We have been speaking of ladies for the past two weeks, and will continue throughout October.
A popular dictionary defines a ‘lady’ as:
a : a woman having proprietary rights or authority especially as a feudal superior
b : a woman receiving the homage or devotion of a knight or lover
2a : a woman of superior social position
b : a woman of refinement and gentle manners
As we will see, the first definition was the original one. Anyone who reads history will encounter the Ladies of the past, women of courage, power and determination. The heroines of legend, their realities were even more powerful.
This week we meet:
Lavinia Wheeler (Georgia, 1864)
It is May 7, 1864 in Central Georgia. In the town of Wheelerville lying a week’s journey north and west of Atlanta in the shadow of the mountains, the magnolias are in full bloom, the cold winter has given way to spring, which is now shading into what promises to be a hot summer. And War has come screaming into the center of the town and blown all memories of peace and heartsease away on cannon-smoke.
The bodies of the slain lie in windrows along the grassy-banked roadway leading from the heart of town toward the gracefully sprawling white house. The battle has moved south and east, but the sounds of pain and death echo in the air. A Union surgeon pauses to take a needed break from the squalor and stench…
He stepped from dim cacophony into bright chaos, the pepper-sharp sting of drifting gunpowder catching at the back of his throat. He coughed, drew a deep breath, held it, and expelled it, feeling the sun-warmed air fill his lungs. It seemed, somehow, to lessen the noise behind him, screams, bitten-off curses and prayers. The dull rasp of a bone saw brought more shrieks, spiraling up higher than his ears could hear.
He grimaced and stepped farther into the sunlight.
The fighting had been hot and furious along this roadway, the artillery hurling shells into masses of gray-clad bodies that had turned to make a stand and then fallen back under the assault. Now the dead lay in rows as they had fallen, beneath the shattered branches of an alley of willows that led up to a house that seemed to stand empty and somehow silent in the hectic sunlight.
He drew another breath and looked down at his reddened hands. He would have to wash them before he returned. It didn’t matter what the others said, clean hands led to better results, and he needed everything he could find to tip the scales in favor of the lives he was trying to save. He would need to find water, to have a bucket brigade set up to bring it to the hospital tent…
He turned to peer back over his shoulder at the hospital tent, caught a glimpse of the dim interior, more horrible than anything Dante could have conceived. He wouldn’t return just yet. He needed the breather to give him some strength before he resumed command of the field hospital.
He raised his head and gazed down the alley of willows, his tired eyes fixing on the gracious lines of the house set between them. A house would most likely have a water source. A house this size would have a considerable water source; he only needed to send some men to find it.
Movement in the distance, somehow foreign to the carnage before him, made him pause to push his spectacles up on his nose and look more closely. Movement again, a flicker of color that resolved itself into a woman.
He stared, saying the word to himself. A woman, here in the middle of hell.
He could see her clearly now, the silhouette of a wide crinoline skirt, a small waist; a small woman, in fact, with a shawl draped over her shoulders. She was pale, disheveled, and clutching a bucket.
He watched her stoop to give water to a wounded man, touch him lightly on the forehead with a movement that spoke clearly of grace and compassion. She rose again to give more water, looking around her with a sort of dazed pity.
A lady, he thought.
He could see the men on the ground motioning to her, calling to her, and she turned to offer more water before straightening again. She motioned to one of the orderlies, who had paused before her. He could see her lips move. The orderly, inclining toward her in an attitude of respect, turned, looked toward the tent, and caught sight of him.
The orderly’s expression eased. He turned back to the lady and spoke to her.
As the surgeon watched, she set the bucket down, gathered her skirts and, after one last glance over her shoulder at the big house, turned back toward him, squared her shoulders, fixed her eyes on his, and moved resolutely toward him.
He faced her, inclined his head to her, and waited as she approached him...
The surgeon has just had his first sight of Lavinia Wheeler, the owner of the town of Wheelerville. And Lavinia Wheeler, the descendant of Yankee merchants who settled in the growing city of Savannah, Georgia, has just finished her first experience of war, which had started with the large oak tree in front of her house exploding into splinters, followed her as she and the rest of her household who had not fled huddled in the root cellar and listened to the crashing and screams above them as it built to a crescendo and then faded to silence.
Lavinia is descended from merchants who sailed to the coastal city of Savannah and settled there amassing a fortune in trade. As the only surviving child of her father, she manages the family’s trading ventures, administers their holdings, and holds a position of respect in Savannah society. She has watched the progress of the war, calculated the likelihood of Southern success, and sold the family’s Confederate bonds at thirty percent below their face value, buying gold with the proceeds. It has been a good investment. But even gold fades before the realities of war.
Lavinia gathered her skirts and set a foot on the stairs. “I’ve told Bathsheba to warm the sheets for you,” Callie said behind her. “Heaven alone knows what we’d have done if she’d run off like the rest!”
Lavinia smiled wearily at her. “We’d have managed,” she said.
“Just barely,” Callie said. “The good Lord said we wouldn’t be overcome, but He didn’t say we wouldn’t be beaten half to death before we triumphed. Well.” Her expression softened. “Good night, Lamb,” she said.
Lavinia smiled back at her. “Sleep tight, Callie,” she said, and went up the stairs to her bedroom. She had moved into the large bedroom that her parents had once shared, leaving her narrow, whitewashed bed without a moment’s regret. A large armoire stood against the far wall. She went to it and opened it and looked within as though it held in its shadows the key to her strength.
The shelves that had once held lavender-scented linens and petticoats were now crowded with pottery of all shapes and heights, all the colors of the earth. A forest of faces gazed back at her, and ranked before and behind them were ramekins, plates, cups, tankards, all formed of the earth, and all very, very old.
She took the largest one and touched the rough glaze. One of the settlers had dipped this in the James River and drunk from it. He and his family had probably sat of an evening and gazed into the fire, and maybe set this jug on the hearth to warm the wine that was in it. It must have been a hard life, as she had said to General Stanley. Hard, exhausting, frightening at times. But surely, surely nothing like this time of trial that had overtaken her world and split it apart!
She sighed and held the jug closer. Everything had changed so terribly that she felt lost. All the set phrases, all the carefully choreographed motions of life had broken down and fled before the maelstrom. Now it was important to bring some ceremony, some sanity back to everyday living. One clung to what was decent, one did what was right. But it was proving to be a strain.
Sometimes fairy godparents exist. A Union general, touched by Lavinia’s generosity, has given some orders, as Lavinia learns when she pauses to feed the estate’s chickens the next morning.
A lone horseman was approaching her across the lawn. The rider sat still and square in the saddle with only a slight motion of his hips cushioning the movement of his mount. The sun, hovering behind his left shoulder, turned him to a black silhouette against the bright sky. He paused, then touched the horse lightly with his heels. His mount tucked its chin in and ambled toward her.
He drew rein before her. The tall chestnut mare, stretching down out of the sun to nuzzle her shoulder and then snuffle at her skirt, was firmly called to order and nudged sideways with a touch of the man’s heel so that Lavinia did not have to peer up into the sun. He was no longer a shadow in the morning, but now the light picked out alarming details of brass, yellow braid, leather and steel.
A steel-sheathed saber was strapped to his saddle beneath his left thigh, and a carbine hung from a heavy leather strap at his right. His cap was adorned with a brass badge shaped like a pair of crossed swords, and the amount of yellow braid on his dark blue, high-necked jacket seemed to indicate some sort of rank: three rows of braid made a V just above his elbow, with three arcs of braid set above them. A diagonal stripe of red-edged yellow slanted across his right sleeve from the inner corner of his cuff to halfway up his forearm. A sling hid his left arm.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” the man said, touching the leather visor of his cap with a gauntleted finger. His voice was deep and gentle, with the touch of a twang. “Is this the Wheeler house?” She had been too busy staring to answer him; he repeated the question.She blinked, pushed her hair out of her eyes once more, and looked up past the row of gilt buttons and the slanted leather strap into a lively pair of hazel eyes that were subjecting her to exactly the sort of appraisal she had been giving him. The man’s straight mouth quirked as his eyes warmed in a way that Lavinia instinctively understood.
He was pleasant looking; Lavinia had no trouble applying the term ‘handsome’ to him. Her color rose. “Why-yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.” She added, “I am Lavinia Wheeler.”
He nodded, slid his boot toes from the leather-hooded stirrups, swung his right leg across the cantle of the saddle, and dismounted. “Then Sergeant Major Asa Sheppard reports himself as arriving for duty, Miss,” he said.
“What?” she gasped.
The Safeguard follows the story of the Southern Lady, Lavinia, through the final years of the Civil War as her people and the Safeguard assigned to assist her deal with skirmishes, slaughter, murdering renegades and suspicious irregulars under Lavinia’s able leadership.
I am also giving away two signed paperback copies of The Safeguard. Leave a note on the comments section along with your email address (which I will delete) and I will have a third party who does not write and is good at reaching into bowls to retrieve pieces of paper select the winners.
If you would like to read more about The Safeguard and my other books, visit my website at THIS LINK which will take you to The Safeguard.
Ladies to inspire and to enjoy:
This hop highlights other ladies of different times and different circumstances, all ladies indeed, all fascinating to follow:
Elizabeth Revill follows the life of Carolyn Llewellyn in her splendid Family saga that follows Carrie from her tragic childhood through to her time as a District nurse during World War II:
(Click below for the International links to the books)
My very special lady is Caroline Llewellyn known by her relatives and friends as Carrie and by her nursing pals as Lew (no first names for the nurses!)
…And we have a Lady from Jane Austen’s world:
Regina Jeffers and her Regency characters…
Who has not enjoyed the stories of Elizabeth Bennett, daughter of a humorous gentleman and a scatterbrained lady, sister of four, witty opponent and resourceful, though proper protagonist? Regina Jeffers takes us into the universe of Pride and Prejudice, opening sidelights, telling the tales of other characters who played a fleeting part, but have left the reader liking them and wondering where their paths will take them,
Our Hostess speaks of Ladies who bore the same name – Edith – and shaped history:
Edith number one: the love of King Harold’s life – a woman who walked the battlefield at Hastings in 1066 to identify his mutilated body, and Edith number two, Harold’s own sister who despised him…
Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with Forever Queen. She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based fantasy adventures.
As a supporter of Indie Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award.
* * *
Next Tuesday – Shining Light on some more Ladies! We meet a woman who walked a knife edge between the demands of her dangerous family, and those of her own conscience, King Arthur’s women and a former Praetorian Guard sent to Berlin to investigate silver smuggling,..
Come back and join us!
…and if you were not able to read last week’s posts, here are the links:
* * *