A Christmas Dance
Christmas is probably my favorite time of year. In honor of the holiday, here is an excerpt from my novel, A Beautiful Glittering Lie. Enjoy!
The week drifted by, and the weather grew so cold that David could see his breath when he went outside. He wished to travel, but knew he was confined to the farm, so he occupied himself by creating Christmas gifts for his family. His father had taught him how to whittle, and he had to admit to himself that he was getting pretty good at it. The intricate details he included in his carvings were incorporated into his mother’s and siblings’ gifts, consisting of wooden hair pins, broaches, and bangles. For his father, he made a wooden shelf for his musket, to place over the field stone fireplace. That way, when Hiram returned, he wouldn’t have to leave it on the mantel, which was now occupied by a tintype of his likeness in uniform, and a clock gifted to Caroline by her beloved on their wedding day.
Rena found her brother in the barn one evening, diligently working away by the light of a kerosene lantern. The topic came up, and she expressed her desire to leave as well, telling him to keep it a secret from their mother, so as not to upset her.
“Someday, I want to jine a singin’ troupe, like the Christy Minstrels,” she confessed, “or be an opera singer. For now, though, I reckon I’m obliged to stay home and finish school, and maybe go on to college after that.”
“I’d like to go to college myself,” he stated.
“Oh? Which one?”
“I was thinkin’ Auburn. Then I could be a doctor … or a journalist.”
She giggled. “That’s a mighty strange combination!”
“I ain’t made up my mind yet,” he said with a grin. “Maybe I’ll be an animal doctor.”
“Well, you are good with horses,” she observed. “Renegade follows you around like he’s a dog!”
David chuckled. “I reckon Renie jist knows I have sugar in my pocket.”
The following Tuesday, he took Joe Boy over to have him re-shod before the Copeland’s Christmas event. There he found the blacksmith, John Moss, who was busy pounding horseshoes over an open flame.
“Have you heard from your pa?” John asked while prying off one of Joe Boy’s old shoes.
“Not recently. I’m right worried about Ma. She gits too nervous, and she even lost a tooth the other day.”
John threw a glance at him, his blue eyes glistening over his stark white beard. “Sorry to hear that.”
David nodded. “I hope the war ends soon, so she won’t git so upset.”
“Well, I do, too. Say, did you hear about poor ole Senator Crittenden?”
“Crittenden, from Kentucky. My kinfolk live up that way, and told me all about it.” He paused, but hearing no objection, continued. “The good senator tried his darnedest to make those humbugs up in Washin’ton come to their senses.” Seeing David look at him questioningly, he elaborated. “He proposed a bill that would entitle each new state to vote if it wanted slavery, and for the plantation owners to be compensated for their slaves, should their niggers be set free. But ole ‘Rail Splitter’ Lincoln and his cronies in Congress shot down his bill. Now the poor senator has one son fightin’ for the North, and the other one fightin’ for the South.”
“That’s right awful,” David said.
John shook his head, his long beard flowing with his movement. “It’s a wonder what this here world is comin’ to.”
David wondered himself, but dispelled any bad notions, deciding to concentrate on Christmas instead. Things could only get better.
Caroline received another letter from Hiram the following week, informing her that the 4th Alabama had established their winter camp in the Virginia wilderness. He apologized, but didn’t foresee the possibility of returning home for Christmas. Hiding her disappointment, she put on a smile, told her children that their brave father was staying in Virginia for the holidays, and carried on as if it didn’t affect her. Deep down, however, her heart was breaking. She knew that he was defending their homeland, but although it was honorable and noble, she missed him desperately. Every day was more of a struggle, trying to keep up with the farm. She was thankful for her children, and the neighbors who supported her, but it still seemed daunting. Hopefully, the war would end after the first of the year, so that the grand Confederacy would be allowed to secede and become its own country.
The day of Callie’s Christmas party finally arrived. Rena and Josie had primped for a week, repeatedly trying on the five dresses they owned between them, until they finally came to a decision. David didn’t give it much thought, since Callie’s charms had worn off with time, but he did carve a beautiful broach for her.
They reached the Copelands’ as dusk was setting in. It was an unseasonably warm evening, and Caroline remarked about how the weather seemed to be cooperating with the party. Pulling into the yard, they saw several other carriages and wagons parked outside. David directed Joe Boy to an open area. He jumped down, tied the draft horse to a shrub, greeted Percy, who was tending the horses, and after assisting his mother and sisters down from the wagon, he escorted them up the steps to the house. The stylings of festive violin music floated through the air. Caroline tapped on the door. Momentarily, Mr. Copeland answered, dressed in a waistcoat with matching black trousers.
“Why, there y’all are!” he greeted them happily. “Please do come in!”
Extending his hand to David, the two shook and followed the ladies into the parlor, which was aglow with glittering lights. Candles flickered on brass candlesticks, reflecting off blown-glass decorations that adorned an enormous pine Christmas tree regally standing in a corner. The women were attired in festive, colorful dresses, and the men wore fine suits. The entire sparkling room was enchanting.
Josie and Rena saw some friends, so they went off to mingle. Mr. Copeland took Caroline’s arm and led her over to his wife, leaving David awkwardly alone. He gazed around for a familiar face, and finally found one. Jake ambled across the room in his direction, with Callie on his arm. She was radiant in a shimmering, bronze-colored, hooped gown. Her golden hair was drawn up and confined within a snood that matched the hue of her dress. Jake was similarly attractive in his best suit.
“Glad to see you could make it!” he exclaimed, giving his friend a playful punch on the arm.
“Y’all didn’t think we’d miss this, did you?”
“Well, I should certainly hope not!” exclaimed Callie. “Everyone knows mine is the most extravagant party in the county this season. And we have cause for celebration, this bein’ the first yuletide since the start of the war.” Releasing Jake, she clamped onto David. “Jake, would you be a darlin’ and go fetch me some punch?”
“Certainly, Miss Callie,” he said with a smile. Giving David a wink, he strolled off into the crowd.
“Now, Mr. Summers, if you please, I would like you to come with me,” she said, giving his arm a tug, so he obediently followed along like a puppy.
The violinist, joined by a pianist, delved into a tender rendition of “Silent Night.” Callie stopped momentarily to listen, so David took his opportunity.
“Miss Callie, I made you a token,” he bashfully admitted. Withdrawing a small wrapped package from his pocket, he handed it to her.
“Well, I do declare! David, darlin’, you shouldn’t have!” She tore open the wrapping and pried open the box, revealing the broach he had painstakingly carved for her. “Why, it’s absolutely breathtakin’.” She pinned it onto the front of her gown. “I shall wear it always.”
Taking his hand, she leaned over to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek, barely missing his mouth.
He shied away, embarrassed. Clearing his throat while his face flushed, he muttered, “What did you want to show me, Miss Callie?”
“I would like to present you to some friends who are out back.”
He followed her to the garden, but immediately wished he hadn’t, for as soon as they were outside, he saw several faces he recognized.
“David, you know Owen Ridgeway, and his brother, Lemuel.”
“Hey, Summers,” said Lemuel in a friendly manner, but his older brother only glared.
“Hey, y’all,” David responded genially, for Callie’s sake.
Jake arrived, and handed Callie a glass filled with sparkling red fluid. Seeing the tension, he said, “Zeke, go on in and git yourself some punch.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, taking his chance to escape the scene. He knew Callie was unaware of the conflict, but he was riled, and he didn’t wish to spoil her party, so he went inside to the food table.
The spread temporarily distracted him from a possible confrontation. Ham, turkey, stuffing, cornbread, pickles, garden vegetables, bread pudding, and assorted pies were displayed on gold leaf china. His mouth watered as he absorbed the sight.
Rena appeared beside him. “Are you enjoyin’ yourself?” she asked, taking a plate.
“I was, till Callie took me outside. That scoundrel Owen Ridgeway is here.”
“Yeah, and so is his brother. I don’t have a quarrel with him, though.”
“Jist avoid him, David,” she advised.
He looked over to see the seriousness in her gaze. “I’ll be on my best behavior for Ma’s sake, but if he tries to make a fuss, well …”
“Jist don’t.” Rena glared insistently at him before moving on.
Once he had filled his plate, he walked across the kitchen, sat at the table, and began eating. Soon, several guests joined him, and struck up a conversation about his father. Isabelle scurried about to accommodate the partygoers, as did the Copelands’ five slaves, and a few others that neighbors had brought along to help support them.
After lingering for half an hour, David excused himself. He walked into the parlor, where he saw Jake and Callie talking to Alice Walker, so he joined them.
“Oh, David, Miss Alice has jist informed us of the most dreadful news!” Callie leaned against Jake for support.
“What is it, Miss Alice?” he asked.
“We’re movin’ to California,” she announced. A broad smile spread across her young porcelain-like face.
“Californee is a right far piece away!” Jake exclaimed with a chuckle.
She nodded. “My pa has an uncle out that way who struck it rich, so we’re fixin’ to go after spring thaw.”
David smirked through a flash of jealousy. “I wish I could go out to Californee and strike it rich,” he muttered.
Callie smiled at him. “Perhaps we can all go out for a visit later on,” she suggested hopefully. Turning toward the wall, she decided to change the subject. “David, have you seen the paintin’ my ma jist acquired?”
“No.” He drew closer to have a look.
“Pa bought it for her for Christmas. Ain’t it magnificent?”
“It surely is.” He gazed at the landscape, noticing how the bluish-purple colors of twilight were accurately represented.
“My ma says that it’s right fittin’ and all. She says that Twilight symbolizes the transitions we’ve all been goin’ through—the new Confederacy and two new presidents, talk of freein’ the slaves, and the country splittin’ in two. It’s like the dawnin’ of a new day.”
David stared at the painting, reading her description into the swirls left by the artist’s brushstrokes, and reckoned she was right.
Mrs. Copeland’s high-pitched voice cut through the din. “May I have your attention, please?”
Callie’s father tapped on a crystal champagne glass with a piece of silverware, causing it to ring out. The participants grew quiet.
“We would like for all of our guests to please assemble out back in the garden!” she exclaimed, and motioned invitingly, so the partygoers followed her.
As David walked outside, he noticed that the entire backyard had been redecorated. Paper lanterns strung across the length of the yard illuminated the setting, and musicians were gathered on a platform near the back. The violinist had transformed himself into a fiddle player. He was joined by a banjo player and a percussionist, who sat poised atop a stool with spoons in his hand.
“For our first song,” the banjo player announced, “we’re playin’ a fine tune by Stephen Foster, called ‘O Lemuel.’”
Owen guffawed at the reference, jabbing his little brother with his elbow. The music started, and the crowd coupled up. Walking out into the center of the straw-covered yard, they began swirling to the music. The chill in the air seemed to dissipate as the dancers moved in synchronized harmony across the makeshift dance floor.
David watched while a schoolmate, Thomas Halsey, escorted Rena. Jake and Callie took to the floor, as did their parents, even though Mr. Kimball’s injured leg prevented him from dancing with much elegance. Like he usually did at gatherings such as these, David partnered with his mother and younger sister, dancing to the lively melodies of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Jim along Josie.” He danced with Alice, and once, timidly, with Callie, who complimented him on his stylish grace. When the music changed to a waltz, she stated that she thought he would easily fit into high society with his fancy footwork.
After the musicians took a break, he strolled into the house for refreshment. Owen followed, confronting him in the kitchen.
“Think you’re quite the rooster, don’t you? Dancin’ with every gal at the party.” He stared provokingly with penetrating green eyes, his blond hair tussled atop his head.
David whirled around to face him. Owen had always been a showoff, and was constantly a thorn in his side, teasing him because he was left-handed, and trying to outdo him at every opportunity. “That ain’t none of your concern. Savvy?”
Owen snorted. “You’re worthless. You ain’t nothin’ but a weasel. All you can do is hide behind them skirts!”
Rena entered to see her brother bristle at his adversary. “David …” she warned.
“Not now, Rena,” he growled back.
“Recall what we discussed.” She could see from across the room that her brother’s eyes were darkening from hazel to brown, which to her was a bad indication.
“I want to have a word with you out on the veranda, Ridgeway,” David stated.
He tromped off through the house. Owen grinned, traipsing behind. Their voices could soon be heard escalating.
Caroline entered the kitchen. “What’s goin’ on out there?” she asked her older daughter, while Jake, Callie, and several others came inside.
“Dere’s trouble out front, Miss Caroline,” Isabelle explained as she gathered a trayful of dirty dishes.
“It’s Owen Ridgeway again, Ma,” added Josie.
Caroline scowled. “I’ll put a stop to this.” She started for the doorway to the parlor, but Jake intercepted her.
“No, Mrs. Summers. Allow me.” He sauntered through the house to find David and Owen glaring intensely while throwing verbal spears at each other.
“I know it was you who killed my dog last winter!” David roared. “You did it jist to spite me, because you were jealous!”
“Why would I be jealous of you?” Owen mocked a laugh.
“Because I’m smarter than you, and you know it.”
“You cheated on those school exams so you could graduate! You lied about your pa fightin’ at Manassas, too! You’re spoiled and soft!”
“I’ll have you take that back!”
“Now, boys,” Jake interrupted, “there ain’t no need for—”
Suddenly, Owen lurched at David, who threw a punch into his attacker’s face. They were immediately wrestling on the veranda, tumbling over each other while grunting, cursing, and yelling. Members of the party dashed outside, alarmed by the commotion. Jake managed to break the two apart, and held his friend’s arms behind his back. Lemuel seized his brother in the same manner. The two opponents snorted like bulls, their faces red with vehemence. A trail of scarlet blood trickled from Owen’s nose.
“Take it easy!” Jake hollered.
Mr. Copeland stepped in. “What is the meaning of this?! I will not have you two behave this way at my gatherin’!” He stomped over to Owen and took him by the ear. “I’m throwin’ you out, young man! You’re no longer welcome here!” Leading Owen to the steps, he thrust him toward the yard. Lemuel meekly scurried after his brother. “Off with you now, and don’t come back!”
The brothers staggered off toward their wagon, climbed in, and rode off down the lane.
Turning toward David, who was panting to catch his breath, Mr. Copeland sighed. “David, I thought better of you than this.” He walked past him and went inside.
The words stung more than any expulsion could. Frowning, he looked at his startled family, at Jake, who simpered at him, and at Callie, who was scowling. He knew what he had done, although it was unintentional, and he felt deeply ashamed. He had ruined Callie’s Christmas party.
Soon, the family decided it was best to leave. Barely speaking to each other, they returned home and retired to their bedchambers. The next morning, on their way back from church, Josie broke the silence.
“How come Owen Ridgeway don’t like you?” she asked straightforwardly.
David shrugged. “He never has, and I don’t cotton to him, neither.”
She chuckled faintly. “I reckon you would if he was nice to you.”
He shrugged again. It was a situation he assumed he would likely never know.