A Civil War Short Story
Lost in thought, Miss Elizabeth Bennet gazed out over green fields and towering trees knowing the Potomac River and Maryland lay just beyond. The spectacular vista laid out before her from the veranda of the once-stately manor house behind her, belied the brick façade now riddled with rifle bullet holes. She sighed. His home was over there.
Smoke rose in the far distance, and she wondered if it was the smoldering remnants of battle. Accustomed to the sight, she had grown almost immune to the horrors and scars from the ravages of war. Virginia had seen its share of battles on private lands, but she never lost hope that this war would end, restoring families and the Nation.
Often she reflected on what made her so different than her father, mother, and four sisters. They were vehemently convinced that Abraham Lincoln was the devil himself, and the south would never surrender. But she clung to love. A beautiful future with the only man she would ever love had been promised through just one kiss.
Gently touching her lips, she recalled with vivid lucidity the man she had met two long years ago, just as tensions were rising and the Nation’s accord appeared impossible. It was just before war broke out dividing one nation into two, pitting North against South, brother against brother, and friend against friend.
That year was 1861. Captain Fitzwilliam Darcy had yet to take up arms as a Union officer of the Sixth Cavalry Regiment against the Confederate States of America, the new government of the southern states, which included Virginia, her beloved home.
With the firing of a single shot following their meeting, he had been made her enemy, not by a decided choice but by mere geography. Although the physical Mason-Dixon Line lie further north, Maryland was divided in its loyalties. Now, standing on the veranda of Chatham/Lacy House, her heart squeezed as she contemplated the contrast of actions, where the sharing of a single kiss had shot straight to her heart, making him her sweetheart by deliberate choice, not by unfortunate compromise.
Unlike the heated memory of that searing kiss, the ruthless sun unwelcomingly burned her face. She wore no bonnet, nor held any parasol aloft to protect her fair complexion from the freckles that were, unfortunately, sure to come. She glanced down at her brown day dress, once lovely, now faded and stained, it was very much the worse for wear. A soiled apron covered her bodice and skirt, but even that could not prevent the blood of the wounded soldiers downstairs in the field hospital from seeping through. Thankful for the respite, the back veranda offered the masking scent of honeysuckle, which still grew against the brick. For as lovely the porch was at the front of the manor, with its sweeping view of Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock River, it was marred by the artillery that lined the ridge and the putrid smell of the ever-growing heap of amputated limbs. Here, she could imagine the gardens that once were – and him.
Only two miles from where she stood, the Yankees had been badly defeated at Fredericksburg, and now they fought at Chancellorsville. The Sixth―his regiment―had fought in both. Since the onset of battle the previous December, it had been a long five months of volunteering as a nurse. Not only was it her Christian duty, a moral obligation before God to care for all men, not just Southern men, she hoped to find Captain Darcy in this Union headquarters. Perhaps he would need her; perhaps he would come through these doors. Caring for the Yankees was a risk she had taken following the battle, and she knew well that it could mean imprisonment if found out by those loyal to the Confederacy. She took the risk for him alone. As far as her family knew, she volunteered daily with the ladies of Fredericksburg at the tobacco factory “hospital” where their boys were attended to.
Every day, more and more wounded arrived at the make-shift hospital, and every day for six hours, she assisted the surgeon, extracting bullets, cleansing and stitching wounds, changing dressings and writing letters home for the damaged men.
“I must think of pleasant things. I must breathe and remind myself, yet again, that I can endure this for him. He could be one of these broken bodies – broken souls out there – somewhere.” She stifled back a cry and again, touched her parched lips, imagining the sensation of his soft mouth pressed against hers.
There in the sweltering heat she remembered, with crystal clarity, the unforgettable night of their meeting. She could easily dismiss the recollection of the embarrassment she had experienced at her mother’s shrill voice and boastful manner. She had no difficulty pushing into the recesses of her mind the immature and flirtatious behaviors of Lydia and Kitty. Even Mary’s vapid personality and Jane’s radiant beauty were lost to the exquisite memory of meeting Captain Darcy.
The ball had been held by Charles Bingley of Netherfield Plantation in Annapolis, Maryland and as promised, it was a grand affair. Her ivory silk gown was more elegant than any she had ever worn. Gifted by Aunt Gardiner, its opulent hoop skirt was fashioned from nearly six yards of fabric. With every swish through the massive foyer and each rare attempt to sit, she fought back her giggle. She dearly loved to laugh, and the large crinoline cage below her skirt bordered on the ridiculous.
Within the din of the ballroom, landowners and politicians laughed and argued, provoked and debated with varying levels of civility, and in much of the same manner, so had she and Captain Darcy. She could not deny her heart or the attraction when spark met tinder and fuse begot flame. Over the course of two hours, their conversation moved beyond the mere courteous civilities of discussing the virtues of a southern woman’s accomplishments, venturing into banter that bordered challenging and approached confrontational. Yet, she found it engagingly stimulating. Although often of opposing mindsets on many issues, their mutual love of books and music crossed the barriers of pride and prejudice.
That night she was not Thomas Bennet’s favorite daughter. Emboldened by this would-be suitor, she felt immune to the chastising scowls from him for her brash opinion, so decidedly given, beyond what he believed her proper place in society. She made it clear to Captain Darcy that she was not so delicate a flower, nor too genteel to state even her political opinion. Throughout their conversation, he conveyed himself the perfect gentleman, allowing her voice. Judging from his expression, he seemed to revel in her forthright and outspoken manner. That had never happened with any man before.
Her quiet opposition, but with no less conviction, to the ownership of slaves she bravely admitted in defiance of her father’s beliefs that slavery was ordained by the Almighty and upheld in Holy Scripture. Amazed, the Captain inquired with a pleased lilt to his voice. “Miss Bennet, do you mean to convey that you are an abolitionist?” His lovely smile following that inquiry elicited in her an unabashed fixation with the curve of his bottom lip.
She giggled aloud recalling his astonished expression when she had replied. “Indeed, sir. That particular institution and oppression of every sort are my abhorrence.” Leaning toward him, her fan concealed the secret she imparted. “I have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it is secreted in my sewing box.” Sadly, that proved not to be the best hiding location, and it was discovered six months later by her mother. She sighed again, gazing out at the rising smoke, her thoughts turning to their dance at the ball.
Their dance was sublime. The Virginia Reel was invigorating, and the rosy flush to his cheeks set her heart aflame. His blue eyes sparkled as they danced down the aisle with hands clasped. His joyful exuberance entranced her. Those beautiful lips below a fine-looking, chestnut mustache continued to leave her spellbound. Although he didn’t speak much while dancing, they were perfectly suited, and later when taking in some air on the balcony overlooking the rose garden, he made his intentions and feelings known. He expressed to her his burgeoning hope.
The word “courtship”, when spoken into the fragrant air, settled upon her heart and mind. His tender expression of admiration made her feel like a woman. She had never felt more attractive in her whole life. Her pulse quickened, a perspiration grew on her palm below her lace glove. Never did she imagine that love could blossom in so short a period of time, but it had, and she wouldn’t deny its existence. She was sure life with Fitzwilliam Darcy would be everything she dreamed a marriage should be. He was a God-fearing man, a good principled man, elegant and genteel in manners; he was suited to her in every way.
Below the romantic, full moon, they agreed to a courtship. At first, he expressed his delight with his gentle kiss to her hand, but that proved to be not enough – for either of them. She yearned to feel those lips against hers, even if propriety condemned the act. He gazed up at her as his lips left her hand; the barely visible dimple of his smile caused her heart to flutter.
In the darkness of shadow upon the balcony, Captain Darcy’s perfect mouth brazenly captured hers conveying all the joy that her heart felt. At first, the kiss was tentative and tender. And since this was her very first kiss, she was unsure of herself, puckering ever so slightly but not sure if she did it correctly. Her heart beat furiously within her breast. His lips were soft, communicating a tantalizing invitation for more and she responded.
With the deepening of his kiss, she experienced the blissful intoxication of his mouth molding to hers. It tasted as sweet as sugar cane, as he was seeking and taking, consuming her breath with his intensity. When his arm wrapped around her waist, he pulled her into him, allowing her to feel the heat emanating from his strong body. She thought she would swoon from his closeness and the butterflies inside her took flight. The unexpected sensation of his tongue gently seeking hers startled her, but within seconds, its caress was wantonly welcomed, ushering in new feelings and pleasures that a young, southern gentlewoman of respectability should never know outside of holy wedlock. She hardly knew what she was about when her own tongue, eager and filled with curiosity, responded in kind to the gentle caresses of his. That kiss of impassioned tasting and exploring was the forbidden fruit of succulent, inviting temptation. Their tongues dueled like the sword that hung at his side; only theirs were unsheathed, alternating between wild brandishments and slow dallying strokes.
That kiss – that one searing, unforgettable kiss, branded her as his forever. He had made her his the second his scorching lips of fire met her yielding, unblemished pink flesh.
He spoke passionately into her ear, the warmth of his breath tickled her when he said, “I am in love with you, Miss Bennet … Elizabeth.”
Her heart burst as her words unexpectedly and brazenly betrayed her proper upbringing. “Your kiss told me so. I’m in love with you as well, Captain Darcy … Fitzwilliam.”
Two days later the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and the war between the states began. She never heard from him again. Not a single letter came. How could they? They were declared enemies by the actions of others. Correspondence was treasonous.
Cries from the wounded on the main floor below carried up to Elizabeth, causing her to suddenly emerge from her recollections. Her hand traveled from her lips to wipe the errant tear that streamed down her cheek. Pushing aside her longing and worry, with a swish of her skirt she entered the manor house to continue caring for the Union soldiers who were so far from their loved ones.
New arrivals had been carried on stretchers into the expansive foyer before the grand staircase. The foul air hung heavy, unyielding in the oppressive southern heat. Descending the staircase, she surveyed the soldiers laid side-by-side beneath the neglected crystal chandelier. Battered and bloodied, they were haphazardly bandaged, nameless faces of moaning men who very well could have fought alongside the one man she sought.
“Nurse, I need you,” the regimental surgeon attending a patient near the entrance door called to her, and she advanced turning sideways to navigate through a narrow aisle between men. Her gaze noting obvious hospital gangrene and the pallor of disease on many until she reached him. His orders were brusque bordering on disrespectful, but that was only because of the overwhelming responsibilities set before him, not because she was Southern. With bloodied hands, he handed the suture kit to her.
“Stitch this wound, and give him a small dose of whiskey for the pain.”
“Yes, doctor.” Thankful she had forgone her constricting corset, she kneeled beside the young man whose shoulder badly needed mending. He drifted in and out of consciousness, but she managed to give him the prescribed whiskey from a small flask she kept in her apron pocket, then tended the wound with careful stitching. Her own fingers becoming tinged by the red stain of battle with each pierce of the needle.
Finally, she stood, stretched her back as her eyes scanned the foyer at the broken men before her until settling at the archway leading to the parlor. One man caught her attention. The curl of his mustache, the cleft of his chin, and the masculine strength of his hand as it covered his eyes attempting respite from pain showed her the man below the beaten soldier. It was him.
The tears came in a rush, bursting as she ran to Captain Darcy then knelt beside his wounded body upon the wool blanket. His leg was badly cut, his make-shift tourniquet saturated with blood. She carefully removed his hand from his eyes, clasping it gently within her grasp, cradling it against her breast.
“Captain Darcy? Fitzwilliam Darcy?” she asked, her heart thundering.
The gentle, southern lilt of Elizabeth’s voice, the sweet cadence of which he had religiously held in his heart to carry him through the horror, called him from his misery.
His eyes snapped open, drinking in the angelic vision before him. The curve of her face, the moist swell of tears in her bright green eyes, and the pinkness of the luscious lips he had dreamed about every night made him faintly smile.
“Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth. Is that you or am I dead? Surely, you cannot be real, for I was just recalling our kiss so long ago.”
She bent toward him with tears of joy streaming down her cheeks and whispered. “I am here, and as sure as my unwavering affection and faithfulness, I, too, was just recalling our kiss.”
With the sweetness of hope and renewed promise, her lips touched his with a tender embrace. His fervent response to their softness and all the love they conveyed was as powerful as that first kiss they shared that magical moonlit night on the balcony at the Netherfield Ball.