Shrimp and Grits

chapter one

Charleston, S.C. 1861

One ice wagon. Two ice wagons.

I count the ice wagons rolling down Society St. from my bedroom window as I dress for the St. Cecelia Ball. My coming out. The day I'd been waiting for since just about the day I was born.

My dress is the creamy white of camellias, with flounced layers, and a hoop wider than the doorway. It's evening and I'm officially a woman, so I can show my bare shoulders. My mother has rubbed almond oil and bits of mica onto them so my skin shimmers and shines.

"Remember, always be a lady" my mother counsels, "Some girls will go too far to get the boys' attention, but their mammas will never allow them to marry a fast girl...your neckline can never drop lower than inch above your decollate..."

"I know, mamma!" I shout.

"Don't take a tone with me. I know you're nervous, I was too. Mom Annie is coming up right now with some gardenias for your hair."

My lady's maid, a free servant, who'd basically raised me called Mom Annie, came in two a handful of gardenias. She picked the biggest, whitest, and sweetest smelling for the bun high on my head.

My mother turned me around. "You're beautiful, Lavinia sweetheart, only God knows where you got that blonde hair of yours, but eyes are your grandpa's. You're kind and smart, and you have the Ashley name and inheritance. Your blood is impeccable. You're going to be the belle of the ball."

Of course all the girls would very attractive future wives and surely their own mothers were giving them the same speech right now.

"Good luck, my girl", she smiles and hugs me.

I get into the carriage with Mom Annie, and since my father is deceased and I'm an only child, our neighbor Douglas is doing the driving.

I step out of the carriage into the cool night air. I inhale deeply. Charleston has its own perfume. And it's never stagnant, the sweet clear ocean air sweeps away the grime.

There's an old man with a lantern waiting outside.

"Lavinia Ashely, welcome." He smiles deeply. I know old Mr. Yardley loves his job, welcoming the debs every year.

Inside, is a crush of people, all young ladies in white hoop dresses, and gentleman dressed in fine suits, or in military uniforms if they're going to West Point or the Citadel.

My dance card, like everyone else's, has already been filled out. I plan to wear out my slippers. Mamma says that's the sign of the perfect ball.

I've danced a few dances with gracious men, but I keep looking at the old men who are the organizers. I don't like their gray hair, but I do like something about them. It's their figures, the way they strain against their waistcoats. The way their hugs are soooo soft.

"Miss Ashely, I believe this dance is mine."

I look straight up into a pair of massive blue eyes. His dark hair is longer than most, but swept off his forehead. He wears the uniform of a West Point graduate.

" course..." Surely he's the most handsome of all God's creatures.

"Peter Wentworth", he says, with a bow, "At your service, Miss Lavinia."

I give him my hand.

He tells me that he went to school, not to become a soldier, but to become a better planter. He graduated late, and by the skin of his teeth. He's just a horse solider and a hell raiser, he says, was never much for book learning. He wants to be a farmer. He's seen cities, he's heard the noise. London is a nice place is visit. But he's a farmer, and a South Carolinian born and bred. There's no place else on earth so fine.

I tell him I've had enough of it, and I'm ready to see a big city, like New York. He says he'll take me himself, but promises I'll want to come right back home. I tell him all about the museums I've heard of there, and he says they actually sound like a pleasure if he went with me.

We both have to stick to names on our dance cards, and play by the rules as others have before us since before the Revolution. But he watches me, and he breaks into a smile as our eyes meet all night.

Next morning, mamma lets me sleep in. I'm excited, but nervous to see how many bouquets are waiting. If I didn't get any...well, I just couldn't bear to show my face again. I'll have to move.

Mamma forces me to eat breakfast first, but out on the porch, there are 7 bouquets waiting. Even mamma only got 6 in her day. Half the men I danced with have proclaimed themselves as wanting to court me.

And the biggest, 12 snow white roses, were sent by one Peter Wentworth.

I pick them up and clutch them close, dancing around the room.

"We'll be married in May, no - marry in May, rue the day..."

"Lavinia..." My mother pounces. "Don't get hung up on one of them too fast. You have to spend some time with your suitors. Decide which is the most prosperous, kind, and such...who are those from anyway?"

"Peter Wentworth."

"Good family", Mamma says happily, "Nice size, I'd say that boy is serious."


I spent my entire French lesson writing "Mrs. Peter Wentworth, Mrs. Lavinia Wentworth, Lavinia Ashley Wentworth" over and over on my practice paper.

As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about a curse on May brides. April 12th changed everything.

We'd seceded months before and just want to be left alone. Well the smart southerners did. The foolish ones cried for nothing but war, and we finally got it.

At 2 am, the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter in our very own harbor, and Mr. Lincoln called for 30,000 volunteers for 3 months.

The usually sloth-like courtship of the young in Charleston came to a quick end. Young men were needed for fighting, not courting. The year's debs, especially those who'd already been out several seasons, were heart broken. If a couple wasn't immediately ready to marry, there would be no more weddings for only God knew how long.

As a West Point graduate, Peter was wanted immediately in the Confederate army. He joined as part of Wade Hampton's legion.

And Mamma was enraged because I went to every party with a bright red, swollen face. I'd fallen in love, and now it was suddenly too late
3 chapters, created 8 years
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Junepearl 8 years
Thank you. smiley
Built4com4t 8 years
you are definitely the queen of this kind of storytelling. wonderfully written as always
Junepearl 8 years
Thank you. Living vicariously. smiley
Fatrnfatr 8 years
This is fabulous. You are so great with southern romances.