Voices in the Walls 8

Chapter one, continued

Father had much to say to me. He was telling me the things I would have to know if he died before we met again, and we both knew it.

When I finally made it up to my room, I was drugged with sleep and sadness. All my life, I had planned to go to sea. It was a family tradition. My great-grandfather had been captain of a privateer during the Revolutionary War. Our plantation was bought with prize money from his three cruises. My grandfather was a lieutenant on the Constitution when she captured the HMS Java in 1812. Even Father had served on coasting bugeyes when he was a boy, before he had run for office. I had been about to follow in their footsteps. With an appointment to the Naval Academy, the dream had been so close I could almost touch it. To lose it now seemed too much to bear.

But . . . when the southern states seceded, they would surely need a navy. That thought cheered me considerably.

(Even though it doesn’t seem so now, this is a precursor of things to come. The fact that Matt’s family has seen a world beyond the South is instrumental in preparing for his later change of heart. He will contemplate this himself, in coming chapters. Having this paragraph here both shows his present state of mind and prepares the reader for changes which are to come later.)


The next morning James readied the carriage and drove Father and me across town to the boarding school to pick up Sarah. Until a few months ago she had stayed with Father, but during the hopeless battle to keep Lincoln from being elected President, he had not had time for her.

Apparently Father had sent instructions ahead, because there was a pile of trunks on the ground outside the carriage house. We left James and one of Mrs. Davison’s slaves to load them while we went inside. (We associate Washington, D. C. with Lincoln and the Union, but at this time it was a city full of slaves.) The house was full of the early morning sounds of young girls awakening and getting ready for the day. We could hear scurrying and laughter in the rooms above, and the hallway where we waited was full of the pleasant smell of bacon and grits.

Mrs. Davison was short and round, in a hoop skirt that made her look rounder still. Cosmetics made her cheeks red and her eyelashes long and black, even so early in the morning, and her hair was elaborately done up. She was full of sighs and flutters, gesturing with her fan and declaring how she “didn’t know what she was going to do without Sarah. The girl was such an angel!” If she had been twenty years younger and sixty pounds lighter, she would have been the picture of a southern belle; instead she was a parody of one.

Since Sarah was still eating, Mrs. Davison took us on a tour of the lower part of her house. Father endured it gracefully, but I could see it was hard for him to listen. The nation was falling apart around him; all he wanted was to see his little girl off on her way to safety so he could get back to the business of saving what could be saved. Father’s strained courtesy made Mrs. Davison even more silly in my eyes.

Eventually the tour ended and Sarah was brought out. To my relief, she was sensibly dressed for traveling, in a dark dress of linen with no hoops to get in her way. She ran into Father’s arms, then greeted me with a curtsey and a shy smile.


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