Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Songs of the Shenandoah by Michael Reynolds

Songs of the Shenandoah
B&H Books (January 1, 2014)
Michael Reynolds

Chpater 1 - Excerpt

Christmas in Manhattan
Manhattan, New York
December 1860

Clare had been anticipating this moment for more than a decade.

It was to be the most glorious Christmas dinner of her life, with her cherished guests about to arrive, and she was intent on making every detail of her hospitality an expression of the profound love she felt for her family.

After all of this time and separated by so many distant miles of untamed territories, they would be home at last.

She stepped back, raised her hand to her chin, and considered the placement of the candles that were set in brass holders, tied with golden ribbons, and placed on a red silk runner, which went down the center and spilled over the sides of a long cherry table.

The flames rising from the wicks and those emanating from wood crackling in the marble-framed fireplace combined to light up the spacious dining room and cause shadowy figures to shift on the walls between painted portraits and landscapes.

The pine boughs she had weaved so delicately on the shelving
and mantelpiece of the room smelled of fresh-cut evergreen. These scents blended with those from the mistletoe arranged on the table and the potpourri simmering in a copper kettle at the foot of the fire, providing a festive symphony of Christmastime aromas.

Garret, with his black tussle of curls, had his back to her, his knees perched on the bay-window ledge, fogging up the glass as he waited anxiously for the arrival of relatives he had known only through letters and photographs.

Standing beside Clare, her sister polished the crystal drinking glasses around the table with the aid of a napkin. The flickering candlelight splashed delicately on Caitlin’s face, who at thirty years with her long, wavy blond hair, high cheekbones, and fair complexion appeared much younger.

“This one is quite chipped.” Caitlin held the glass up to Clare.

“If you look closely, you’ll see they all have their blemishes, I am afraid. Much the same as me.” Clare reached down and picked up one of the china dishes. “Look at these poor fellows. If they survive this . . . last supper, it will be only due to God’s mercy.”

Clare held up one of the silver knives, tarnished beyond repair, and sighed. “Oh to see what has become of all of this! If Andrew’s mother were still with us, she would no doubt have good reason to lecture her daughter-in-law. A sad caretaker of the Royce empire I have proven to be.”

Caitlin plucked the piece of silverware from her sister’s hand and laid it in its proper place on the table. “These are different times. Troubling times. There is victory in . . . just maintaining our position.”

“What I would do to maintain. What a glorious ring that word has to it. No, we slip further with each day.” Clare glanced at her fingertips. “And I have calluses to prove how precipitously we hang on.”

The harmonies of well-sung Christmas songs wafted through the window. “What’s this I hear?” Clare headed to the window.

“Ma,” Garret said, without turning. “There’s carolers coming.”

“What a welcome sound to our evening.” Caitlin nodded to her sister to join them.

“Enough fussing about the cutlery.” Clare squeezed her son’s shoulder. “I should be ashamed to be bantering about such things on this of all evenings.”

The three of them peered out the window, smiles warming their faces as they gazed through the misty veil of the falling snow. There, under the gaslight, was a gathering of seven sharply dressed singers, the women in bonnets and colorful dresses and the men sporting tall hats and tailored coats. Each stood closely together and were wrapped tightly in scarfs as steam rose with each Yuletide verse they sang.

As she savored the words and muted melodies of the song, Clare whispered a prayer of thanks for this neighborhood she lived in and this house, a fieldstone two-story structure that despite sorely needing new paint still rose above the others on her block.

“Should we go outside?” Garret turned and smiled sweetly, but his eye had swollen even more in the past hour, and it was darkening.

Clare had almost forgot about his fight earlier in the day with the boys at the park. “Oh, that looks dreadful, son.” She put her hand on his cheek. “If only you had the sense to ignore them and just walk away.”

“You know I won’t allow them to speak of you and Da so unkindly.”

“What did they say to you?” Caitlin asked. “I hadn’t heard.”

Garret looked to Clare for permission to answer, which she grudgingly provided with a nod.

“They don’t like Ma’s writing in the newspaper.” He turned to face the window, his freckled cheeks reflecting in the glass.

“They say she hates her own people and wishes she was a Negro slave.”

“Who said these horrible words?” Her eyes wide, Caitlin looked to Clare. “You should have told those . . . dreadful whelps . . . that your dear mother has been the greatest gift to the Irish this city has ever laid eyes on. No one has done more for her people than—Oh my, who is that precious little girl playing in the snow?”

Clare peered outside and her entire body tensed. She tapped her knuckles on the window. “Ella Royce! You come in here immediately.”

Garret looked back with his mouth agape. “Ma, you’re going to scare away the carolers.”

In a few moments the front door snapped open and Clare’s daughter entered the dining room with guilty and moist steps, her brown hair flecked with snow and her face ruby red from the cold. Ella was wearing only a blue cotton dress, and she had a latticed
apron folded up to hold some concealed items that appeared precious to her.

Clare propped her palms on her waist. “What a sight is this! Your clothes are all but ruined and you most assuredly have caught a chill. And what . . . what are you hiding there?”

The child shook her head and appealed to her aunt Cait with sappy brown eyes for some sort of support, which, as always, she was all too willing to provide.

Caitlin bent over and carefully opened the girl’s apron and peeked in. “Well if those aren’t the most well-formed snowballs I’ve ever seen. May I?” When Ella nodded, Caitlin pulled out one of the white frozen orbs and held it up with reverence as if it were hand chipped from marble.

“Do you know the effort we’ve gone to get this house and you decorated in the spirit of Christmas?” Clare glared at her sister who had her hands to her lips, her mouth threatening to open in laughter. “And you are villain as well for your encouragement.”

Clare turned to her daughter. “Now what madness would cause you to go out in the storm . . . dressed as such, and bring those . . . snowballs into this home, young lady?”

Ella bit her lip and glanced over to her brother and then Caitlin. “I fetched them for Garret. It will make his eye feel better.”

The words pierced Clare’s matronly scowl, and she rubbed her hand on her face. Then she bent down with a deep breath of apology and kissed Ella on her head. “And that, my kind heart, is why we named you after your grandmama.”

She glanced back out the window to see if the carolers remained, but they had moved on and the snow now drifted down in heavy flakes with the flutter of butterflies. “Oh dear, I hope it will be safe to travel. To come all of the way from California, thousands of miles, only to perish in the streets of New York City on their way from the harbor.”

“Seamus, the mountain man turned pastor, and young Davin the famed gold miner?” Caitlin exchanged a look with Clare and they both laughed. “How could they stray? One finds lost souls and the other lost treasures.”

“We certainly could use strengthening of both our faith and fortunes.” Clare glanced at the clock on the wall. “Andrew, Andrew, my dear husband, why are you taking so long?”

Just at that moment, a clamor came from the front entrance way and both of the children went running for the door.

“Oh my, they are here.” Clare fanned her face with her hand, suddenly feeling flush.

Clare entered the hallway just as Andrew walked in through the door, his tall frame bent over while toting two large cases, with a smaller one tucked under his arm. He lumbered over and set them down noisily, then he removed his round spectacles, swept his hand through his blond hair, and shook snow from it to the floor.

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