Anxious to get them free of the battle zone, Philo dispatched Annie and Little Bart northward the following morning. With transportation papers issued by General Burnside, the mammy and her ward traveled in a train full of wounded to Aquia Creek where the entire train was hoisted on to barges and ferried up the Potomac to Alexandria. Continuing by rail, they arrived in Baltimore at Camden Street Station, then the largest railroad terminal in the United States, thirty-six hours after bidding Philo farewell.
Well away from the actions of the war, the city seldom saw refugees from the front lines, certainly none like these. Both were dressed as they had been when Philo found them on the battlefield. Little Bart flopped along in his too-big boots, his flannel coat now stiff with Doctor Will's dried blood, Philo's Burnside hat askew on his chestnut curls. Annie's threadbare gown and shawl, common enough among the war-ravaged citizens of Fredericksburg, bore no resemblance to the warm winter clothes worn by the people of Baltimore.
In her pocket Annie carried written instructions from Philo as well as money for all their needs. Philo, in all innocence, had assumed that she could read. He had mistaken her intense questioning on every detail for a consuming interest in the goal at hand. Actually, it had been her device for mentally recording all that would have to be done.
As for the money, no currency had ever before crossed her hand. Even in wartime, with Doctor Will away, she had fed Little Bart from the garden. Sometimes food and goods were supplied by town tradesmen in exchange for past medical services the doctor had rendered.
Too proud to tell Philo this, Annie marched boldly forward, depending on vast reserves of inner strength.
Despite the loss of his parents, Little Bart remained Fortune's child. During the formative years of life, he had been shaped by a woman of profound character. As the ante-bellum South's counterpart of the amah tradition common to China and India, Annie had accepted the mammy's role of spiritual motherhood as her life's mission.
Annie had been raped at seventeen by her first owner, in Louisiana. She bore him a son whom his white father wanted to sell at birth. Faced by the loss of her child, she threatened to expose him to his wife for the rape of every young female he owned. Vicious to the core, the man beat her, then sold her to a traveling slaver who transported her to Georgia. She was bought as a wet-nurse and mammy for Little Bart's mother, Roma, after Roma's mother died in childbirth. Annie never saw her own son again.
Philo had instructed Annie to take a hack from the station to the house on North Charles Street. She had no idea what a hired cab was, and was too proud to ask.
So they walked, shivering in the cold.
"Pardon, Mastah, suh, but be you knowin' de way to de Duncan house?" she asked of people on the street, as she might have done in Fredericksburg, a town of five thousand.
Baltimore was immensely larger than that, so no answer was forthcoming.
Finally, she stopped short and cast her gaze to Heaven. "Well, Lawd, I reckon de rest be up to you."
She plopped down on a nearby bench, closed her eyes, and began silently to pray.
Little Bart took out his whistle. He stuck it between his lips. Arms outstretched, he balanced on the edge of a high curb fringing the cobblestoned street, mincing forward like an acrobat in a tightrope act. The penalty every time he fell off, which was often in the clumsy boots, was a blast on his noise machine.
A warmly dressed, fair-haired boy of about the same age was sitting on the white marble stairs of an imposing two-storey home across the street. With great interest, he watched Little Bart at his game.
When the young Virginian became covertly aware of this rapt audience, he increased the spread and flap of his arms and exaggerated the span of his gait. To his chagrin, his missteps became flounders, finally punctuated by a crash to the ground. The Marylander could contain himself no longer and burst into gales of childish laughter.
Little Bart halted his performance with a splendid show of outrage at the other boy's audacity. Hands on hips after twisting his Burnside straight, he shouted with a scowl, "Ho, Yankee, what you laughin' at?"
Surprised at being so boldly addressed, the lad left the stairs and crossed the frozen winter lawn to the brick sidewalk on his side. "Say there," he called, "are you a Reb? That's a mighty fine whistle you got."
"Yep, it's a good'un, alright," answered Little Bart loftily. "And a Rebel I be...a Virginia boy. My mammy used to live in Georgia." He gestured over his shoulder toward Annie who still sat in silent prayer.
"So did my ma!" The Marylander turned and ran into the house, exiting shortly with a beautifully dressed lady. He brought her to the sidewalk. "Ma, he's a Reb. And his mammy's from Georgia! Come over here, Reb."
Annie opened her eyes as Little Bart started across the street. "Li'l Bart! What you doin'? You don' go nowhere wifout axin' me!"
The lady quickly assessed the appearance of the shabby pair. "Do come over, y'all," she said. "It's so cold out here. I beg you to come inside." She extended her arms in invitation.
Rising stiffly to her feet, Annie groaned from exhaustion and cold. Little Bart rushed to her side. He lifted one of her arms and cast it around his shoulders. "Annie, I can't tote you on my back, but you can lean on me."
"Yes, chile," she smiled wanly, "someday you tote ol' Annie. I kin wait till then."
The short flight of snowy steps to the veranda circling the red-brick mansion gleamed like a toothy smile of welcome. The louvered gray door beckoned with festoons of red and green ribbons marking the Christmas season. Hanging at its center was a wreath of fresh holly, bright with scarlet berries.
The blonde lady hurried them into the house.
Annie flopped down on the banquette inside the door. "Iffen I could jes' set a spell, Ma'am," the mammy said. "We been travelin' steady since yestiddy mornin'. But I begs you to give mah li'l boy a cookie an' a glass ob warm milk, iffen you could see yo' way to it."
The mistress of the house, standing with her elegant hands clasped at her waist, inclined toward a small black serving woman who lingered nearby. "Bessie, tell cook to serve up the black-eyed peas and rice meant for dinner tonight. I want these folks to eat right now."
Annie raised her hand in gentle protest. "No, Ma'am, we cain't stay. We got to find dis boy's new momma. She somewhere here in Bawlermuh."
"A new momma in Baltimore?" the lady inquired.
"Mah Li'l Bart be an orphan chile," Annie explained in a whisper so the children could not hear her. "His momma, Miz Roma, she kilt when de Yankee cannons knock down de house, an' his pa, Doctuh Will, jes' been kilt on de battlefield fightin' dem same Yankees what kilt his wife."
The lady's eyes misted. "How terrible! I do understand. My husband is also in the war. I often wonder if I shall ever see him again."
"I prays you do, Ma'am," Annie went on. "But Li'l Bart, he find a new poppa what done sent us up here to de No'th. His wife, she don' know she got a new son. I be a mite skeerd, Ma'am. S'pose she don' want us?"
"You mean the gentleman hasn't told her?"
"No, Ma'am. It all happen so fast, an' Gen'ral Burnside, he say only de war news can go ovah de telly...de telly..." Annie could not think of the word.
"The telegraph?" suggested the lady.
"Yes, Ma'am...de telly-grap! So de cap'n, he done set down an' write a letter. I got it right here in mah pocket. I s'posed to show it to de hatch...de hax...at de rayroad depot, but I don' know what dat be."
The lady thought for a moment. "Perhaps he meant for you to take a hansom cab from the station," she volunteered. "We would call that a hack."
"Yes, Ma'am, dat's what it be!"
"Then," continued the lady, "that might mean the address is written on the envelope. Would you show it to me, please? Perhaps I can help."
Annie dug deep into her pocket to extract Philo's envelope. Several bills of currency fluttered to the floor.
"So much money!" the lady cried. "My goodness, couldn't you have bought some clothes on the way? At least warm coats for yourself and the boy!"
Annie looked sheepish. "I...I...don' know how. De cap'n, he gib me money, he say, foh everthing we needs. He gib me papers from de gen'ral wif what he call de scrib...de scrib...foh de barge and de train."
"That would be the Army's permission for y'all to travel, and military scrip to pay your fares," the lady deduced. "But the cash! Did you eat?"
Again Annie looked sheepish. "Wal, a soldier, he gib us a bag ob apples. Dat done us all de way to Bawlermuh."
Their hostess threw up her hands. "Then you must eat here and now! I won't have you meeting your new family half-starved! Don't forget I'm a Georgian, too!"
Too tired to argue, Annie passed Philo's letter to her. Without looking at it, the lady placed it on a hall table and hustled them down to the hospitable warmth of a basement kitchen filled with the smells of holiday baking. Bessie carried steaming plates to a large table set in the corner, then brought a platter of hot cornbread and a pitcher of sweetened warm milk. Annie and Little Bart sat on the plain, high-backed chairs. "Take off yo' hat, chile! Annie gonna say de grace. Bow yo' haid!"
Annie prayed: "Lawd, you done sent us Mastah Angel Hair, an' now you gib us dis good food foh to eat. We thankin' you, Lawd, foh de kind lady who gonna hep us find our new home. God bless you, Miz Roma and Doctuh Will. We know you lookin' out foh us, too. Amen!"
At Annie's mention of his dead parents, Little Bart lifted his head. "I love you, Momma. I love you, Pa. I'll look out for Annie. Don't you bother 'bout us. We're gonna be fine. Amen!"
Everyone echoed amen.
The pair ate ravenously, watched curiously in friendly silence by the blond boy, Bessie, and the cook. The lady of the house returned to the first floor and picked up Philo's letter.
When Annie and Little Bart had finished, they looked up to see her standing in the kitchen doorway, radiating a beatific smile. "Come with me," she said, "there is something I want y'all to see."
She extended her hands and led them back upstairs. Coming to a wide doorway hung with parted portieres of crimson velvet, she ushered them through the curtains and stepped aside.
Early winter darkness had fallen. Six-foot logs blazed in a massive fireplace, lending the spacious parlor a merry glow. Further illuminated by gaslight, the room was richly furnished with pillowed divans, comfortable chairs, and elegant marquetry tables standing on expensive Brussels carpets. Although a score of paintings adorned the flock-papered walls, one portrait dominated from a commanding position above the handsomely carved mantelpiece.
The man wore the dashing dark-blue uniform of an officer in the Federal Navy. He stood with arms jauntily crossed. His high-crowned cap was rakishly pushed back, affording a glimpse of blond hair beneath the narrow bill. Piercing blue eyes stared back at his observers.
Little Bart uttered a cry of surprise. He pointed fervently at the painting. "Dadburned if it ain't my new pa!" he exclaimed.
Annie gasped and clutched her throat. "Dat be Mastah Angel Hair!" she cried, turning to her benefactress. "Then you be Miz Nelle! De Lawd done showed us de way home!"
The lady's eyes overflowed with tears. "Yes, my dears, the Lord has led you home. I am Ora Nelle Duncan, Master Angel Hair's wife. In his letter, he mentioned your experience with the Northern Lights."
The blond boy, who had followed them from the kitchen, was stunned.
"If my old pa's your new pa, does that make us brothers?" he wanted to know.
"I reckon so," the new boy replied, extending his small hand. "Barton Creel's my name. Everybody calls me Little Bart."
The other boy made a tentative gesture with his. Little Bart grabbed it and gave it a good pump.
"I'm Ardmore Duncan..." the blond boy said slowly. "They call me...Ardie. I s'pose you should, too."
"I reckon so," grinned Little Bart, "you bein' the onliest brother I ever had."
Ardie frowned faintly. "I guess it was my pa gave you that Burnside. Did he give you the whistle, too?"
Little Bart shook his chestnut curls. "Nah, I whittled that myself." Then, intuitively, he added, "I reckon you oughta have the Burnside, Ardie. Cap'n Duncan's been your pa longer than he has mine."
Ardie accepted the proffered hat, held it for a moment with a deepening frown, then gave the Burnside back. "No, Little Bart, Pa gave it to you. It wouldn't be right for me to take it."
The Virginian reached into his pocket. "Have my whistle then. It's about all I got of my very own."
Ardie's face lit up. "You'd give me the whistle?"
"Oh, I can make another if I want," bragged Little Bart.
Ardie stuck the whistle in his mouth and gave a mighty blast. The two dissolved in laughter.
Nelle and Annie exchanged a look of pride.
Nelle Duncan knelt to them, cupping their chins in her hands. "You children will always do the right thing if you follow what Annie says. You are my sons, and Captain Duncan's, but you are also Annie's boys. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am, we understand!" they said together.
"Go with Bessie," Nelle instructed. "Little Bart needs a bath. And after he bathes, Ardie, you pick out some of your clothes for him to wear."
Philo's wife turned her attention to the mammy. "As you saw in the kitchen, our cook is about your size. Her clothes will tide you over till we can run up a few gowns. Come now, I'll show you to your room."
Nelle conducted the weary mammy up the wide staircase in the hall.
She led her to a room more spacious than Annie could imagine after her years in a Fredericksburg cottage. A four-poster cherrywood bed with a canopy of rose lawn graced one corner. A rose silk-covered cherrywood chaise reclined in another.
"This was to have been my mother's room," explained Nelle sadly, "but she is trapped in Georgia and may never be able to leave. My brother, Sam, is the only man left in the family, and he could be called away at any moment to serve in the Confederate Navy, 'cept there isn't any! But that won't last forever, and then Momma will be alone. She has the servants, of course, and they're like family, but these are unsure times. If the Yankees get as far as Savannah, they'll set them free, and then what will my mother do? I had hoped somehow she could come here by sea, but all the Southern ports are under Federal blockade! Scarcely a mouse can get out!"
Annie nestled beside her, warmheartedly hugging her close. "I unnerstans, honey. I know what it be lak to go 'way from yo' folks. I come to Virginny wif Li'l Bart's first momma, Miz Roma. We done lef' everbody behind when she marry Doctuh Will. She get lonesome sometimes. Fo' mahsef, I try not to think much about it no mo', but long time ago I had a chile of mah own in Loosianna, a boy he were, an' I don' know he be daid o' alive...mebbe dat be why Li'l Bart so precious to me. He livin' fo' mah chile, lak I be gettin' a second chance to give a good man to de world."
Nelle's cheeks were wet with tears. "It's dreadful to be separated from those we love. I feel so deeply about the losses we must all endure. Thank God Little Bart has a mammy like you! That's why I want you to enjoy this precious room, because you've been a mother to him, and my Ardie needs you, too. You're part of our family now."
Nelle fluttered her hanky and sprang to her feet. "We must get you bathed and properly clothed as well, Annie! There's a nice room off the kitchen where we take our baths in a large tub. It's cozy and warm, with a fire blazing on the grate."
Little Bart and Ardie met them in the hall, the Virginian wrapped in a towel, still wearing the jaunty Burnside on his damp head. Little Bart saluted them with an ear-splitting Rebel yell. Ardie breezed by, cheeks puffed out, the whistle blaring between his lips.
Nelle smiled. "Our boys are not only already good for
each other, but haven't they also begun to fill this house with joy?"