(excerpt from Chapter 62 of Blind Tribute)
December 25, 1864
Harry watched the snowfall outside the front window, the setting sun obscured by a billowing grey fog. The blaze in the parlor fireplace pushed back feebly against the cold seeping through the crack in the glass, so he closed the shabby red brocade curtains.
Pine branches on the mantelpiece had scented the air for days, reminding Harry of the unwelcome smell of pitch, so when Mrs. Boyne left to spend Christmas Day with her daughter and son-in-law, Harry had immediately set them out at the curb, hoping it would put an end to the nightmares chasing him ever since she’d started decorating. She had tried to suggest a Christmas tree, but he’d pointed out that the only place for one would be the parlor, and there wouldn’t be room enough for his business associates and a tree. Still, the odor had lingered, mixed with the vanilla and cinnamon of the dozens of cookies, cakes, and pies Mrs. Boyne had been baking for weeks. He had a plate of fruitcake at hand, which he had no intention of eating, to enjoy with the tea she’d left, stone cold in the pot.
He had been invited to spend the day with at least a dozen of his friends and family, including Fleur and Gil, Jim Calvin, and Dax’s friends at the Vulture’s Roost, who were organizing a poker tournament with men who weren’t much for Christian holidays. John Hoyt had invited him to New York. The Misses Hickman had asked him to the boardinghouse. Mrs. Boyne’s daughter had asked him personally. Even Billy O’Riordan’s mother had sent an invitation, about five minutes after she’d received his note offering to arrange Billy’s attendance at her choice of exclusive private high schools, upon which Harry would be happy to advise.
He’d spent the last few days making the rounds of his friends and acquaintances privately, quietly, regretting the few Society invitations trickling in for the first time since 1860, and avoiding the more casual celebrations of those of lesser means.
He’d bought the finest fountain pens and imported liquor from Europe for his colleagues, filled sacks of gold coins for anyone in need of money, and anonymously provided Christmas groceries for those who would have otherwise made do with scrawny capons instead of goose, beginning with every house on his block. He’d opened an account at a kitchen store for Mrs. Boyne, so she could replace her mismatched pots and pans. For Billy, he’d inscribed a leather-bound dictionary, thesaurus, and atlas, surely making every other copyboy envious about his illustrious mentor, even before they heard about his new school.
He’d seen Fleur and Gil for Christmas Eve supper, at his daughter’s insistence. At first, Harry had declined the invitation, insisting they should enjoy their first holidays together with their friends and the larger part of their family. His attendance had required all of Fleur’s newfound tenacity to accomplish, as he was certain they would be forgoing other entertainments to sit at a lonely, three-person table with him.
He’d finally accepted, a bit too late to be considered gracious, because his throat had been choked with sentiment when he should have spoken. In the ensuing discussion, they’d told Harry that directly following supper, Gil’s family would be coming for the tree-lighting, and they all hoped he would join them. He made no promises, other than to be there for a meal.
Before the festivities, during supper, he presented Fleur with the bronze coffer brought to America with the earliest colonial Wentworth, filled with books Harry had selected from his own library, and the hand-inked seventeen-generation genealogy he’d commissioned with blank space where she could add her own children.
He gave Gil a six-berth pleasure boat and an advance copy of the next Wentworth and Hoyt, noting by next year, he hoped there would be a grandchild upon whom he could shower gifts. He had thought to give Fleur her baby book, hidden away from Anne when he left for Charleston, but decided to wait until she was expecting.
Because Fleur had allowed him no other option, he did join the intimate party afterward, and had brought gifts appropriate to each of Gil’s relatives in attendance. Toward the end of the evening, he’d even arranged for Saint Nicholas to deliver candy and toys to Gil’s nieces and nephews and young cousins. Once the children had been given their gifts, they established with the actor he’d hired that they had all been exceptionally good, and confirmed that this visit wasn’t in place of the one each child hoped for later at their houses. Rushing Old St. Nick out of the house to be on his way, they soon began whining at their parents that they wanted to go home. Harry took his leave during the exodus of a dozen people with whom he’d spent a surprisingly lovely evening.
Today, however, would be a true day of rest, which always required solitude. He knew he needed to consider how to address General Sherman’s despicable show of force, as well as the fact that his family, friends, and colleagues were still spread out across the Confederacy, about to be trampled by the annals of history, if they hadn’t been already. But he was determined to enjoy his day, aside from the usual intrusive ruminations.
He didn’t intend to write. He didn’t intend to answer the felicitations sent by cable, nor the post from readers and associates worldwide. He didn’t even intend to read the newspaper. He would do nothing today but drink the hundred-sixteen-year-old Clos du Griffier Vieux cognac he’d imported as his own Christmas present, and enjoy the silence of an empty house. Long since overdue.
He didn’t intend, as he was about to pour his brandy, to be interrupted by loud banging on the front door.
© 2017 Mari Anne Christie. All Rights Reserved
As America marches toward the Civil War, Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, finds his calls for peaceful resolution have fallen on deaf—nay, hostile—ears. As such, he must finally resolve his own moral quandary: comment on the war from his influential—and safe—position in Northern Society, or make a news story and a target of himself South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in a city haunted by a life he has long since left behind?
The day-to-day struggle against countervailing forces, his personal and professional tragedies on both sides of the conflict, and the elegant and emotive writings that define him, all serve to illuminate the trials of this newsman’s crusade, irreparably altering his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man. Blind Tribute exposes the shifting stones of the moral high ground as Harry’s family and friendships, North and South, are shattered by his acts of conscience.
Keep up with Mari’s new books and other projects: