Seth II - Caroline
Chapter 1: 1913
Copyright© 2015 by Bill Offutt
"Imagine," Seth said in a hoarse whisper, bending toward his wife's right ear, her better ear, "just imagine what he would have said." He fanned them both with his straw hat, and he chuckled deep in his throat.
The silver-haired woman beside him shook her head and smiled as the band managed to stop more or less together at the end of its fifth or sixth rendition of "Maryland, My Maryland." She looked about in the milling and impatient crowd, often meeting cold stares or feigned indifference when she caught someone's eye. Because of her leadership in the local suffrage movement she was reasonably well known in the community; her circle of acquaintances now much larger that her reticent husband's. "Let's move into the shade," she said, pulling on her lean man's arm.
They had been waiting for nearly an hour in the bright, June sunshine, and she wished she had brought her parasol or a wider-brimmed hat. She flapped the printed program below her chin and repressed some unkind thoughts conjured up by Seth's remark. A lot of water over the dam, she thought and smiled at that trite phase, the kind of thing she scrupulously avoided.
"Don't see a black face in the crowd, nor many friendly ones either," he said, elbowing his way through with many touches of his hat brim to those he passed and pardoning himself as he made his way toward the jumbled roots of a big elm. "Do you?"
"Just the usual workers," said his wife, pointing with her makeshift fan, "and a few loafers, the usual bunch, the cigar chewers and cud spitters." She took a deep breath, scattering from her consciousness images of the town when it was much younger, before the trolley cars, even before the railroad.
"Always somebody sitting on that wall. Think they live there." Seth chuckled as a covey of youngsters raced past, ignoring the sticky heat. Four Rebs whooping after one Bluebelly it seemed, give-away yardsticks as flailing weapons.
Despite sudden bereavement, painful setbacks, public slights and bitter disappointments, Caroline Williams remained an unusually positive person. People joked that she could find a good side to a broken leg. "Lawn looks fine," she now said with a sigh. "Right fine."
Seth nodded, pleased to be in the mottled shade on this warm afternoon, made even hotter by the press of over-dressed bodies and by the excitement of the long-awaited occasion. He steadily hoped for a vagrant breeze, glancing up at the limp leaves above them.
The Damascus band began to play again with many deep, helicon-generated oompahs and bass drum thumps. A few old-timers weakly cheered a barely recognizable "Bonnie Blue Flag." Of course, thought Caroline, they might be cheering that it was not "Maryland, My Maryland" again. She was tempted to say it and put her tongue in her cheek.
"Car-oline Williams," cried a shrill voice behind the gray-haired couple. "I do declare. Mighty surprised to see you all here."
"Mrs. Mason, " said Seth forcing a smile to his face and lifting his straw hat as he turned, "how are you keeping this warm day?"
The woman sniffed and ignored him, yanking her soiled hem aside. "Well," she said, looking about for support, "some folks have a lot of nerve." She stalked away, chin high, wattles fluttering, her impressive prow parting the crowd as one of the Navy's new battleships might cleave the waves.
"Pay no attention," Caroline said, feeling her husband tense beside her. "We are not the only loyal people here."
"But we are few, my dear, outnumbered and outgunned," Seth said, bending to put that thought in his wife's ear. He noted the simple earbob she had chosen, admiring again her classic profile and freckled skin, enjoying her soapy smell, feeling a stirring of long-remembered lust.
"Here they come," his wife said, rising on tip-toe and swallowing the word 'finally' as the dignitaries trooped from the red-brick courthouse, hurried down the steps and moved toward the raw wood platform, an ill-spaced line of dark-suited, bare-headed men and brightly dressed, ornately-hatted women with sashes from frilly shoulder to opposite hip. A bent man in Confederate gray hobbled along behind them and quickly took his seat, gripping his palsied hands on his knobby knees. His shapeless slouch hat shadowed his be-whiskered face. A multi-beribboned badge hung amid the pewter buttons on his sunken chest.
"You suppose that's Tschiffely?" Seth squinted and shaded his eyes.
"No, no," said his patient wife, studying the old man's pose and thinking how she might paint it, "but he's right spry." Black and gray, she thought, no color at all except the blue veins and purple blotches on the back of his hands. Wish I had my sketchpad. She suppressed another sigh, and squinted, trying to fix the image in her mind.
"I still find it hard to believe," Seth whispered. He pressed his thin lips together and shook his head, remembering the distant war, the horror that had passed by them like a hot wind. It had left him deeply seared but nearly destroyed his brother. He took a deep breath, clenched his teeth, felt a twinge in his jaw and tried to relax, probing with his tongue.
Judge Peter stepped to the front of the flower bedecked platform and raised both arms high, turning his big body from side to side and showing his small teeth and manly profile. "Friends," he cried, "Friends!" He jabbed a finger impatiently at the high school band's hard-working director, finally got his attention, and waved his hands from side to side. The tootling and drumming ground to an uneven stop like an untended Victrola.
"My dear friends, fellow patriots, good citizens of M'gomery County," cried the judge in his fancy waistcoat and long tailed suit, his heavy gold watch chain flashing in the dappled sunlight. He cleared his throat and looked as if he might want to spit. "First I must tell you that Colonel Jones is unable to get up here and be with us today. I know you are disappointed," he said to the murmur that spread back and forth like pond ripples, "but he is here in spirit you can be sure and sent us a message of congratulation and good wishes." He waved a telegram form and then folded it into his pocket to conceal its blankness.
"Nigger lover," a man hissed at Seth as he elbowed past in his stale-smelling, going-to-church suit, collarless shirt and orange-colored, thick-soled, high-laced boots. His foul odor lingered behind him, musty and moldy, like a long-abandoned chicken coop.
"Blue-belly," squawked the man's hefty wife as she followed him, holding his hand and making a sour face at both Seth and Caroline. A sleeping infant wearing a crocheted cap lay on her sweat-stained chest. Neither of the adults was old enough to have been alive during the unforgotten conflict.
"I wasn't aware so many people knew you," Caroline whispered, pressing a friendly hip against Seth as the crowd grew denser. She gave him a gentle elbow and a smile. Many people were abandoning the shade of storefronts and elderly trees, flowing toward the bunting-covered speakers' stand and the tall, draped statue in the middle of the street. Dozens of the women carried light-colored parasols, and a vast majority of the men wore straw boaters or ventilated panamas. The shining streetcar tracks that ran right down the middle of the street quickly disappeared under a multitude of feet while the trolley line's electric wires hummed above the eager mob.
Lee Offutt, Rockville's pompous mayor, had finished his florid but mercifully-brief remarks, most of which the intermittent breeze had blown away. Now one of the leaders of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group mainly responsible for raising the statue as well as for planning the ceremony, was orating in a reedy quaver, reading from stiff sheets of paper that kept flapping in her violet-gloved hand like a trapped bird. Her broad, one-armed gestures reminded Seth of the recent nickelodeon films he had seen in Washington, and he stifled a laugh. The woman appeared to be tossing invisible bouquets into the humid air.
The scent of fresh-mowed grass, horse droppings and human sweat filled the late-spring afternoon. Even though most in the crowd could not hear the speakers very well, words such as "bravery" and "sacrifice" were repeated so often by the various orators that everyone got the message. The unquestioned valor of the young men who had gone to Virginia a half-century ago to fight for the "lost cause" was being honored, and many a gray head was uncovered and bowed when a moment of silence was requested; broken only by the metallic squeal of children and the endless buzz of cicadas.
Finally, came one more wheezing version of "Dixie" from the sweating band members in their wrinkled maroon uniforms. All were sure they had played it at least twelve times already. Then a small troop of Confederate veterans' grandchildren, looking as if they were dressed for a May procession or first communion at nearby St. Mary's church, marched from the courthouse doorway and encircled the stone pedestal, elbowing each other for position. Each child grabbed a dangling loop of bright new rope as one of the women stage-whispered, "Wait, wait."
The drums rattled, the cymbal crashed, and at that signal, the children pulled, more or less together. The canvas covering slowly fell away, hooked briefly on the jutting sword hilt, to reveal a proud cavalryman, arms folded and shaded eyes looking unflinchingly toward the distant Potomac.
Applause filled the courthouse lawn and the graveled streets of the county seat, but attempts to send up three cheers faded quickly in confusion, as did an oddly echoing rebel yell which seemed to originate in a shaded alleyway. The milling crowd, making hundreds of ohs and ahs, surged closer for a good look at the tall Confederate Monument and to read the chiseled inscription.
"By damn if it don' look jus' like Gib Peter," cried a gray-haired man, pointing with his malacca cane. "The spittin' image."
"Shoot," said another, "it's ole Lije White, right down to his bow legs."
"Tain't neither," said a younger man, feeling free to butt in. "Spencer Jones tole me he posed for it. Tole me hisself. How y'like that?"
The children danced about flailing at each other with rope ends, and the ladies of the UDC stood together like a flock of tame ducks, accepting congratulations, their faces flushed and their summer dresses damp under the arms and across their broad backs.
The few veterans present, septuagenarians of rival armies, thought their thoughts and rubbed at their rheumy eyes, eager to find the nearest privy or coldest beer. Some read the inscription aloud as they paused before the manly trooper with the long sword. Many shook their heads, and more than a few nodded their approval.
"Shore looks well-fed," an old man noted with a smile, tobacco juice at the corner of his lips.
"Cav-a-ree," said his wizened friend who had served in the other army, a quartermaster clerk."you 'member: ain' nobody ever seed a dead one." He wheezed out a shuddering chuckle.
"I tell you it's that fuggin' Peter boy," croaked a grizzled farmer with his cheek distended. "Didn' I know him? Went t'damn near ever' bar in Georgetown wif him an' that damn fool piss-ant Orton."
"It ain't not," said his lean neighbor, poking his chest with a bony forefinger. "Spozed to be Ridge Brown from over there in Mechanicsville. Look at the blasted sign, y'ole fool." He pointed to the Daughters' silk banner on the podium.
"I don' give a good goldurn 'bout that bunch a'stuck up hens," said the farmer, shifting his chaw to his other cheek pouch after spitting a brown stream into the gutter, "that there's young Gib t'the eyeballs. Ast the judge if'n y'don' believe me."
Back in the milling crowd and still arm in arm under the shady elm, Caroline and Seth Williams watched the children gambol; two brave ones now had climbed up beside the gleaming statue and were holding cavalryman's sun brightened knees. "It's surely their day," said Seth.
"Has been for some time," his wife replied, holding his forearm close to her side, hard against her firmly-laced corset.
"Let's get on home," Seth said just as someone from across the square called his name.
Out of the jostling crowd emerged lanky Titus Griffith wearing his brand-new suit from Mr. Levy's emporium, a high-collared shirt and a light straw hat sporting a wide band of crimson and cream. "Miz Williams," Titus called, lifting his hat and showing his unruly hair, which he had plastered down as best he could with some sort of dark oil. "Pleased t'see y'all. Ain't it a won'erful day."
Seth shook the young man's offered hand and smiled at the boy's enthusiasm. "It surely is, for some folks, Titus, most folks it seems like."
The young man nodded. "Y'all hear the speeches?"
"Enough," said Seth.
"A good turnout," Caroline said, shading her eyes to look up at the gawky boy, their hired hand for a bit over a year. He seldom failed to amuse her in his puppy-like eagerness.
"Sure was, yes'm. Must a'been two, three thousand folks; half the county," Titus said, waving his long arm toward the red brick courthouse with its blocky tower. "Aw'right if I take the day off, rest a'the day?" he asked. "I promised Melissa." He grinned at the young woman in a bright cotton dress who stood a few feet behind him, fists on hips, tight skirt slit to above her knees, ruffles at her chest and hem.
"Sure," said Seth. "See you in the morning. Chores'll keep."
Griffith leapt back two steps and grabbed his best girl's hand. They quickly disappeared, long-legged Miss Stark holding her straw hat on tightly, high booted toes barely touching the sidewalk.
"Nice girl," said Caroline Williams who was well aware of the young woman's rather tawdry reputation, especially among men who owned fast automobiles.
Seth Williams and his clinging wife made their way along the edges of the dispersing crowd, ignored for the most part, but feeling an occasional displeased or disdainful look. They boarded the second trolley car waiting near the fair grounds since the lead car was already filled to its running boards. During the festivities the streetcars had not run through Rockville so three were stacked up, waiting to return to the distant city along the single-track line. Seth handed the conductor two nickels, and then he and his wife took a wicker seat near the middle of the open car and looked out over the weedy fields. Soon the aisles were filled and several men stood out on the narrow sideboards.
"Fifty years." Seth shook his head in disbelief. "Half a century."
"Not exactly," said his wife. "War started in sixty-one."
"Well," said her lean husband, quite used to being corrected when it came to numbers, "Stuart was right here fifty years ago. We both know that."
"That's so." She dabbed at her hairline with her small kerchief. "And we won't talk about the next summer."
"Lot of water over the dam," he said. His wife blinked at what seemed an echo.
The man sitting in front of them rose a bit and turned to face them, elbow on the wicker seat back. "We ain't forgetting, Williams," he said, waggling a finger toward Seth and his wife. "We ain't never forgettin'."
Seth started to reply, but his Caroline pinched his thigh, and he subsided as the well-dressed man resumed his seat and straightened his straw skimmer, the back of his fresh-shaved neck the color of a ripe plum.
Over-filled, the blue and silver streetcar at the front of the line departed, its troller sparking the overhead wire as it wobbled away between fields of young corn.
"We're next," his wife said quietly, mentally finding her ever-present list of things that needed doing and ticking off two or three.
"Got to allow some headway," Seth said more or less to himself. He looked about at the car filled with people headed south to Montrose, Alta Vista, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Tenallytown and Georgetown. Hundreds had come from all parts of the county and many from the Washington City to see the dedication of the statue in Rockville. He wondered what the newcomers to the area, those now living in the fast-growing suburbs along the District Line, such as Chevy Chase and Somerset, thought of the event and the monument to men who fought against their country.
"We'll get home in time to do some chores," he said.
"Sammy will have done them," said Caroline with a smile, feeling her husband relax, the tenseness flow out of his arm and his breathing slow. "I left him a list." She slowly inhaled and commanded her body to quietude. She pictured again the old veteran's gnarled hands, mentally mixing paints.
"You hope so," Seth said, bumping her shoulder with his and tonguing at his loosened bridgework. "Well, hope so too, but that boy's just not reliable."
"It's your grandson you're talking about, old man," she said, "looks too much like you to deny it no matter how addle-brained you think he is."
The bell dinged twice, the brake released with a clank and the car lurched forward. Standees swayed in the aisle, and Caroline Williams lifted her eyebrow, nudged her husband and nodded at a nearby woman with a small child in tow.
Seth sighed, stood, tipped his hat to the stocky lady and said, "Please, ma'am," nodding toward the now-empty seat.
The woman looked at him coldly and turned her back, pulling her child closer to her side. Seth shrugged, glanced about, saw no other women standing and resumed his place.
"Know her?" his wife asked in a whisper.
He pursed his lips and shook his head, tasting bile.
"Some reputation," Caroline said with a chuckle. "She knows you. Probably read some of your letters-to-the-editor."
A few miles down the tracks, just about five minutes past the place where the electric railway's route left the old turnpike to parallel the much older and less hilly road toward Georgetown, the heavily loaded streetcar eased to a lurching stop at what was known locally as "Williams' station" since in that area the tracks crossed a part of what had been their farm's woodlot. Jealous neighbors spread stories about how much they probably got for the streetcar line's right-of-way. They disembarked and watched the car start again.
Seth took off his collar and bow tie. His wife held his hand and returned to an earlier idea, some undying memories and very old images bright in her mind, especially a green sign with gold lettering.
"What would Robert have thought?"
Seth chortled. "More like, what would he have done?"
"Yes," she said with a cough and a sniff, choking back a laugh. "He might have blown it up."
"Or pulled it down. He's a'done something that's for sure, raised hell at least, got arrested," Seth said. "Maybe he'd a'painted it blue."
"Were you tempted?"
"Nope, nope," he said, after thinking for a moment and kicking a stone from the path. "I really wasn't."
"But," said Caroline, squeezing his free hand, "it means they've won."
"Fight isn't over." Seth pushed his straw hat to the back of his head, raising his arms to the pugilist's pose, shuffling his feet and trying to look belligerent with his collar and tie flapping from one fist.
His wife of nearly forty years laughed and put her hand to her mouth.
"I'm serious," he said, dropping his arms.
Worry briefly creased Caroline Williams brow, but her husband did not see that since he was hurrying ahead, intent on finding out if his Holsteins were in the barn and if they had been properly milked and the milk carefully stored for the morning pickup.
We've won, too, Caroline thought, exhaling. We've survived.