THE WARS OF THE SHANNONS
By Allan Cole & Chris Bunch
THE WARS OF THE SHANNONS: Young Patrick Shannon is the heir-apparent
to the Shannon fortune, but murder and betrayal at a family
gathering send him fleeing into the American frontier, with only the
last words of a wise old woman to arm him against what would come.
And when the outbreak of the Civil War comes he finds himself
fighting on the opposite side of those he loves the most. In The
Wars Of The Shannons we see the conflict, both on the battlefield
and the homefront, through the eyes of Patrick and the members of
his extended Irish-American family as they struggle to survive the
conflict that ripped the new nation apart, and yet, offered a dim
beacon of hope.
A NOTE FROM ALLAN COLE: This is the long-awaited sequel to “A Daughter Of Liberty,” which follows the Shannons – an Irish-American family – from the Revolutionary War until the burning of Washington in 1814. The main character in that book was a wise and courageous woman, Diana Shannon, who shouldered the burden of the family and saw them through war, Indian raids, bandits, the plague and finally, the attack on Washington.
Both books are prequels to the Vietnam War novel – “A Reckoning For Kings,” where the main character, one Dennis Shannon remarks that a Shannon had fought in ever American conflict since the French And Indian Wars of the 18th Century.
The three novels were penned by myself, and my late partner, Chris Bunch.
“And all to leave what with his toil he won to
that unfeathered thing, a two-legged thing, a son. “
PATRICK SHANNON SAT crosslegged on the roof of the Texas deck, staring up at the pilot house. The Eclipse was an hour below Vicksburg. Ahead was Great Grandmother Shannon, and - his father had told him - Shannons from every corner of America. But this was not to be a celebration: Diana Shannon was dying and she wanted to see the clan she had created before passing away. Patrick hoped and prayed this woman, whom he could barely believe had actually seen George Washington, would still be alive when they arrived. He also hoped she was still capable of solving problems and bringing justice, as she had been doing for years.
Patrick Shannon, grandson of James Emmett, had serious problems - problems, he believed, which could only be solved by running away. Perhaps to sea. Perhaps north. Perhaps to become a soldier. Almost anything that would take the boy away from his father’s lonely, haunted, dying plantation in Virginia. At this moment, Patrick was considering yet another career.
In the Eclipse’s pilot house was the 12 year-old
boy’s newest hero. Said hero stood, resplendent in his
brass-buttoned blue coat and plug hat, behind the open window of the
pilot house. One hand was negligently draped on the packet’s great
wheel, the other held a long cheroot.
Patrick Shannon imagined himself pilot of the great steam packet Eclipse. Not the Eclipse whose deck he sat on, but a new Eclipse, one that was longer, wider, faster - much faster - and with more gilt and crystal. He would paint his own symbol on each of the paddle houses. Maybe a shamrock, or his initials. The captain be damned. Patrick would be the best pilot on the river. If the captain would not let him do what he wanted... why, he’d find another boat. He’d have a uniform and the respect of anyone who boarded the steamer. And if anyone gave him any lip, why, he’d pull the steamboat over - no matter if there was a landing, an island or a swamp - and put that person off. Let them walk.
He liked the idea of his stepmother wading through quicksand, alligators all around her. Would he put his father ashore with her? Not unless he objected too much. Even then... he’d just put him down with the deck passengers. Let him ride upriver with the servants and peckernecks.
His thoughts were broken by a voice from the promenade below. “Patrick! Get down from there!” It was Pamela. His stepmother. He pretended not to hear. The voice came cracking again. “Patrick Shannon. I am speaking to you. Do I have to fetch your father?”
Patrick rose, his mood shattered. He leaned against the rail and looked down. He didn’t want to, but he had no choice. His eyes met Pamela’s, and he saw the gloating look on her face and the little smug smile.
Pamela Shannon was a dark-eyed Southern beauty, with six-inch curls dangling under a bonnet the size of a small sail. From Italian leather toe to Paris parasol, she was dressed entirely in pink. Patrick supposed she was pretty. His father said so. The way other men panted around her, he guessed maybe his father was right. To Patrick she was about as welcome as a water moccasin. Less so - at least you could skin a snake.
“Where have you been? Your father has been looking all over for you.”
“Here,” was all Patrick said. He knew she was lying. The only thing his father ever fretted about was horseflesh, cards and keeping Pamela happy.
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” she retorted. “You can fool your father. But not me. Now, tell me what low account mischief you’ve been up to.”
“I told you,” Patrick blurted, “I’ve been right here all along.” His voice was harsh and full of hate.
“Don’t you sass me, Patrick Shannon.”
“I’m not sassin’.”
“There you go again. Contradicting me.”
“Well, I sure as shoot don’t know what else to do,” Patrick exploded. “If tellin’ the truth is contradictin’, then I guess that’s what I’m doin’.”His stepmother’s hard eyes gleamed - she had him now. Patrick’s stomach gave a lurch. Pamela was egging him on, pushing him until he made a fatal misstep which she could report in gloating detail to his father. Her lips contorted for a blasphemous hiss sure to send him boiling over. At that moment, an older woman and her young daughter strolled into view. It was plain from their stares they had overheard some of the exchange.
Pamela was sudden total sweetness. “Now, you get away from that rail, Patrick, dear, before you fall,” she gushed. “I swear, you’ll worry your poor father and me to death.”
She pretended to see the women for the first time. An artful blush tinged her cheeks. “Boys just seem to be impossible to handle at his age,” she shyly confessed to the older woman. “One scrape after the other. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get used to it.”
The matron nodded in sympathy. “Take a switch to him. That’s the only thing I know of that works.”
Pamela giggled, shaking her pretty curls. “Oh, I suppose you’re right... but I just don’t think I could bring myself to actually lay a hand on the poor child.”
“He’ll thank you for it someday,” the older woman said. She looked up at Patrick. “Do as you are told, young man,” she said. “Away from the rail or I’ll hunt up a fresh switch for her myself.”
Patrick got, using the command for his escape. He heard Pamela walking away with the two women, chattering about her young savage of a stepson in that sweet thing, butter wouldn’t melt, voice.
As he walked past the pilot house, the pilot leaned out and grinned. “My maw’s hair curled if I even looked at a boat from shore. Guess she thought I was gettin’ ready to run.”
Patrick gaped; Zeus had actually noticed him. “What... what’d you do? Sir?”
“Guess she was right. First chance, I hooked it.” The pilot struck a lucifer against the wheel and relit his cigar. “You’re a Shannon, aren’t you, boy?”
“Thought I saw the names on the purser’s list. Have a gander. Up there on the bluff. That’s Mrs. Shannon’s place.”
Patrick craned through the summer haze. Even at this distance, it looked to be a magnificent house - multiple-sided, like a geometry shape. A... hex... no... octagon. Three - Patrick guessed - storied, with a dome at its top. When he dreamed of Great Grandmother Shannon’s house he knew it had to be wonderful. But just what kind of wonderful he could not decide. Wonderful like some of the houses he’d seen in Virginia styled like Greek temples. Maybe her house would be like the engravings in Mister Irving’s books: a great castle of the Moors. A new possibility would be like the houses he’d seen in New Orleans, all filigree and iron work.
But, he decided, what he was looking at was perfectly satisfactory. That great octagonal marvel up there, and its lush grounds would be the kind of house the head of the Shannons would build. The grounds around it, cabins, outbuildings and gardens, were as manicured as any rich Virginian’s. White-painted steps with handrails wound down the bluff to a small landing. There were two or three skiffs - Patrick heard they were called yawls on the Mississippi - tied up.
That would help. Patrick had learned - especially in
the last few years since his father had remarried - that getting out
of the house, away from the plantation onto the nearby river was a
good way to keep out of trouble. When he was nine, and his father
had been momentarily flush, he’d been given a small boat, complete
with mast, sail and oars. Even in the worst of times, Patrick could
ease his mind by grabbing a book from his father’s library, a
fishing rod or the cutdown fowling piece he’d been given in another
period of good times and heading for the water. Away from the
trouble, he could drift, fish, be a pirate, read and eat - under the
transom he kept a small box of salt and a small iron spider.
Sometimes he’d taken Nehemiah with him... and then he forced his
mind back to his previous concern.
One of the great paddlewheels - each one forty feet in diameter - slowed, then churned backward. The Eclipse turned in its course. More bells, and the wheel’s buckets spun in the other direction, lifting great gouts of brown water into the air. Maybe there was a reef of some kind. Like those he’d read about in the Pacific, just waiting to rip a ship apart.
No, he thought, I won’t be a pilot; or at least not for awhile. Maybe later. Maybe, after I’m captain of my own clipper, I’d get tired of going around the Horn. That sounded better than his other idea, which was to join the army. Which was best? A good-looking uniform, and being able to tell everybody how you led a cavalry charge against... against whoever the dragoons would be fighting? Guess the Mexicans will never dare American army men anymore, so it’d have to be somebody else. He was pretty sure it had to be a clipper ship, bringing back silks and tea and things like that. Then he would go back to the plantation. That would show Her. He would not bring Pamela silk or anything. Just ride up with his carriage, pulled by a matched set of bays. Let them all look at him, and think about how they had their chance. Maybe he’d let his father take the reins for a turn around the plantation. Or maybe, better yet, he would never go back. Just let them read about his triumphs.
He went downstairs, toward the stern. The cabin was all glitter and color, stretching almost the full length of the Eclipse’s boiler deck. Glass chandeliers hung overhead. At nightfall they were filled with lard oil and lit. Transoms over each stateroom door lit the sleeping chambers. At one end of the richly carpeted cabin was a statuette of General Jackson, at the other a noble-looking Henry Clay. From the piano to the tableware to the furniture, everything was of the finest.
The menu offered everything from roasts to mutton to chicken to game, plus a cold board. The meals were included in the cost of passage. First class ate very well, as did the ship’s officers and clerks. This wasn’t true, Patrick had noticed, for the roustabouts and mostly black crewmen. When the cabin passengers had finished eating, their scraps were piled together and fed to the workers. It was called the “grub pile.” Some of the passengers thought it funny to stand on the deck above and watch the scuffle. It made Patrick sick. His father would have whipped a man who suggested the Shannon slaves be treated like that.
The cabin was fairly empty - most of the passengers were preparing for the landing in Vicksburg. The big game had broken up and only one of the players was still sitting at the table. The sleek, impeccably-dressed man relaxed, a perpetual half-smile on his face, dealing himself a hand of Patience. The game had started after leaving New Orleans, near Red Church. After supper, three planters ruminating over rum punches were joined by this man. He’d stood around. Somehow the conversation led to the pleasures of studying the History of the Four Kings. Cards and gold had materialized and the play had begun. Patrick’s father had stood near the table, wanting to get in. But within an hour, he reported to Pamela more than $20,000 had been on the table. One hand had seen a raise of $1,000 - in gold.
“Too rich for my blood,” he’d muttered, and walked away.
Patrick had barely noted the game. After stuffing himself beyond reason at the supper table, he staggered out on deck, just as dark settled down. The Mississippi was a river of lights. Each packet was an illuminated palace, and the palaces stretched far down the river. Probably clear to New Orleans, Patrick thought. And here, coming toward them, were more steamers heading downriver. Lights dancing reflections on the dark, rolling waters. Everyone in America, and all their goods and produce must be afloat this night, the boy had thought. The passenger packets here, here and there.
A cotton packet coming downriver. All that could be seen was the pilot on the Texas and the lofty smokestacks and the twin gangplanks at the prow. From beam to beam, bow to stern, the boat was a mass of bales. They passed a floating grocery, a flatboat that had been converted to better purposes. A few skiffs were tied up to it, and Patrick heard shouts and the screech of fiddle music. The grocery evidently sold more than dry goods.
Further upstream there was a floating blacksmith’s shop, the forge still glowing into the night and the sound of the smith’s hammer. It was most odd, Patrick thought. Through the flatboat’s open door he could see the tiny figure of the smith crashing his hammer against the anvil. And then, seconds later, while the smith’s arm was lifted overhead, would come the clang of metal against metal.
A bit later the river grew a huge square of darkness. An island - but the island had small lights ahead of it, and a gleam at its rear - a tow of barges full of Pittsburgh coal. The towboat was a steamer, pushing at the rear of the line. Barges were lashed to either side of its bow, and more barges stacked in front, three across and four long. The open span of water in front of the towboat roiled. A man told him this was called a “duckpond” tow. The first barges were cushions, to keep the towboat from staving in the barges.
Patrick thought about missing a step in the dark and tumbling into that “duckpond...” and the churning paddles of the steamer going over him. No. The boy didn’t understand how any captain could navigate that monster. The man explained the skill was called “drifting.” The towboat would put its wheels in reverse, and let the river slide the entire tow around a bend.
He wished another boat would challenge the Eclipse to a race. Then there would be something to see - if the captain accepted the dare, that is; which he would: Steamboat racing was good for business. The fastest packet charged the highest prices and travelers would seek out its runners to book passage and merchants would pay prime rates to get their goods on the manifest. Good for business - unless there was a wreck or an explosion from the deliberately over-stressed boilers. The illustrated papers regularly showed ghastly woodcuts of parboiled Americans. Patrick heard somewhere that more than four thousand people had died in steamboat catastrophes.
At Baton Rouge the Eclipse pulled against the levee to load/unload passengers and freight. It also took a coal barge under tow. Like the other fast packets, the Eclipse would load from the barge as it steamed upriver. When the barge was empty, it and its roustabouts would be cut loose to drift downriver to load for another customer. The barges somehow never showed up in the engravings Patrick had seen.
There was something different about Baton Rouge, just as there had been in New Orleans. Different from around his father’s plantation or even the city of Richmond, where the Shannon family had enshipped for New Orleans. Not just the polyglot of languages and men and women dressed as the boy had never seen in Virginia. He suddenly realized: those cities were alive. This was the West! Even the air breathed different, easier, in spite of the river’s hanging damp.
People seemed like they were going somewhere. As if there were only so many hours in the day, and much to be done. And there was much to be done - cargoes waiting in New Orleans were stacked many yards deep in front of the mile-long row of waiting steamboats. White businessmen and clerks scuttled through the maze - as did the blacks.
Patrick grew up hearing everyone from his father onward swear that “the only thing the niggers know is come day, go day, God send Sunday.” A black foreman would stand on a pile of merchandise handing out tickets. Black roustabouts would clamor for them, and then rush toward a steamboat. Huge bales of cotton would be rushed off the boats toward a stacking point. Patrick saw one steamer early in the morning - a cotton packet - loaded to the Texas. At noon the packet was bare of its cargo. Six thousand bales of cotton, and four thousand sacks of seed had come off. Someone said the stevedores were all freemen.
But that was only one of the oddities he’d witnessed. Patrick felt as if he had suddenly been propelled into a entirely new world, as alien as any of Mister Irving’s or Dumas’, and as inviting.
Now, the man playing Patience noted Patrick, and his smile broadened. He drew in his cards. Shuffled them twice, his wrists flat on the green baize table. He offered Patrick the cut. The boy shook his head - no. The man cut the cards elaborately, laid the deck on the table, and passed his hands over it. Then he dealt. Four cards snapped down, face up. All of them were aces. The fifth was a king. The man scooped up the hand, reshuffled, and dealt out his solitary game of Patience, half-smile unchanged.
Patrick went out on deck, fairly sure in whose pockets the planters’ gold was reposing. He stared out across the water. On the far bank, a shantyboat was tied up. He could see a woman hanging clothes on its deck. Closer to him, turning in an eddy, was a ramshackle dinghy. Its planking was battered and in many colors, all peeling. In the boat was a boy about Patrick’s age. He held a long pole and a line ran from the pole down into the water. The boy wore only a ragged pair of pants. The fisherman heard the crash of the paddles and saw the Eclipse. He came to his feet - Patrick admired his ability to stay up in the little, rocking the boat, waving. The ship’s whistle blasted a return greeting, almost deafening Patrick. He waved as well. I could live like that. Live on the water. Be able to watch the ships go past. Maybe go with them someday.
Most of Patrick’s childhood had been spent alone. His mother died when he was three. Her name was Beth and Patrick had almost no memory of her. What he had - warmth, a soft voice, someone singing - might well have been memories from the slave, Molly, who was his mammy. His father, Edward, never seemed to know what to make of Patrick. At times he would seem to be very fond of his son. But the affection did not last for very long. Edward acted as if Patrick made him nervous, and would quickly make an excuse to be busy elsewhere.
The children on the nearest plantation - its house nearly ten miles distant - were years older than Patrick. Seven miles further was the home of the only boy about his age. Patrick tried to make friends with him - but that young man seemed interested only in horses or how many birds he, his father or his brother had shot out of the sky - birds left to rot where they fell.
Patrick spent a great deal of time in his father’s library. It was large - James Emmett Shannon had begun it - but disorganized. Patrick’s grandfather had not been much of a reader. But a library was a symbol of the gentry, like imported claret and champagne, clothes from London, blooded stock, silver flatware and china service. Edward believed the same: reading was not only a mark of the Shannons, but one thing that divided a gentleman from the “others.” It would not be uncommon for a visitor to the plantation to find Edward in the library, deep in his Latin Plutarch, and for that visitor to remark on Edward’s remarkable learning.
A darkling suspicion made Patrick put a pinprick on the open page of Plutarch. Weeks later, after another visitor had come and gone, Patrick examined the book. It was open to the same, pricked page.
Patrick’s playmates were black, the sons and daughters of the plantation slaves. Their parents would be in the fields, and the children put under the care of one old black woman. The children called Patrick the “white pun’kin.” They were as quick to push him in a creek, fully dressed, as any of their own. Patrick thought the servant children had more fun than white youngsters. White boys and girls would stand around, making faces, teasing and pulling hair. Somebody would want to have a fight. Somebody might suggest throwin’ rocks at the niggers. It was stupid.
Also, none of them ever seemed to read. Nobody ever seemed to want to be a pirate or Natty Bumppo. About the only game they liked was playing soldier. But Patrick tired of always having to be the evil British redcoat thrashed by brave Virginia soldiers. Patrick struck back one time, and told his peers about the novels of Walter Scott. We could play knight. That sounded fairly good, so the group shambled to a pasture, found fence poles for lances and tried to convince some plough horses to be chargers. The game lasted until one boy had a rib cracked by a lance, and Patrick was whipped.
The adults were no better when they came a-visiting. If the visitors were a man and his wife, they would talk endlessly about what was going on in London, or “The Continent.” As far as Patrick could tell none of them had ever been out of Virginia, so the information came second or third hand from merchants. Certainly his father had never been to Europe. Still worse - and Patrick was not sure why - was when two or three white men would arrive. There would be a great deal of shouting and drinking and loud boasts of past feats - especially dueling.
Edward Shannon was as expert with a pistol as he was in taking offense. Several men had paid dearly for either not knowing, or disbelieving his reputation. After the visitors were well in their cups, Patrick would be called down and required to spout a lesson won from the latest drunken tutor. Late at night the laughing would get louder. Then he’d hear the men shambling down toward the slave quarters. The next day the slaves would be very quiet. No one would talk about what had happened and Patrick didn’t press the question. No, all in all, the blacks were a lot more fun. Real fishing for real fish, with doughballs, cheese or hellgrammites, many hooks on a trotline. That caught fish - fish the black families would have for dinner, Patrick with them, unless his father got snooty and wanted him to eat with him; silent deadly meals of boiled food, just the two of them at the long, linen-draped table.
But the problem was having somebody to talk to. When Patrick started discussing how, when he grew up he would be a soldier, or a sailor or a pirate, the slave children’s’ faces would go blank. They had nothing to say. In desperation, Patrick started telling them about the books he’d been reading. They were very interested in Washington Irving’s Moors - most of them had heard their parents called that by a master. They lost interest in the Moors when Patrick said they were the same folks Stephen Decatur beat up in Algeria. But they were glad the American Navy had won - nobody ought to do that to Americans. Knights in armor were fine - especially when Patrick told them about Edward, the Black Prince. “He was a nigger? Like us?” Patrick didn’t know. But he said yes. When he found out the man’s nickname came from his armor, he let the lie stand.
His closest friend was Nehemiah, Molly’s son. He taught Nehemiah to read. Patrick didn’t know - at least for sure - this was against the law. He certainly didn’t know this violation of the “Black Codes” was a capital offense in some states. But he knew not to talk about it around white folks. Nehemiah was quick to learn. At first Patrick thought himself an excellent teacher. Then he suspicioned perhaps Nehemiah’s mother could also figure. There were a lot of things, he realized vaguely, no black, no matter how young, would ever tell the white pun’kin.
Things changed when Patrick was ten. Something went wrong, and he didn’t know what. Plantation land he’d once played on had been sold off to meet his father’s mounting debts. Then his father began courting. The object of his affection was Pamela Weatherby. Her father’s plantation was two days ride from the Shannons’. She was introduced to Edward by another neighbor - Fitz Maguire. Patrick had always despised Maguire, even though he was related - Patrick was not sure exactly how - to his Great Grandmother Shannon in Vicksburg. Fitz was like Edward, except to extremes. Unlike Edward, however, Maguire was successful. At least he was still buying land and at a bargain price he would tell everyone. He was constantly advising Edward he was too soft on his slaves. “Find an overseer with rice plantation experience. He’ll make the niggers hum.” Patrick wondered why Maguire would introduce Pamela to his father. Far as he knew, men mostly sought out their own women or were introduced by parents.
Patrick hated Pamela on first sight. They met in his father’s house. The boy was dressed in his Sunday best: boots blackened, hair slicked with water. He’d been carefully coached as well as groomed for the meeting. Patrick gave a little bow, and said he was pleased to meet her. He’d tried not to look at the dazzling display of breasts spilling from her low-cut gown.
“Oh, what a darling child,” Pamela gushed. “You didn’t tell me he was so handsome, Edward.”
She flung herself on Patrick - kissing, pinching, and smothering him in heavy perfume. He thought he’d throw up. “Oh, you poor, motherless boy,” Pamela said, shedding a single tear. “Look how thin, you are.” She pinched at his flesh. “And your clothes...” She plucked at his best jacket. “So shabby.”
Then she whipped out a hanky, dabbed spit on it with her tongue and wiped at a spot on his cheek. “Why, Edward Shannon, you should be ashamed of yourself. Who’s been looking after this child?”
Patrick saw a silly grin on his father’s face. He tried to pull away. Pamela yanked him back, pressing her soft body against his, as she petted and fretted.
“It’s kind of hard on a man without a wife,” Edward had said. “Nobody but the servants to mind him. It’s not the same... without a white woman about.”
What was his father saying? They were both doing just fine. Why was he poor mouthin’ to this... this... he wasn’t sure what she was? But he wished she’d get her claws out of him. He couldn’t breathe, she was squishing him so.
“I think I’m goin’ to be sick,” Patrick said. He wasn’t lying. If she didn’t let loose right this minute he was going to do something terrible down the front of her dress.
“Oh,” Pamela said. In a blink she was across the room, hovering in Fitz Maguire’s protective shadow.
Patrick’s father felt his forehead for fever. “Can I go to bed?” Patrick whined. He was feeling worse.
“Poor thing,” Pamela said, voice dripping sympathy.
Over his father’s shoulder, Patrick saw Pamela grin at Maguire - like she thought it was funny Patrick was sick. Maguire winked at her and squeezed her rump. What was going on? He saw Pamela squirm into the squeeze... liking it.
That’s when Patrick threw up. He was put to bed without delay.
Some weeks later, Edward took Patrick riding. They dismounted near a stream, and Edward haltingly told his son he had proposed to Miss Weatherby - and she had accepted. “We’ve been too long,” he said, “without the gentling touch of our better side.”
Thank God Edward continued talking - because Patrick probably would have blurted something. Even as it was he said, “But... why Her?” He’d already begun capitalizing the pronoun when he thought of Pamela.
“Because... I’m in love, son. You’ll understand. When you get older.” Edward completely mistook Patrick’s look of utter disgust. “Patrick, your mother was a wonderful woman. I shall treasure her memory forever. But there comes a time when a man wearies of walking alone. When he needs a companion. Think on it, son. You’ll get used to the idea.” Patrick knew he never would.
Despite his feelings, it wasn’t Patrick who declared war. That honor went to Pamela. She threw down the gauntlet shortly after the wedding - it was Fitz Maguire who’d given away the bride. While the newlyweds were off on their honeymoon, Patrick became guilt-stricken. He remembered his father’s words about being lonely after the death of Patrick’s mother. What kind of a son was Patrick to be so unfeeling? If Pamela made his father happy, Patrick would be lower than a skunk to get in the way. He determined to make his peace with Pamela. When she and his father returned, Patrick steeled himself and went to Pamela to apologize. He’d been a rude, selfish fool of a boy, he’d tell her, for acting so cold and hateful after that first meeting.
Patrick found her alone fussing over a bit of embroidery in her sewing room.
“There you are,” Pamela said before Patrick had even gotten the first word out. “I think it’s about time you and I had a little talk. To begin with-“
“Yes’m. That’s why I was...”
“Stop that right now!” Pamela’s voice had snapped.Patrick goggled. “Stop what?”
“When I am speaking, young man, I do not wish to be interrupted. Especially not by some spoiled ruffian child who has his father fooled into thinking he’s merely high spirited. Do I make myself clear?”
Patrick was floored. “You got no call to talk to me like that,” he managed.
“What are you going to do about it? I am your father’s new wife. It’s me he will be listening to from now on. Me who will be advising him.” She leaned forward, eyes blazing with such furious hatred, Patrick’s heart lurched. He could see she’d stomp him like a bug if she had the chance. “Listen to me, you little bastard. You’re the only child now. A hateful only child. If you get in my way, I’ll see that your father disowns you. Do you hear?”
Patrick was too stunned to speak.
“Just remember,” she went on, “the last person your father speaks to every night is me.” She gave an obscene laugh and patted her flat belly. “In fact, I’m working on the disowning part right now. Keep a close watch on this Patrick. I’ll have a little brother in there for you any day now. Do we understand one another?” Again, silence from Patrick. “I’m speaking to you. Answer.”
“Yeah... I guess we do,” Patrick said, then stormed out before she could respond.
Patrick sought comfort from his only friend - Nehemiah. It took awhile to find him - Pamela had already turned the place upside down. All the household slaves were banned to the fields, traded for her own pet servants. Nehemiah was chopping cotton with the rest of the gang. Very slowly. Advance a step. Bring the hoe down. Wait for a long moment. Another step along the row. Nehemiah, once a dart of energy, worked like he was middle aged.
When the overseer wasn’t watching, Patrick went up to his friend. “Let’s light out for the creek,” he said. “Bet the fish are real hungry.”
Nehemiah looked up. Patrick thought he saw a flicker just for a moment, then a great dull look blanketed his friend’s eyes. “Can’t, massa,” was all he said. He started chopping cotton again.
“Whatcha mean, you can’t? Course you can.” Patrick hadn’t caught the “massa.” “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
Nehemiah kept working, ignoring him. The stored up anger rose in Patrick’s breast.
He grabbed the hoe from Nehemiah’s hands, and threw it down. “What’s wrong with you?”
His friend kept his head down. “I’m not allowed to play no more,” he’d muttered. “Not with you, anyways.”
“Who said?” Patrick was shouting now. Nehemiah shook his head, refusing to answer. But he didn’t have to... it was Pamela. “Don’t listen to her,” Patrick pleaded.
“I gotta listen. Massa.”
“Quit callin’ me that. I’m Patrick. Not massa.”
The kettle Pamela had set to flame boiled over and Patrick struck out blindly. But even as his fist was crashing forward, he tried desperately to stop. But the blow landed.
Nehemiah’s eyes glittered. Then he regained control. “Nigger’s sorry, for wha’ever massa say he done,” he finally said.
There was nothing Patrick could say or do. He got back on his horse and kicked it away. Nehemiah watched him, then, again so slowly, shuffled back to work.
Patrick knew he had to apologize - but could not figure how. He never got the chance. Four months after the marriage, Edward sold twenty slaves south. “A business deal in Jamestown didn’t pan out,” he explained. Cards? Horses? Patrick didn’t know. Among the slaves were Molly and Nehemiah.
Patrick retreated even farther into himself and his books. His father, besotted with his new wife, and charmed by that snake, Fitz Maguire, didn’t seem to notice. They were a permanent threesome, although the boy thought, when his father’s back was turned, the other two seemed to be sharing a private joke. Sometimes at night, he heard shouted arguments between Edward and Pamela, and never knew the reason. At least the arrival of the dreaded baby hadn’t been announced.
He felt - and did not know why - something was about to happen. Just as you could feel the sticky, sweltering silence before a storm. Patrick had no idea what was going to happen - but he determined he would not be there to witness it. He would run. Run to sea, run to the army, run to the north, run to the west. It didn’t matter.
Then the letter came from Vicksburg. Great Grandmother Shannon was ill and had called the family together. Edward was suddenly king of the world. This, he told his son, was the answer. With the inheritance Diana Shannon would settle on him, their problems would be answered. “It’ll be like old times, son. Nicer things for Christmas. We’ll be able to send you to the university. Get you the law degree that’ll make you rich. I’ll be able to buy back the land. And... show Fitz his help wasn’t in vain.”
Help? What did that mean?
Patrick discarded the question. Vicksburg. A chance to meet his great grandmother. Maybe ask her advice, although she would probably be no more help than any other grown person. Most important, there would be other Shannons there. One of his cousins was a clipper ship captain. Another was living in California. A gold miner, he hoped.
He would sound them out. They’d never suspect his purpose. But before they left Vicksburg, Patrick would have determined which direction he would run.
THE TEN-MILE carriage ride to Grandmother Shannon’s house seemed longer than the entire journey from New Orleans. The late June heat lay close to the ground and in the shady places the moisture rose from the rich black soil in a mist alive with battalions of mosquitoes. He brushed beneath Spanish moss, which felt like breaking through a spider’s web, the touch lingering in the skin’s memory long after a body passed.
Patrick had a boy’s tolerance for these things, delighting in the little yelps and moans coming from that great bitch-woman, Pamela. “They’re eating me alive, Edward! Make them stop!” “Don’t fret. We’ll be there soon.” “Oh, and my poor skin. I swear, I feel like I’m being poached.” Patrick smiled, conjuring up a vision of Pamela being put into a big poaching dish by the old black cook back home.
Just before they reached the house the carriage track dipped into a little shady hollow. There was a break in the trees, and Patrick could see the river far below and the private dock poking from the bottom of the bluff. As they climbed out of the hollow, a delicious late afternoon breeze crept down the hill, laden with the scent of wild orange. The road led through a tunnel of trees that widened into a view of the strange-shaped house he had seen from the river. It was sparkling white, and its odd shape promised any number of crannies to explore. The dome made him wish he had a spyglass to watch the river traffic pass. Woods crept up almost to the house’s entrance on one side; on the other were magnificent magnolias and white oaks leading toward the river. There were fruit trees of all kinds, including peach, which still bore small white blossoms. A garden planted with roses and camellias hugged the front, with a spray of tall red flowers on either side - poinsettias, he learned later, all the way from Mexico.
People came crowding out of the house to greet them.
Patrick was so dazzled he only noticed a woman with a Yankee accent.
She was round and small and when Patrick mumbled his name she burst
into tears and threw her arms around him. It was Kitty, the woman
who had cared for his great grandmother for many years.
Kitty whispered that he needn’t wait and led him straight through the house. Its inside was as marvelous as the exterior, with everything from Oriental geegaws to paintings to odd sketches that must’ve been made by one of the Shannons to illustrate his travels. There was even an old sword on the wall. Patrick wondered if it was old enough to come from the War of Independence. Later, he learned his great-grandmother’s second husband, John Maguire, had actually carried it in two wars.
Kitty pulled him into the kitchen where she made a thick ham sandwich, poured out a big cold glass of buttermilk, and set the pitcher before him for refills. She chattered away while he ate - asking questions about the trip and listening attentively to his answers. He tried not to talk through his food, but he was so blamed hungry it was hard to mind his table manners.
It was near dark by the time he was done. Kitty took him up the stairs to his room, which was at the end of a long hallway. Inside was a steaming bath in a big tub on a pallet. The bed was turned down and the sheets looked so clean and cool, Patrick wasn’t sure he’d make it to the bath.
“You tuck yourself in for the night,” Kitty said. “If you need anything, come down to my room and ask. It’s just off the kitchen. In the morning, I’ll take you to see Mrs. Shannon.”
Patrick was suddenly terror-stricken. What if he made a fool of himself in front of his great-grandmother? He had heard so many stories about her that he had an unformed image in his mind of some kind of queen - like Elizabeth of England or Catherine of Russia. What if he never had a chance? What if Great-Grandmother Shannon took one look at Pamela and turned all three of them out?
Kitty must have guessed some of what was on his mind. She laid a small soothing hand on his arm and looked him full in the face with wide, searching eyes. “Mrs. Shannon’s been waiting a long time for this, young Patrick,” she said. “You know she’s very ill, don’t you?” Patrick nodded. “I’m not sure she would have lived this long if you weren’t coming,” Kitty continued. “So have no fear on her account. Just be a good boy and take a bath before you sleep so you’re nice and clean and don’t ruin your great grandmother’s sheets.”
Patrick lied nicely and promised he would. When she shut the door, he waited no more than a second or so and then leaped on the bed, fully clothed, expecting to fall instantly asleep. But his conscience needled him and he tossed and turned for long minutes. Finally, he flung himself out of the bed, yanked off his shirt and marched to the tub. He dipped up a big handful of water and splashed his face, even sprinkling a few drops on his upper body. Feeling like a saint, he dried himself vigorously with a rough towel and fell back on the bed. He slept the untroubled sleep of a boy who was as good as his word.
It was not an empress who greeted them the following morning, but a frail little bundle who was hard to make out amid all her bedding. First Edward and then Pamela stepped forward to kiss her. They spoke awhile in tones reverent for being in such close company with death. She lay there, an unbelievably tiny matriarch, with a shock of white hair tied back with a blue ribbon. She wore a white gown, picked out with little bird-like forms the same color as the ribbon.
Patrick would remember her face for the rest of his life. It was smooth for someone so old; his father said she was ninety two. Her skin was the color of fine ivory and was stretched across regal bones. Once when she smiled at something Kitty said, he saw delicate white teeth flash, which surprised him. There were other details, too. Like her hands, which were small and well-formed, except for a few twists and knots for character. The skin was delicate and he could see the blue blush of veins running just beneath the surface. Also, he thought her voice quite remarkable after he had listened closely for a while. It seemed weak at first, but then you caught the strong, underlying timbre. She had a stubborn tilt to her jaw, and a frown that could have put a Roman legion to flight.
The bedroom was large and smelled faintly of some flowery perfume. There was a great ancient trunk at the foot of the bed, made of horsehair and bound up withcracked leather straps with big copper buckles. Light shone through two glass doors that opened onto a verandah. On a mantel there was an oddly new clock - the kind you could set the time on and a bell would chime to remind a body of an errand. It had a bright tick-tick-tick that marked the uncomfortable minutes his father and Pamela were trying to fill. An open door led into a sitting room, where he saw a table laid with a breakfast of tea, biscuits, jam, and a pitcher of orange juice.
His father and Pamela continued their mumbling. Patrick couldn’t hear all that was being said, but everyone was being so nice, it set his teeth on edge. Patrick thought he saw Diana’s eyes flare when Pamela addressed her once as “Mother Shannon.” Maybe it was just wishful thinking. He kept on waiting for his great grandmother to call him forward, but for some reason she didn’t seem to notice he was there. Finally, he heard her give a weary sigh. She begged their pardon and waved a frail little hand in dismissal. Patrick was disappointed, but he instantly forgave her - she appeared so... tired.
As they were withdrawing from the room she seemed to notice him for the first time. “You must be Patrick,” she said, her voice suddenly light and gentle. “Will you stay with an old woman awhile?” She patted the bed.
Despite the gentle tone, the look in her eyes made
the request seem a command. As he stepped forward he heard the door
close and they were alone. He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed,
leery that his weight might disturb old, aching bones. But a sudden
transformation came over her as he sat. She seemed to drop decades
when the door shut, and she sat straight up, plumped the pillows
behind her, made herself comfortable, then turned the full force of
her personality on him.
“I wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your letters, Patrick dear,” she said.
He flushed and mumbled a “Yes’m,” feeling guilty because his letters had been few and mostly abrupt scrawls.
“When last you wrote, you were reading Mr. Dumas, I believe. The Count of Monte Cristo, was it not? What did you think?”
Now, Patrick felt on steady terrain. “It was wonderful, Great-Grandmother Sh-“
“Just call me Grandmother Shannon, dear,” she admonished. “The other is too long, and I am much too old to wait for people to get it out.”
“Yes’m. Anyway, that’s a book a fellow can really tuck into. And read again and again.”
“All of it?”
“Well... the first half, really. The rest kinda dribbles on and is sort of silly with all those years he went missing and got mysterious. It was like two books, with the second one not so good. But the first part, when he’s in prison with that old man, who teaches him all he knows...”
His voice trailed off as he realized he was prattling on like a baby. Grandmother Shannon, however, gave his hand a squeeze that told him she was enjoying his observations. “What are you on to now?”
He said he liked some of Mr. Dickens, and Typee, by Mr. Melville, and all he could set his hands on of Mr. Poe. Hawthorne was all right, but in his opinion he lacked fire. Not like James Fenimore Cooper. Now, there was a writer! Hawkeye and frightened settlers. Indians creeping through the forest to take a man’s scalp.
“Have you read no women?” she asked. “Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, as a for-instance?”
The mention of this great blasphemer’s name rocked him. No such book would ever be allowed in his father’s house. Patrick had a secret yen to read it, but was afraid to say so. So he ducked behind shyness for shelter and shook his head no.
“You should,” Grandmother Shannon said. “As for Mr. Cooper, he is fine for a stirring yarn. But that is all they are: yarns. With little truth to them.”
He gaped: The Great Mister Cooper in error? That was a blow. But his great grandmother should know - according to his father she had lived on the frontier for many years. He waited, breathless... Would she tell him anything of her adventures?
Instead, she asked: “Are you a terror, Patrick?” The question stunned him, and he flushed, mumbling he didn’t think so. “James Emmett was a terror,” she said. “From the moment he was born... he was a terror. And a terror he remained. But he was a good shot. He was also good at hiding from Indians - a valuable talent in Cherry Valley in those days. We all became skilled at that.”
Patrick’s mind was swimming: His grandfather a good shot when he was a boy! Hiding from Indians! This was thrilling news. He assured his great-grandmother he was an excellent shot himself, although he wanted some teaching on hiding and tracking and such things. But if she needed something shot, then Patrick was her man. She only had to point it out.
Then he forgot all this in a flash as she started telling him a tale of his grandfather when he was a boy on the frontier. He laughed, and she told him other things: the pranks, the scrapes, the hidings he got, the ones he escaped. And she told a few of his great-uncle Farrell Shannon’s adventures, which didn’t have the same style but were grand just the same. He’d never met either man - they’d died long before he was born - but as she talked they came alive and trooped about her room as if they were boys his own age. Near the end she told him about Brian, and how her stepson was slain while James Emmett was still in her belly. Patrick nearly lapsed into tears at this story, but held them back in manly disdain.
But he couldn’t fool his great grandmother. She squeezed his hand and said tears were God’s blessing to the Irish. They came as easily as the temper, and might serve to wash away anger’s sin.
It was the first of many tale-telling sessions in that room. Before she was done, Patrick would hear the entire history of the Shannon clan in this country, from the old pikeman who admonished his great-grandfather Emmett to read if he did nothing else with his life, to the origins of all the cousins who would soon arrive in Vicksburg.
As the days unfolded he would learn the story of how she met Emmett, who had deserted the army at Valley Forge for the sake of his motherless children languishing on the New York frontier. How she escaped indenture to join him on his wilderness trek, and how they fell in love and were wed by an old Indian. Then, just short of his goal, Emmett was killed by raiders and Diana was left alone at sixteen to raise his sons and the child who was his grandfather. He would hear how Diana had conquered odds and survived bloody Indian raids so the Shannon family could survive and prosper. How she turned a shack in Cherry Valley into a prosperous inn, and then journeyed to Philadelphia with her sons to conquer that city as well.
Finally, she told him how - after many years alone - she had agreed to marry John Maguire in the guttering flames of war-ravaged Washington. John had been a plantation owner, grown bitter at the southern legacy of slavery. Bolstered by her love he had found the courage to risk the wrath of his family and earned the hatred of his sons and their descendants by freeing his slaves, picking up stakes and traveling to Vicksburg with Diana. Here, Diana had prospered even more, creating a healthy financial foundation for all the Shannons to come.
All she had accomplished and dared, Patrick realized many years later, was because of a promise she had made to Emmett. In a wooded glen she had shouldered the burden of the Shannons and carried it for nearly eighty years.
There was much tragedy in her story, but the grand arc of it was glorious: achievement despite all setbacks and against all odds.
After a time she fell silent, as if a great weariness had overtaken her. He looked about, wondering how he could creep away and leave her in peace. But the little hand squeezed at his again and the light grew back in her eyes. “Would you run a small errand for me, Patrick, dear?”
He said he would, that as a runner of errands he had no match, once he fixed his mind to it. She laughed a little, then coughed slightly and touched her chest. “I’m feeling a trifle congestive, dear. There is a medicine a friend of mine makes that relieves the symptoms wonderfully. Will you fetch it for me?”
Patrick said he would, so fast a shadow wouldn’t touch his feet.
“Just out back,” she said, “you’ll see a road along
the bluff. It curves into the wood about a mile and then comes to a
farm. That’s where you’ll find my friend, Daniel. Mr. Daniel Cuffe.
Give him my respects and ask if he would be so kind as to make up a
packet of his special restorative tea... Would you do that for me?”
He got no more than two steps, however, when he turned back shyly. He hesitated, then crossed to her bed. He dared a small peck on her cheek, but a slender arm drew him in and he felt her frail body hugging him close and her heart thundering against the fragile bones of her chest.
She let him go, turning slightly to wipe at an eye. Then she smiled weakly and waved him away. Her eyes closed in drifting sleep. He tiptoed from the room and closed the door softly behind him.
Diana opened her eyes when she heard the door shut. She had only pretended weariness, an art she had practiced since the seizure many months before. The whole thing had started as a means to cover her initial humiliation when she had awakened after weeks of unconsciousness. It was an illness she knew would prove fatal when it struck again. It took her long helpless weeks to recover from the initial effects of the stroke. She knew her mind was as sharp as ever, but she would be suddenly overcome by a great sucking lethargy, drawing her down, down, until she couldn’t speak or move. There was no pain, just a feeling of uselessness that she, of all people, could not bear.
She covered by pretending to sleep until the feeling passed. Actually she slept hardly at all, and even then in snatches. With her eyes closed, people left her to her own thoughts.
Diana did not complain, even to herself. She had never expected to live this long. When John died, after twenty years of shared happiness, she had expected to follow him soon. Not for some glorious meeting beyond - Diana did not relent in her doubts of any sort of an afterlife as the Reaper approached. Actually, as she grew older she had became more impatient with notions of religion.
In many ways she’d seemed to grow stronger after her second husband’s death. Her business senses sharpened, her insights grew deeper. When she reached eighty, she thought... well, it must come soon now and she made suitable arrangements. But eighty passed, and then some. Ninety she hardly noticed at all, although she reworked her will. Then the illness struck and she knew her run was finally over. As she lay there helpless in her bed, she began forming plans that were about to culminate in this gathering of the main threads of her family; all the while fearing she would never recover to put them into play.
She remembered keenly the moment the symptoms fled. There was no one about, not even Kitty, who was off to town on business. Suddenly she felt alert. She slipped out of bed, still weak from the long confinement. She wobbled to the verandah doors and flung them open. The air was so cool upon her flesh, it felt like the waters of the little brook where she and Emmett had first made love. She drank the air in and it was so rich and sweet that you could taste it, like a fine wine. But just as she thought all was normal again, the lethargy crept up on her and she barely had strength to get back to the safety of her pillows.
At that moment she thought of Patrick. She had never seen her great-grandson’s face, the result of her love for Emmett. And what of the others: all those Shannons spread across the land? It was no old woman’s conceit that their very existence was due to her. She longed to see how things had worked out. If not well, she supposed she would be a little sorry. But it would not spoil her last moments.
Diana knew her many failures easily matched her victories. After ninety years, however, only she was left alive to keep the score. And it did not look so bleak from such a great distance. Still, she needed to see for herself.
So she’d lain in her bed and plotted and word went by packet and train and telegraph key to all the Shannons to gather at her home on the high buff-colored bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. That Patrick was the first to arrive was a happy accident. Diana felt a little guilty for playing her game of feigning tiredness and then sleep on the child. But it was necessary.
After the rest of the family arrived she would have her lawyer, Mr. Levy, drop the cannon shell regarding a new will. Exactly what she would do after that depended on the boy. This was why she had sent him off... not on an errand, as she’d claimed, but to be tested. If he passed, she would be pleased, of course, but not so pleased that she wouldn’t pose a few more. Except these wouldn’t be tests so much as an education, Diana Shannon style.
The schooling had to be quick, because she had
almost no time left. All she could hope was a little would stick
enough to serve him the rest of his life.
Her heart had thundered so loudly, she’d found it difficult to pay much attention to her grandson Edward, or to that woman he’d married... Pamela. She could tell Patrick disliked his stepmother. Poor Edward. He was the unsurprising product of one of her life’s great disappointments - James Emmett, her only natural-born son. For a short time she’d thought Edward might be saved when he’d married Patrick’s mother. She’d been a sensible woman, just beginning to influence her husband when she died. Obviously, from the news Diana’d had over the years and the foolish, grasping visits her grandson paid on and off, none of it had taken. Then he had wed Pamela, which had seemed to end whatever hope he might have had.
Patrick was another matter. From what she’d heard, the child had been difficult, which was understandable. It would have been hard for any youngster to accept a new mother after many years with only a father for company. Diana had written to Patrick since he was very young and laughed at the infrequent replies in a hand that matured from little scrawls to something steadier and almost legible. She’d watched his mind mature as well in those notes. He seemed to have an odd, catch-as-catch-can education, not unlike herself nearly eight decades ago. His self schooling appeared to be a broth of boys’ adventures, mixed with great literature, with a little Plutarch and Paine stirred in.
Now she had urgent business to tend to that might or
might not center on her great-grandson. She had a small empire to
dispense, either to split into many parts or to remain under the
single banner of the Shannon she might choose to head it. If the
latter, the family fortune might serve to buffer the people she left
The opposite, however, was the current rage: money above all else, prospects of instant wealth which required no sweat of brawn or brain. The new American dream was a heady liquor that clouded the eye and numbed the senses. Diana thought the country had become a nation of compulsive travelers, all looking for accommodations at the same time. Like the weary traveler, nobody seemed to care a whit for any but his own immediate needs.
She heard a bird call from the window and thought it might be a whippoorwill. Her old friend Ann Walsh would have known, although she would have wanted to look it up in a book rather than dare the woods. It was tame in these parts at present, but there were still cougar about, and bear, snakes and swarms of alligators in the swamps and krills. It hadn’t been like that when she’d first came to Vicksburg. In fact, there hadn’t even been a Vicksburg then.
The place was called Walnut Hill. The modern town was born out of a squabble over land. Mr. Vicks, who’d laid out the lots that were to become the Vicksburg of today, had died leaving ten children and no will. The resulting battle had lasted nearly twenty years and was finally settled in the family’s favor, hence the city’s name, by a judge almost as wise in the ways of the law as he’d been to choose one of the Vicks women for his mate.
Diana was now attempting to avert a similar battle for the Shannons.
None of the people in the area’s history were particularly far-seeing to believe there was a rich life to be made here. The town lay at the confluence of two rivers, the Mississippi and the Yazoo. No traffic could pass the high bluffs if those who held the heights said nay and backed it up with shot and shell. A further blessing was the soil and climate that made all growth startlingly quick. Crops would flourish nearly year-round. It was this twin gift that had helped make her life with John so complete. The river with its commerce became her drink, the bountiful soil, John’s meat.
She and John Maguire came to Vicksburg as man and wife two years after the war with England ended. Those whose fortunes or place in history depended on it claimed a great victory in that war. They crowed like young bucks who had just breached an unwary tavern maid, strutting about waving the bloody sheets as triumphant banners. The real victory was a dry parchment scratched out at Ghent, and it could have been won many times before at less cost. Perhaps the war had been what the nation needed, Diana thought - some great feat to prove to the world its worth. Still, truth suffered.
She’d witnessed many of the events and knew the men involved, as well as their wives and families - from the president, down. The alleged victors, however, had recast any fact that discredited them and ordered up statues for the town squares. All who opposed them were branded cowards or worse. It was Diana’s view that out of this had risen a new political system that Adams couldn’t see but Monroe swiftly caught: perception mattered more than truth. Truth satisfied few, but perception could be bent to please any number of people. If someone still claimed blindness, you could help him see by bribing him with a post office, a printing or military contract, or with a position skimming the tariffs at a customs shed. Most sought after of all were banks, which offered presidential cronies a whole tangle of opportunity for graft.
After the war, Diana had determined to get a little happiness for herself and John in the remaining years of their lives. This required a bit of selfishness. The Shannon family had to rely on its resources and Diana had to relinquish some control.
Her stepson Farrell had not mellowed with age and was all but useless, even an obstruction. But he had also become more dependent on his wife, Connie. After so many years of following Diana’s orders, there was not much difficulty or danger in handing the reins of the Philadelphia portion of her business to her. Over the years Connie had proven more able than even Diana had hoped. They had communicated constantly by letter, but even with this delay, Connie would often arrive at the same conclusion as her mother-in-law and acted before the missive arrived. Connie had also been wise in her choice of managers, and was as fussy as a shepherd over the care, feeding, and education of the Shannons. This was fortunate. Times had not become simpler. If anything, they were riskier and more complex: what was wisdom one day became foolishness the next.
As Diana expected, the war’s end triggered a crash. In New York alone thirteen thousand were paupered. People reeled from the tentative unity they had been forced to forge during the war. They buried themselves in their own troubles and cast blame on outsiders. What followed set the course of events to this very day, with the same issues chewed into mush and the same bits of grit to test the teeth. Some people became newly religious, but it was the mean sort, where charity was only issued with absolute doctrine, and those few pious ones with any claim to intelligence insisted that a new order would arise from the current pain. They said the bad times were a sign America had a divine mission to spread Republicanism and peace to the world. Meanwhile, factories went empty, fields unplowed. Whole city streets were turned into pawnshops and secondhand stores filled with stolen goods. Diana thought the South had become an even a greater wasteland than before, squandering its cotton money on imported goods and refusing to build industry to match the burgeoning North.
Meanwhile, disease and hard winters held the nation in a terrible grip. Churches split and split again, each preaching different truths from the same gospel. Presbyterians praised slavery in the South and damned it in the North. Old alliances were destroyed and new ones formed, only to crack and be reassembled anew. Powerful men were broken on these racks, while others turned their misfortune into glorious cash.
There were booms in the middle of all this. But all of them contained fatal flaws. Industry burst across the land, with thousands of factories built, canals dug, new states and territories opened. But cities were stinkpots, where a factory girl might be required to invest savings equal to a week’s pay for a promised steady job, then be fired as soon as the trial period ended and a new girl brought in with fresh funds. Immigrants, fleeing great lost causes in Europe, swamped the system. Some brought valued skills - masons, mechanics, farmers, and breeders. Others brought odd ideas, some frightening because they questioned the entire system.
Many were so ignorant - such as Diana’s peasant Irish cousins, who came by the thousands - they served mainly as a never empty pool of cheap labor. The population burst upward, from twelve million to over thirty, with nearly a third foreign born. And all the while the beckoning western frontier kept retreating until there was only an ocean left. Now the Union itself stretched to the Sandwich Islands and beyond.
Diana had been a businesswoman for nearly eighty years. She’d made her first dollar when all was a wilderness and a king still claimed the land. As her time came to an end, she felt well-qualified to judge. And as one of the few surviving members of the first generation of Americans, she somehow felt duty-bound to do so. To her disappointment, her conclusion was that the America she was about to depart was certainly not the America she and her revolutionary sisters and brothers had envisioned when they were attending the birth.
When Diana arrived in Vicksburg she saw great opportunity in the river that flowed past the bluffs where she and John were building their home. She’d gambled a portion of her fortune on the route that goods from the newly-opened West would take. The gamble paid off handsomely and now steam boats regularly cruised the Mississippi, carrying those goods to New Orleans and places beyond. The packets reigned supreme for more than forty years, and they still might have a little in them until enough railroads were built to snatch the rest away.
John loved to farm, and he was good at it, growing corn and beans and all kinds of good things that always had a market no matter what the fortunes were of other crops like cotton and tobacco. Diana left this to him, while she concentrated on the river. Diana had a wonderful time, becoming a partner in many enterprises, but avoided risk by being sole owner of few. Many years ago, for example, when she still ran her small empire from Philadelphia, she helped men and women build salt works on the other side of the Appalachians, freeing them from the tyranny of the Eastern traders. After her arrival in Mississippi, she had helped these same folk to expand their business with new boilers, then provided equipment to turn the salt into soda.
Now, she sent shipments of oil of vitriol upriver to the salt manufacturers. They mixed the oil with the salt, fired it, and it came back again in a new form. She sent this East, via New Orleans, where it was transformed into all sorts of marvelous things, the least of which were Epsom Salts or sparkling soda water with a refreshing bite that was delicious plain or mixed with fruit syrup.
Despite her concerns for the nation, the many problems it faced had lately taken on an unreal hue to Diana. She would be gone soon, and people would work it out or they wouldn’t. In a way, Diana was past caring, because she had survived everyone she’d known and loved from her generation... and most of the next.
Dolly Madison had died, the ward of Congress, beggared by her only son. In her last days she was only known as a great hostess from gentler times, not as the heroine Diana had seen that terrible day the British came to burn down the President’s House.
Her stepson Farrell had died in his bed, a little mad at the end, babbling obscenities and cursing the priest who was trying to comfort him.
Connie had lived until just ten years ago, vibrant and startlingly funny to the end. Her youngest daughter, Susan, had taken over and was coming to Vicksburg with the other Shannons.
Everyone, including Diana, expected James Emmett would die in a duel over a whore or a hand of cards. Her son worked harder at enjoying life than any man she had ever met. But surprisingly, he and his wife had died in a visit to New Orleans not long before Patrick was born. Cholera, not a jealous husband’s bullet, had taken him before his time.
With such a parent, Edward had not much hope. Diana knew he had all the failings of his father, but wasn’t sure if he had any of James Emmett’s graces, such as the laugh that could disarm a regiment of debt collectors.
Patrick had inherited that laugh. Would the boy also develop James Emmett’s sense of fun? She wished she could have recognized it more when James was small and thought of a way to direct it.
Yes, that would be nice, Diana, dear, she told herself. But it is too late for regrets. Hadn’t John, her lovely John, taught her how senseless it was to take all the burden upon herself?
He used to tell her in her bleakest moods if she had failed - which he strongly doubted - it was because she had dared too much. And was that really such an awful thing? Then he would kiss her, and caress her, and...Diana laughed aloud. She felt a stirring in her loins, and it was funny to be ninety two and still feel it and funnier still to think of all the turmoil it had caused in her mind for so many years. Men were not alone in their silly obsessions. How much had she gone through for what amounted to a little dimple her maker had pinched in the clay below her navel?
She was honestly weary now. The curtain moved in a soft breeze. She would sleep a bit. In a little while, Patrick would be back and she would need all the energy she could muster.
As she fell asleep, his face rose up in her mind. What a handsome lad! Wouldn’t Emmett have been proud?
|Last Revised: January 29, 2011|