’t seem to have an ethical leg to stand on. Who in his right mind would think it was just to own another person, to sell another person, to beat another human being, to separate someone from his or her family? It all seemed so obvious that the Union had the moral high ground. And then for the Southern states to just try to leave? Secede from the Union indeed! Unimaginable! Yet it was happening. And now Americans were killing Americans. It was unthinkable.
Her father shared the latest news he heard about the advancing of the Confederates and the naval battles being won by the North. John’s mother shared that one of her friends had a cousin who was part of a Sanitary Commission. She had heard all manner of stories about the conditions in the camps. Elizabeth was only half listening, trying not to get bombarded by all this war talk.
Turning to John, she hoped he would be interested in playing cards. But to her surprise, he was listening rather intently. Strange, she had never known him to be so interested in the goings-on in the war. Then again, he was always looking for stimulating conversation. Elizabeth found herself envying the younger siblings who had engaged in some kind of amusing game across the room. She longed to join them, but knew her place was next to John. So, she was consigned to be a party, albeit silent party, to all this talk of war.
Elizabeth was all too happy when, several minutes later, the butler came in and informed them that dinner was served. As they made their way toward the dining room, Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief. At some point, her mother had insisted to her father that the dinner table was no place for talking of war and such horrid things. So it would be a safe haven for Elizabeth. Conversation would most often turn to things of society, which was only somewhat more interesting to Elizabeth. And they would always end up talking of her father’s medical practice, a topic she found much more intriguing. Then there was this after-dinner conversation with John hanging over her head.
Waiting for whatever John had to tell her made for a long dinner. Patience was not one of the virtues Elizabeth possessed. On most nights, she followed the conversation between her father and John’s father with little effort, but tonight her thoughts were much departed from their exchange as she wished away the minutes until she and John could be alone again. That time was not quick in coming. She had to feign interest through several dinner courses, nodding here and there to conversation she wasn’t listening to. John, however, seemed much engrossed in sharing whatever medical cases he had come across that day or listening to the cases the more seasoned doctors recounted to notice Elizabeth’s lack of presence.
At long last, the dessert plates were taken and the men prepared to retire to the mens’ lounge. John begged off, stating that he would like to take Elizabeth for a walk. Her father granted his permission and her mother insisted she wear an outer covering due to the chilly evening air. Moments later, draped in her cape, and without further ado, Elizabeth and John were off.
They stepped out of the house and onto the sidewalk. Elizabeth took in a deep breath, glad to be free of their parents and of having to stand on any form of ceremony. Amanda, one of the house maids, served as their chaperone. But it wasn’t the same as having her mother look over her shoulder. For all intents and purposes, it was just them. Glancing over at John, she drew closer to him, wrapping an arm even tighter in his. He offered her a smile, placing his free hand on her hand that captured his arm. This closeness still caused her stomach to turn in flip flops. Together they strolled down the street, Amanda in tow, enjoying the fine weather and beautiful scenery, making small talk. It wasn’t long before John turned them toward the park.
Elizabeth grew ever anxious for whatever news he had to share. But she sensed he was waiting for the right moment. And she enjoyed the easiness of these moments so much she dare not disturb it. As they made their way into the park and toward a bench, they covered benign topics such as the weather and the goings-on of their families and mutual friends. Amanda chose a bench far enough away to afford them some level of privacy, yet close enough to maintain a proper chaperonage. John helped Elizabeth arrange her cape so she was covered and warm, an unnecessary worry. With him beside her, the coolness of the evening was the last thing on her mind.
Then a silence fell between them.
“How were your rounds today?” she offered into the quiet that had befallen them.
John had just completed medical school and was interning at a hospital nearby.
“They were fine.” He did not offer anything further.
Odd. He always had a couple of cases to tell her about. When they were younger, they poured over their fathers’ textbooks together. And she had done her share of helping him study during his tenure in medical school. It had become a game of sorts between them for him to detail the cases he had seen that day and let her attempt to diagnose the patients. Yet this evening he remained silent. Whatever was on his mind weighed heavily.
“Do you want to talk about it?” She leaned forward so she could see his face more clearly.
He stared off into the distance in silence for a while. Long enough it made Elizabeth uncomfortable.
At last, he spoke. “We visited a wing of the hospital that cares for wounded soldiers.”
“Oh?” Her voice was soft, just above a whisper.
“It was unlike anything I had ever seen before…bodies mangled…” He shook his head.
She understood. He didn’t want to impress any more imagery on her.
“I can’t imagine what that must have been like for…” she started, reaching out to touch his arm.
“And so today I enlisted in the Northern regiment.” The words hung in the air. His eyes held hers. They were serious. And hopeful that she would understand.
Her heart dropped. She was speechless. How could he make such a decision without talking to her first?
He stood and stepped away from her before turning back to face her again. “I know I should have said something to you first. But you should have seen it, Lizzie, the pain, the death. What those men needed was more help on the front line. That could have saved limbs, that could have saved lives. How could I not offer my skills to help so many?”
“I understand.” She surprised herself with her calmness. Then her voice began to break. “But I can’t….I don’t…that is…I…”
“It’s okay.” He sat down and gathered her into his embrace.
“What of our plans?” she managed through tears that were now falling.
“I still want to marry you.” He pulled back, cupping her face. “So much.”
“Then let’s get married now.”
The words fell from her lips almost before she thought them. A tingle shot through her at the thought of getting married in the next few days. She couldn’t believe those words had just come out of her mouth.
John cocked his head as he studied her features. Elizabeth knew that look. She couldn’t hide her trepidation from him. He would know she didn’t want to throw together a wedding in a few days any more than he did, rush through a honeymoon, and then spend their first married year separated for who knew how long.
“That would make me happy. Truly happy,” he said. “But I won’t make you a war bride. And I won’t risk making you a young widow.”
She reached up then, placing her fingertips on his lips. “Don’t talk like that!”
He took her hand in his. “It’s a real possibility.”
There seemed to be a hole forming in her chest from where her heart had dropped. And it ached. She threw herself into his arms. “I won’t think like that. I can’t!”
They remained in each other’s embrace, not caring what Amanda might think. After some moments, John pulled back only far enough to look at her. He hooked his finger under her chin to tilt her head up.
“Remember, I love you.” His voice was firm and confident.
“Always and forever?” she sniffed.
“Always and forever.” He pressed a kiss to her lips.