Jenny sat on the grassy bank beside the stream, watching a proud mother duck lead her ducklings down the short waterfall. Suddenly she cried out in her childish voice, “Look, Sissy. One of the baby ducks is still way behind. It’ll be left!”
Jenny’s eyes welled up on the verge of tears as Laura softly spoke. “Look, the other ducks have slowed down. Now reach out and get the baby duck that’s being left behind.”
After gently lifting the soft yellow duck in her small chubby hands, Jenny placed the duckling by its mother as it pecked at her hand. As she watched the baby duck join its mother and the other ducklings, she reached over and squeezed Laura’s neck. “I love you, Sissy!”
Laura’s heart cried out deep inside her, for she wished so much that Jenny could acknowledge her for who she was. She longed to hear the words “I love you, Mama” on her child’s lips.
Abruptly standing up, Laura brushed the grass off of her long blue dress. As she gazed down, she saw the blond curls that fell down Jenny’s back. Jenny’s sapphire-blue eyes looked up at Laura. Jenny was a recreation of Gerald in every way. It was as though he had been reborn in the lively child. The pain of her husband’s death still made her feel lost, even though he had passed away five years ago. Five years was a long time for a love to fade, but Laura’s love for Gerald had only grown.
Laura loved to relive the happy memories, as she dreamily thought back to her childhood, when she was no bigger than Jenny and ran with Gerald through fields covered with pink, purple, and white wildflowers. He had been two years older, but was thoughtful and kind to her. They had been constant companions since they’d first met in the small white chapel near Oak Grove, her ancestral home. Nanny, Gerald’s childhood nurse, brought him to church, since his parents didn’t feel they needed to go and were always too busy to attend.
After the church services, Laura and Gerald occasionally explored the woods together. He often helped her step over dead branches that had fallen on the secret path leading to an abandoned cottage that was located in the far southeast corner of his father’s estate. When they arrived she would pretend to be the cottage’s mistress and sweep the wooden floor with the small broom Gerald had created from a thicket of tall grass by the door. Laura remembered how he pretended to smoke a pipe while he sat in a rickety rocking chair by the hearth. He gently pulled thorns out of Laura’s tangled hair, which was always left to fall free in loose curls down her back.
Realizing they were going to stay by the stream longer, Laura sat down by Jenny as she sadly thought back to the time when she was ten years old and the War Between the States had started, bringing devastation to the South and all its inhabitants. Her family didn’t believe in slavery and therefore didn’t own any slaves. She was glad that slavery no longer existed in the South and wished the conflict could have been avoided and the slaves set free without the horrors of war. The loss of lives and property that the war had brought to Mississippi saddened her. Gerald hadn’t been old enough to fight during the war, but had enrolled in a military school. By the time he had graduated, the war was over.
The war was very personal for Laura since she lived near Vicksburg, Mississippi. “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket,” President Lincoln had once said. Located on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was well protected. The city and its people had fought long and hard. Still the Union Army was able to capture the city in 1863. Laura remembered when General Grant and his men had used her home, Oak Grove, as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers before moving farther south. He had even slept in her parents’ four-poster bed. His men had treated her and her family kindly and never damaged any of their belongings.
Fortunately, the Union soldiers never discovered the secret room behind a bookcase in the study. Because of the gold Laura’s father had hidden there, he was able to recover after the war and restart his bank.
Laura remembered the day Gerald returned home. He had grown up and was no longer interested in their childhood games. He only spoke to her briefly when they happened to meet on Sundays. His family’s plantation had survived, but their means of livelihood had been destroyed as the armies of both the Union and Confederacy had conscripted their livestock, including their prizewinning racehorses. His father also had lost his judgeship, which further reduced the family’s fortunes. After the war Gerald was lucky because he was able to get a job on a barge that hauled freight for wealthy Northerners who had moved to Vicksburg.
Saundra Boulogne and her family had also returned to Vicksburg after the war. She had grown up in Vicksburg with Laura and Gerald, but when her father realized the South wasn’t going to win, Mr. Boulogne went north and sold secrets to the Union Army. After the war Saundra’s father had received an appointment to take control of the local government until elections could be held. Saundra and her father built a large mansion that overlooked the river on the same site of their former home. They named their plantation Camellia Hall, after their original home, which had been burned down during the war. At their new home, Saundra entertained in a fashion unseen since the war had begun. She even invited many of the prominent local families to attend the festivities. At first the leading residents of Vicksburg refused to go, but with time they reluctantly attended, sadly acknowledging the power the Boulognes now had over their lives.
Laura sighed as she thought back to the first time she had heard rumors that Gerald was particularly interested in Saundra. With her fiery red hair and green eyes, the prominent Boulogne heir seemed, in fact, to have all of Warren County’s eligible young men interested in her—that is, everyone except Gerald. Saundra always wanted what she couldn’t have, and she longed only for him. Laura later learned that Saundra herself had started the rumors of Gerald’s infatuation with her. As it was, the rumors died quickly, because he had never shown any interest in Saundra. Instead, Laura, whose light-brown hair was highlighted with specks of gold, increasingly intrigued him. Gerald liked the long tresses that fell loosely down her back. Her eyes were always twinkling, reflecting her love of life. Soon Gerald had eyes only for Laura and her for him. Inevitably they fell in love.
Gerald’s father had different aspirations for his son. The judge had suffered extensive financial losses with the war. Now he wanted his son to marry Saundra because he believed a marriage into the prominent Boulogne family would allow him to be reappointed as a judge in the new government and thereby rebuild his wealth.
The judge was understandably displeased with what he had heard from his neighbors, who told him of Gerald’s fondness for Laura and of their constant companionship; in fact he was furious. Gerald later would tell Laura how awful his father had made him feel as he demanded that he marry Saundra. His father said their entire financial future depended on this marriage. The two men argued heatedly for months about the matter before Gerald made his own decision despite his father’s feelings.
One day Gerald unexpectedly showed up at Oak Grove. Laura clearly remembered running down the long, curving stairs to find him, fuming and upset, in the entryway. “Gerald, what’s happening?” Laura wondered.
“I’ve been ordered to stop seeing you. So I’ve decided we’ll marry right now!” he stated, as he reached out his hand to hers.
She was stunned. She lovingly placed her delicate hand in his. Laura loved Gerald and hoped to marry him one day, but she had never dreamed of marrying in haste behind his father’s back.
“Oh, Gerald, I love you too!” Gazing into blue eyes filled with his love and determination, she added, “We’ll go now, if that’s what you wish.”
Still reliving her memories, Laura thought back to the way Gerald had gently pulled her down to the landing by him. He lifted her chin and looked into sparkling eyes that seemed to radiate with the happiness they would find together. After he gently kissed her, he told her to run upstairs and get her possessions. They’d go to the chapel they’d attended for so many years. He had arranged for their minister to marry them that very afternoon.
Laura’s mother had known of the romance and of Laura’s infatuation with Gerald, but even she didn’t know the depth of her daughter’s feelings. She now realized Laura was a woman who could make her own decisions. But she was still taken aback when Laura burst into her room, saying, “Mama, please help me pack my things. I’m going to marry Gerald!”
“But you’re so young, and Gerald’s parents don’t—”
“I know, Mama, but it’s not their life. It’s ours.”
Laura’s mother knew that her husband, who was due home any minute, would be upset. But he was a kind man and loved Laura as much as a father could, so he would ultimately understand and support his daughter’s decision.
The couple raced to the chapel. After saying their vows, Gerald took his new bride to the cottage where they had played when they were children. He told her how he had saved his money and purchased the cottage from his father. Laura was beside herself because now it was their very own home where they would start their new life together.
“Oh, Gerald it looks so charming!” she told him. “You really have done wonders cleaning and making needed repairs.”
Gerald grinned. “I was going to surprise you with this later in the week. I’ve been working evenings cleaning the inside and patching the roof. Billy, the gardener we used to have, even came out yesterday to tidy up the yard as a favor to me. He removed some of the beggarweeds that used to catch in your hair.” Gerald reached up to Laura and lifted her down from her horse. He then picked her up and carried her over the threshold into the cozy cottage.
As he placed her gently on the floor, Laura said ecstatically, “The rocker you used to sit in is fixed. Look! My broom is still here! It’s right where we left it.”
Gerald chuckled as a smile spread over his features. “I hope this will be suitable for the honeymoon, because it took all of my savings to buy the cottage and fix it up.”
Laura hugged his neck and said, “I know of no place I’d rather be.”
Jenny, still busy watching the ducks, allowed Laura to recall the happy days of her marriage. As if they were in a dream, the months passed swiftly for Laura and Gerald. Then one night they heard someone pound on the cottage door. A booming voice cried, “Is anyone there? Please let me in. There’s been an accident, and I need help!”
Gerald threw open the door to find a tall, frantic man he immediately recognized as Tommy Burns, a former slave and now a stable hand for the Boulogne family.
Tommy spoke hurriedly. “My daughter, Aimee, was thrown from her horse. She’s clinging to a branch in the ravine. Please help me pull her up. Do you have a rope I can borrow?”
Gerald grabbed a rope and rushed to his horse, yelling over his shoulder, “Laura, please wait here and prepare a place to lay the child in case she’s hurt.”
Laura waited for what seemed an eternity until she heard a voice outside the cottage. She flung open the door. Aimee’s father entered the cottage carrying his sleeping child.
“Where’s Gerald?” Laura asked in a mere whisper so as not to awaken the child.
A pained expression filled Tommy’s face as he began, “Your husband has had a serious accident.”
The words drew a gasp from Laura as she disbelievingly asked him what had happened.
Tommy explained, “Your husband threw the rope over the cliff, and I held the rope as he lowered himself down the hillside. Gradually he made his way to the small ledge that supported Aimee as she clung there. She leaned forward as he stretched out his arms to her and with his help climbed to safety. After I grabbed her, I threw the rope to your husband and started to pull him up when I heard a tearing sound. The rope broke, and your husband fell into the ravine. I’m going to go for help.”
Laura remembered being so stricken she couldn’t initially speak. After a few moments, she had, however, recovered enough to tell Tommy where to go to find help. After he rushed off, she wrapped the small girl in a wool blanket and placed her near the warmth of the blazing fire. Laura was glad she had something to do—taking care of Aimee. As she gazed down at the child’s peaceful, sleeping face, Laura whispered to herself, “I want us to have a child so much. Oh, please, God, let him be safe.”
On that fateful evening, Laura waited anxiously until a gentle tapping on the door startled her. She remembered how her father hesitantly entered the room and knelt beside her, saying sorrowfully, “I’m so sorry, Laura. We found Gerald, but we were too late to save him.”
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