It is difficult to describe the depth of my despondency that late afternoon of October 1861 as the open-air carriage carried Poppa and me through the wrought-iron gates of White Magnolias and up the gravel drive toward the main house. The late setting sun had slipped toward the horizon leaving the Savannah River to glisten cold and gray in the distance and I could not have felt more empty inside had all life already passed from me.
It had been a long four-day journey from Grandmère and Grandpère’s mansion in New Orleans and the entire way I had prayed that Poppa would change his mind at the last moment and take me back home. He didn’t seem to understand I had no desire to live on a backward cotton plantation in Georgia, especially with an ill-mannered cousin who could not even speak French like a proper lady. But Poppa did not change his mind and now here we were, riding past the shadowed magnolia trees and wintered lawn toward my fate.
I was eleven years old that day as I sat with Mama’s treasured music box clutched firmly in my lap, but for the first time since her death, I found little comfort in the smoothness of its fine satin finish. Poppa, sitting opposite, attempted to engage me in conversation, yet I remained distant, preferring instead to bury myself in the ominous ceaseless creak of the horse’s leather harness.
“White Magnolias is one of the finest homes in Savannah,” Poppa sighed, his eyes pleading for understanding. “One of the finest—” He broke off hopelessly as he recognized my melancholy indifference.
In the two years since Mama’s death, my father’s sentences often ended as though he had forgotten where his thoughts were supposed to go next. And this time was no exception.
“Jennine, my dear,” he continued after a moment, “It saddens me to see you so unhappy.” He reached for my hand. “Believe me, living with someone your own age will be the best thing for you, especially now that I’m going—” He glanced cautiously up at the colored man guiding the reins from the front seat then leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Trust me, child, my absence will only be for a little while.”
I pulled my hand away and sighed. “I know, Poppa, you’ve told me repeatedly, ‘it’s just until the war is over.’” Maybe my father believed that statement, but I was not so sure I believed it anymore. The battle for southern independence, which was only supposed to last a mere few weeks, was now in its seventh month and showing no signs of ending any time soon. Yes, the evil fingers of war were not only tearing me away from the only home I could remember, but also taking my Poppa from me as well— perhaps forever. And as to where he was going, well he had sworn me to secrecy, saying that if anyone knew of his plans it would put us all in grave danger.
I could accept Poppa going North but bringing me here to live with my cousin made absolutely no sense at all. And no matter how much I pleaded in the days before our departure from New Orleans, he had not been willing to change his mind. I simply did not understand it.
Angry and frightened I stared toward the distant river, unaware that behind a dusty window high in the two-storied green-shuttered main house, a pair of eyes were studying our steady approach—eyes every bit as angry as my own.