In His Eyes Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Washington County, Mississippi, 1865

Ella Whitaker braced herself for another of the woman’s screams. Swallowing her fear lest it show in her eyes, she bathed Cynthia’s sweat-soaked brow. “There, now. That one is passing.” Cynthia panted and turned her head to the side, letting out a soft moan. Grasping for any measure of comfort to offer the woman, Ella forced a cheerful smile. “The midwife will be here soon, and she will be able to help ease the pain.”

Cynthia let out another wail as the next contraction gripped her. Ella couldn’t be sure, but she thought the pains were getting closer together. She dipped the cloth again and moved to wipe Cynthia’s rouge-smeared face once more, but the woman seized her wrist.

“Ain’t no midwife coming for me, girl.” She closed her eyes and sucked air through her stained lips. “Not a one wants to be known for helping the likes of me.”

Ella shook her head and crossed the bare floor. She had to take only two steps to cover the cramped quarters before grasping the welcoming cool of the knob. “I’ll go down and check. If she cannot come, then surely one of the wives down below can help. I really shouldn’t be here for a birthing, being unwed and all.”

Cynthia’s next scream sent a shiver down Ella’s spine. “Get it out!”

Her heart beating furiously, Ella snatched open the door and scrambled down the Buckhorn Inn’s creaking stairs. Below, the stale air thick with the smells of travelers—horses, dirt, and unwashed bodies—made her cough. Several coaches had arrived this morning, dumping out scores of volunteer troops for a respite before continuing their journeys to their homes. Men huddled in groups and gathered at the long tables gulping their ale and laughing over cards like they hadn’t just lost a war. It wasn’t even high noon, yet already some of them laughed too loudly and stumbled when they stood. Two weeks now she’d had to work here, but she didn’t think she’d ever grow used to this dank environment.

Ella scrunched her nose. Whether she liked it or not, she must grow accustomed to her new home, for it seemed this was her only future now that she had to face the world alone. Smoothing her frown and resisting the urge to cover her nose, Ella burst into the kitchen. At least it smelled like overcooked meat and burned grease in here.

“Mrs. Hatch, I need your—”

The older woman spun away from the crowded prep space with a loaded tray in her hands and a scowl on her wrinkled face. “There you are! I told you not to disappear on me again. We need more girls servin’ the men. You’re out of the kitchen today. We have a score more of them than we did yesterday.”

A new pang of fear gripped her. Ella bunched her stained apron in her fists. The innkeeper’s wife shoved the tray into her stomach, forcing the air to flee Ella’s lungs.

“No arguing from you, girl,” she said before scooping up a pitcher and scurrying for the door. “Get going.”

Ella found her breath. “Wait!”

Mrs. Hatch turned back to look at her before pushing the kitchen door open. “What? I got men out there that needs more drink to soothe their wounds.”

“This is more important.”

The woman hesitated and Ella seized her chance. “The woman upstairs is in the throes of childbirth and needs help.”

The other woman’s face contorted.

“There’s no midwife but…but… you’ve birthed children,” Ella blurted before Mrs. Hatch could respond.

Mrs. Hatch’s thin upper lip twitched. “I ain’t going up there with that trollop. She’s got the French Disease. It’s enough I even let her in.”

Ella’s jaw tightened. Mrs. Hatch had only let the woman in yesterday because Cynthia had paid twice the normal amount for a few nights of lodging. That… and she had Federal currency.

“She’s diseased.” Mrs. Hatch softened slightly. “Don’t you see? It’s best you stay away from her, lest you get it too and ruin any chance you got of snagging a man.”

Whether or not the sickness could be passed along to another person during childbirth, Ella had no idea. She’d heard that it could only be passed by way of the secret things that happened between men and women, but who was she to say? Ella hesitated. Mrs. Hatch could be right, but even so, Ella would still help Cynthia. She opened her mouth to say so, but the other woman spoke first.

“Besides, she deserves her lot.” Mrs. Hatch wagged her finger. “You have duties here.”

Ella lowered her eyes, speaking softly. “But…I think something is wrong. Someone must help her.”

“Look here. There’s plenty of waifs on the streets looking for work. You ain’t the only scullery maid to be had.”

Fear bubbled in her empty stomach, and Ella lifted her eyes back to Mrs. Hatch’s scowling face. True, she needed her work. How else would she keep a roof overhead and at least something once a day to fill her belly?

Mrs. Hatch lifted her bushy eyebrows. “So, then, either you get that food to the patrons or you get out of my inn.”

Ella gulped and opened her mouth to reply, but the other woman had already pushed through the door and disappeared. Wavering slightly, Ella numbly followed her employer out the door, mumbling to herself about her cowardice.

If she must serve or leave, then she would serve quickly and be done with it. She couldn’t go back out there alone again…unprotected. She shoved the memories aside.

Ella dropped plates of boiled ham and lumpy potatoes down in front of men still dressed in an array of grays and butternut that had passed for the ragged uniforms of the Confederacy and tried to finish the task as soon as possible. After placing the final chipped plate from the tray, Ella hurried away before any of the men could grab her as they had done the last time Mrs. Hatch made her come to the dining room.

She breathed a sigh of relief at not being manhandled just as a scream cut through the rafters and pierced through the clangor of the dining area. The room fell into a lull, and Ella held her breath.

Mrs. Hatch cut a glance to Ella then back over the frowns of those gathered for their meal and a glint came into her muddy brown eyes. “Looks like one of the gents done found him a strumpet from Miss Lissy’s.”

A wave of raucous laughter rolled over Ella, filling her with indignation. She thrust her chin out at Mrs. Hatch and whirled around, hurrying for the kitchen. No one should be left alone in such agony, most especially with the heartless laughter of careless fools behind their back.

Ella tossed the serving tray on the brick floor and gathered a pot of water and two drying cloths. Then she straightened her spine and headed for the stairs.

As she opened the door to Cynthia’s quarters, Ella feared for both the mother and babe. No matter the woman’s reputation or sins, someone must help her. Gathering her strength, Ella stepped into the room and set the pot of water and the cloths on the small table beside the bed, removing the nearly dry basin. Taking up the washing cloth again and securing a smile on her face, Ella turned back to the struggling woman.

“You…came back,” Cynthia said, gasping.

“Of course I did.”

Cynthia mustered a weak smile before succumbing to another moan. “Not many would. Do you know what to do?”

Ella shook her head. “I’m sorry. None of the married women could get away and….”

“No need to lie. I know the truth of it.” Another pain wracked her body, and she bit down on a wad of the bedding to contain her scream. When it passed, her shoulders slumped. “Ain’t going to make it.”

Ella bathed the woman’s head with the tepid water. “Hush, now. You’ll be fine. And the babe, too.” Before the woman could protest, Ella bowed her head. “Lord, we ask that you would spare this mother and her child. Let the birthing come easier…and, please, help me know what to do.”

When she opened her eyes Cynthia was staring at her. “Nobody ever prays for me.” Tears fell from her faded blue eyes and made tracks down her reddened cheeks. “Not since that Remington woman took pity on my sister and me last year. Good folks, them.”

Suddenly she clutched Ella’s hand. “The baby is coming.” Her face contorted. “Quick now, you’ll have… to catch him.”

Ella hesitated for only an instant before throwing back the bedclothes and revealing the woman’s legs. Sending up another request for strength, Ella prepared to grow up beyond her maiden years. As soon as she glimpsed the messy truth of the miracle of birth, Ella knew why such things were shielded from girls. But she was twenty-two now, and hardly a girl. Already an old maid. What could it matter now?

Cynthia leaned forward on her elbows and began to push. Ella grabbed the clean cloths she’d brought upstairs with her, and after a moment of Cynthia’s grunts, a sodden mop of dark hair appeared on a tiny head.

Another push and cry of agony and the head came free. Ella frowned. She’d never seen a child fresh from the womb, but she didn’t think they were supposed to be that color. The babe looked nearly purple, and it didn’t move. Panic clawed at Ella’s gut, and she glanced up at Cynthia just as the woman’s eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed onto the pillow.

“Cynthia! The child is almost here. Come now, bring it on!”

Please, Lord, we need you!

The words, or perhaps the prayer, roused the exhausted woman a moment later and she positioned herself to push again. The head came fully free, followed partial by its shoulders. Ella prepared to catch the child, but then it seemed to catch. Peering closer at the discolored flesh, Ella notice that something had entangled the infant’s neck. “Cynthia! Something seems to have wrapped around the baby’s throat.”

The woman groaned. “It’s…the…cord. You’ll have to cut it free.”

Ella’s eyes widened. “Surely that cannot be good!”

“You must! You must or…or… it will die!”

Startled, Ella thrust her bloodied hands into her pocket and pulled free the tiny knife she’d stolen from her father one night when he’d been too inebriated to notice. She flipped the blade free and then stood motionless. She couldn’t possibly cut flesh, could she?

Cynthia’s next scream of agony startled Ella’s mind out of her shock. She would do what she must. Working carefully to lift the band of flesh from the baby’s neck, Ella sawed through the bloody mess with tears blurring her vision. Just as she thought she could no longer stand the feel of the flesh in her hands, the cord came free and she unwound if from the baby’s throat.

Relieved, she slipped her fingers under the tiny head and gently pulled, but the child would not slip free. Ella looked up at Cynthia, who panted heavily. “You must push again.”

She shook her head. “It’s dead.”

“Now!” Ella snapped.

Cynthia pushed back to her elbows and gave one final heave, and the wee one came free into Ella’s arms. “A son, Cynthia!”

The woman turned her head away. Ella looked back down at the still form, and her elation slipped away. He didn’t move. Didn’t cry. And his skin looked so waxy and blue…

Oh, Father, save this little one.

Not knowing what else to do, Ella turned the wee boy over and began rubbing on his back, patting gently. Just as she’d nearly released all hope, a sudden tremor came through the infant, and then a strangled cry. Ella kept patting and began to jiggle him just a bit until the cry strengthened.

Thrilled, she turned back to Cynthia. “He lives!”

Cynthia gave only a slight nod. Ella wrapped the child in the clean cloths. “Here, now.” She stretched him toward his mother. “See your son.”

“It is not my son.”

The soft words hung on the air, and Ella frowned. “Of course, he is. Here, look at him. A fine child to be sure.”

The woman sobbed but still kept her head turned. Ella pulled the child back against her. The baby squirmed, then opened two little eyes. Dark pools of wonder stared up at her, and something within Ella lurched. “Cynthia,” Ella said, her voice barely a whisper. “Look at this beautiful child.”

The woman refused to turn her head, and so Ella placed him on his mother’s chest. “He must eat, Cynthia. That much I know. Won’t you at least let him eat?”

As though to confirm Ella’s request, the child’s face scrunched and a wail filled the room. “See now, he’s hungry.”

Cynthia looked at Ella, and finally relented. Pulling aside her ragged gown, she wrapped her arm around the baby and lifted him. In a few moments, he began to suckle. Relieved, Ella collapsed on the side of the bed. “There, see? Our prayers have been answered.”

Cynthia didn’t respond. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the pillow.

Poor woman must be exhausted. Ella came to her feet. She’d want a new gown, and some clean linens for certain. Ella could probably take the ones from the pallet she had in the storeroom. As long as she could slip them past Mrs. Hatch without the woman taking notice of her. Best to busy her hands and be sure the new family had what they needed.

Ella glanced down at the bed to see how to best remove the bedclothes and halted her thoughts. A crimson stain spread across the bottom of Cynthia’s gown and onto the sheets. “Cynthia! Is the bleeding normal?”

She looked up to find the other woman gazing down at her child. “No. I will not make it.”

The words held more strength than she expected. Ella drew a sharp breath. “Don’t say such things. I will go and fetch a doctor.” She clenched her fists. “Whatever it takes, I will see that someone comes to help.”

Cynthia gently laughed as she drew the baby closer. “You are a good girl. So kind to care for one like me.” She looked up at Ella with something sparking in her eyes. “Promise me something.”

Ella dropped back down on the bed, but said nothing.

“Promise me you will find him a good home when I am gone.”

Ella struggled to withhold tears. “Don’t say that. You’ll be fine.”

“No, dear girl. I feel the life slipping from me.” She patted Ella’s hand. “Tell me, do you think…do you think the God you prayed to would have me, even as I am?”

Ella bobbed her head and clutched the woman’s hand. “I am sure of it. You need only ask.” At least, that is what her mother had always taught her.

Cynthia gave a small smile. “I did, a bit ago whilst you were turning pale looking at the bed.”

Ella’s brows rose.

“Don’t fret. I am…thankful that my torment has at long last come to an end. Perhaps the next place will be clean and beautiful.” A smile played on her lips, contrasting with the pain in her eyes. “Maybe then…maybe I can be clean and beautiful again too.”

A tear slid down Ella’s cheek, and she swiped it away. “Yes, it will be very beautiful there.”

Cynthia gazed down at the child, then looked up at Ella with concern. “Please.” Her face puckered. “I’ve not much time….”

“Yes. Yes, I will find him a home.” Somehow….

“Take him to the Remington place. They are good, God-fearing people there. Took care of me once. They had a wet nurse. Take him there. Mrs. Remington will find him a home.”

Ella choked down a sob. “I will. I promise.”

Cynthia placed a gentle kiss on the baby’s brow. “Goodbye, little one.” She settled back against the pillow. Then, before Ella could react, the light left her eyes.

Choking on sobs, Ella picked up the child from his dead mother’s arms and snuggled him against her chest. “There now, wee one. Don’t you worry. We will have you a home by morning’s light.”

Then she kissed his downy hair and prayed she hadn’t just spoken a lie.

Copyright 2017 Stephenia H. McGee. May not be copied, reproduced, or distributed without the author’s written permission.

"Reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, The Whistle Walk paints a vivid picture of America at the start of the War Between the States. The treatment of slaves, the economic conditions of the South, the concerns of the soldiers on both sides were brought to life in this breathtaking novel.”

— Christine Sharbrough, The Christian Manifesto

"It is obvious that McGee knows the time period, etiquette standards, building structures, food offerings, and much more. The Civil War atmosphere is very much present and I was reminded of the novel, Gone with the Wind, in quality of the writing and content."

— Susan Faloon, The Christian Manifesto

"It is beautifully told, exquisitely crafted, examining the harsh realities of slavery while allowing one to see the fire of hope and courage. It also shows the kindness and compassion of a young white lady expected to act as others yet yearning to change those expectations. It is realistic and sometimes heartbreaking yet it delivers a message of hope, love and faith against all odds and in all circumstance and it does this to absolute perfection! Bravo Ms. McGee!"

— In'Dtale Magazine


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