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“Love or Loyalty,” a novel of love, loss and reconciliation - Excerpt

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This excerpt from “Love of Loyalties, by Joy Scott, takes place the day of the Great Flood of Galveston, Sept. 8, 1900. Zack Lewis, a Confederate veteran who is now an attorney, lost his true love, Lenie, decades ago to his rival and former Yankee, Charles Delacourt. Now a widower, his two daughters – Ellie, hiding a devastating secret of the heart, and Helen, now a nun – still live in Galveston. Lenie has achieved her dream of becoming one of the first female physicians and now runs the city’s hospital.

Hurricane of Hearts

It was Saturday, September 8, 1900.  Grey clouds scudded across the sky, blown by high winds. In the yard at the quiet Lewis home, water covered half the lawn. A dog loped up to drink, tasted brackish liquid, and backed away at its salty flavor. Afterwards people would remember that the air was heavy and ominous, foretelling a disaster to follow. But truth be told, they really only thought another late summer storm might be blowing in.

But by early afternoon, the storm was raging in full force. Or so everyone thought. The rain fell in long, smooth gray sheets.  On the streets, pedestrians’ umbrellas were collapsing like children's toys. The water ran in knee-high rivers between houses and shops. The small children were now inside, called to safety by their mothers. Some of the bigger boys and girls still used the rapidly rising waters as their playground, swimming and sailing down the rushing waterways, enjoying this respite from the summer heat.

But inside Zack’s law office, it was business as usual as far as he was concerned. To his chagrin, the clerks wasted precious time peering out the window with apprehension. He expected considerably more diligence from young men he had handpicked from the graduating class of the University of Virginia. Of course their tiny moustaches and straw hats bespoke – to him – a lack of gravitas. But shouldn’t breeding and education win out over frivolity?

"Haven't you ever seen rain before?" asked Zack scornfully.

"It's very bad, Mr. Lewis. All the other businesses have closed," replied Clarence, in a timid voice that may have reflected either his fear of the storm, or of his employer’s wrath, or maybe both. Abruptly the telephone rang; Isaac responded to its tinny summons. He called out to Zack.

"Sir, it's Dr. Delacourt. At the hospital. She says it's urgent." Zack crossed to the phone and picked it up.

"Lenie? Lenie? Hello?" He shook the phone, then hung up in disgust. “Useless contraption.”

"The hospital could be flooded," observed Clarence, a worried frown rising above his round glasses.

"Well, I guess we should go," agreed Zack grumpily. With relief the two young men tidied their desks and prepared to leave.

Outside, the winds were now so strong that it took the combined strength of all three men to close and lock the office door. Their journey quickly became a battle not only against the wind and rain, but the waist-high water than ran swiftly with a mind and strength of its own. The only other humans they encountered were a family that was, inexplicably, floating a bathtub filled with children to an unknown destination. The gusts had not yet reached the force that could tear off a person’s clothes in a second, but clearly this was no ordinary storm. A walk that usually took ten minutes lasted almost an hour, before they finally dragged their tired legs and sodden clothing up the steps of the hospital.

Their relief at reaching their destination quickly evaporated at the scene inside that venerated institution.   The chaos of the staff running to and fro, the roar of the wind, and the screaming patients all created a scene like those of bedlam, or one of those scary movies they show at Halloween. Then from the darkness,  Lenie’s familiar slender figure appeared. Strands of black hair, streaked with grey, escaped her bun and stood out from her head like a halo in the humid air. After all this time, Zack still felt his frozen heart thaw – just a little – at the site of her graceful figure darting between the beds of the frightened patients.

Seeing the fear in Lenie’s eyes, Zack finally realized that this was a real emergency.

"Thank goodness you've come. The old hospital across the yard is flooding. We've got to move the County patients in here,” Lenie shouted above the melee.

She rapidly led them to the back door. Across the quadrangle through the sheets of rain they could see the old infirmary. The tall, spare figures of Charles and Phillip protruded from the raging lake that separated the two buildings, each carrying a petrified elderly woman, like oversized children riding piggyback. The two rescuers waded in chest-high water to the door of the newer edifice and staggered up the steps. Zack and the clerks helped pull them inside while Lenie took charge of two terrified patients.

Charles’ birthdays had passed the 70 mark several years ago.  His once sleek dark hair was now completely grey and his skin stretched like fine dried leather over the bones of his face. His slender frame now gave him an aura of fragility rather than feral strength.

Relieved of his burden, he leaned against the wall to catch his breath. Despite the heat of the late summer afternoon, he shivered. Zack, from his 15 years younger vantage point, allowed himself a moment of superiority.

“Well, old timer, wind got the best of you?” He razzed Charles. “You stay here. We’ll handle this.”

Calling on the courage and bravado that had taken him through countless cavalry charges against impossible odds, Zack motioned to his troops – er, clerks - to follow. Phillip offered his arm to Charles, but Charles shook it off. Grimly he turned to the raging storm, unwilling to concede the field to his old rival.

Still, no one could imagine how bad the storm was going to be. Despite the darkness and dense rain that made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, some citizens still fought their way through the flooded streets, trying to complete their daily errands. Then word began to spread through the city of early disasters. The roof of a favorite restaurant collapsed, killing the city’s elite businessmen there for lunch. The sea ravaged the venerable old bathhouses at the beach. Along the coast, the waters had flooded the ground floors of even the raised houses on their stilts, prompting their inhabitants to seek shelter with relatives and friends who lived further into the city.  Fear spread like fog from house to house, street to street, feeding the terrors inspired by the relentless winds and rain.

Even the orphanage, under the direct patronage of the Divine, lay under siege of the storm.  Belatedly Helen and the other nuns led the terrified children up the narrow circular stairs to higher ground, away from the relentless tide that had engulfed the ground floor.  The smaller children sobbed in fear; some of the older ones may have still thought this was all a great adventure, but not many.

"All right, children. Hold hands. Let's sing. This is a song my father taught me," announced Helen with false brightness.   Slowly, she began singing the only tune she could think of, the one she and her siblings had sung daily in childhood:

"Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton

Old times there are not forgotten

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland."

With quavering voices, the children joined her in the Southern anthem.

Outside, the relentless storm systematically continued its destruction of the city of Galveston. Homes toppled under the relentless pressure of swirling water, the inhabitants disgorged into the sea, screaming for help until their voices were silenced. Uprooted giant trees added to the swirling debris. People, animals, and homes spun by in the angry waves that showed no mercy to any living thing.

The ancient lighthouse crumbled under a gigantic wave, its beam permanently extinguished. Ships in the harbor collided against each other, disintegrating with the force of the impact.

Starting at the beach, a wall of debris, like a giant dam, began to swell. Propelled by the hurricane gale, it slowly inched its way toward the city – first a few feet high, then high enough to reach the floors of the raised homes, then another story, then above the roofs. Like an implacable bulldozer, it crept forward, collapsing everything in its path.

Outside the hospital, the rain slammed into the water, now shoulder-deep, with the force of bullets. Hurricane winds blew so hard, no waves could form. The flat surface of the floodwaters disguised the churning maelstrom underneath, hiding the remnants from fallen buildings, uprooted trees, and fences, all spinning with deadly force.

Inside the hospital quadrangle, somewhat protected from the gale, Charles, Zack, Phillip and the clerks crossed the courtyard again, hands clasped as they struggled on in single file, each with a terrified elderly person clinging to his back. Suddenly, despite their efforts, Phillip was torn free and went under the water.

Watching from the doorway, Ellie screamed in terror and would have jumped from her perch of safety to rescue him had Lenie not stayed her with an iron-like grip. But God smiled as Philip and his patient were caught in the gnarled branches of a dislodged tree. Ellie still could not breathe, even as Zack and Charles reached out and pulled them both to safety.

But when they broke the chain of hands,  Fate took this chance to strike again, catching up Clarence and his charge, an old man whose mouth formed a soundless scream, and sweeping them away outside the quadrangle and into the tempest.

As Lenie and Ellie pulled the men and their frail charges inside the hospital, Ellie threw herself into Phillip’s arms, heedless of any Victorian proprieties. He did not push her away, only looked back into the storm as the doomed pair disappeared into the wailing darkness, shaken by his narrow escape and the randomness of their loss.

"God help them,” he murmured.

Water now covered the first floor of the hospital.  Orderlies, civilians taking refuge from the storm, and patients moved in a steady, if disorganized, stream upstairs to what they imagined was a safe refuge. Once on the second floor, some used bedding to tie themselves to furniture so that they would have something to cling to should the floodwaters breach the walls of the building once thought to be invulnerable.

Every few moments – with the force of a hybrid thunderclap and earthquake - the hospital's thick stone walls shuddered as pieces of buildings and masonry assaulted them. Amidst the screaming winds, a groaning – like a thousand mourning souls – added to the surreal scene.

On the second floor of the orphanage, the terrified children were all crying now. One nun tried futilely to lead them in the rosary, but only her quavering voice was heard amidst the din, “Deliver us from evil, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  

The more practical nuns, including Helen, used the rope belts around their waists to tie the smaller children to them as the winds raged outside, and the old walls moaned before their power.  Every piece of debris hitting the sides of the building blocked the windows, shutting out the dying daylight to the frightened souls inside. Shadows obscured the smiles of the beloved faces in the orphanage’s prize possession:  a stained glass window of the Holy Family, with the long, narrow faces of Jesus, Mary and Joseph staring impassively out over the children’s damp heads.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” –

With a crash, the roots of a gigantic magnolia tree shattered the sacred glass window. The children screamed as the shards of glass flew into their midst. But only for a moment. With a malevolent roar, an avalanche of water burst through the now open window.

Outside, the building swayed like a shimmying dancer, listed, and the walls slowly collapsed. The crash of wood and stone disintegrating as the edifice dissolved into the flood silenced the shrieks of those inside.

Unaware of this latest catastrophe, Lenie comforted the patients as best she could in the dark hospital wards, using reassuring pats and touches when her words could not be heard.

"Doctor, are we all going to die?" gasped one old woman.

"Hush. This is the strongest building in the city. We're safest here.” Lenie squeezed the trembling hand in reassurance, but could not meet those terrified eyes.

Amidst the din and the shadows, no one noticed as Phillip drew Ellie aside, near a window where the shutters rattled ominously against the gale outside. Protectively he took her hand, squeezing it tightly, commanding her to meet his eyes and lean closely to hear his words.   

"If the building falls - hold on to me. We'll jump out the window together."   She nodded her understanding, her light eyes huge pools in the darkness, clinging to his hand as if for her life.  

Their rescue mission complete, Zack and Charles now sagged against the groaning wall, both thoroughly exhausted.  From outside, cries for help wafted over the roar of the wind. Like that day in the fiery inferno of the Wilderness so long ago, Zack’s need to rescue these lost souls once again overcame his instinct for self-preservation. He pushed himself upright and opened the shutter to the raging storm.

The force of the wind caught Charles full on like a blow, pinning him to the opposite wall like an insect displayed in a box. Zack crawled across the floor to him and slowly, limb by limb, pealed him away from the wall.

Using reserves of strength released by their survival instincts, the two old veterans forced the shutter out the window into the hurricane, hoping to catch the victims being swept by in the flood. But again the all-powerful wind felled Charles, and he collapsed on the wet floor.  Zack, oblivious to Charles’ plight, concentrated on his futile rescue attempts.

Charles struggled to stand, but after a lifetime of daredevil adventures, his strength finally failed him. The malevolent tempest had accomplished what no battle or conflict had ever done: made him afraid.

"Zack! Zack!" cried Charles. The howling winds obliterated his words. Charles grabbed Zack's arm to get his attention and when Zack finally turned his head, Charles half-gasped, half-yelled into his face.

"I'm not going to make it. Please look after Lenie.”

His gray wavy hair blown back from his face like wings, Zack was in no mood for anyone’s last wishes.

"Stop it, you Yankee reprobate. Old buzzards like you never die," he barked.

Charles didn’t believe his assurances for a moment. Guilt weighed on his soul. He used the last of his strength to be heard above the screaming storm.

"I have to tell you – I – I told Peter to give the flowers to Lucy."

Zack stared at Charles, trying to take this admission in above the noise of the tempest, the tragedies of that day and of a lifetime. Finally, Charles’ confession registered in his brain. Zack understood that it had not been an accident, all those years ago, that had deprived him of his happiness, but another betrayal by this deceitful nemesis. Charles had misdirected the flowers Zack had sent to Lenie, his floral proposal for her hand. So Zack lost the love of his life, and Charles stole her away. His piercing glare at Charles could have murdered him in its ferocity.  Releasing the shutter into the maelstrom outside, he curled his hands into fists.

"You lying – I’ll kill you myself," he yelled.

Charles may not have heard his words but the intent was unmistakable. However, screams from the patients distracted Zack from his vengeful intent. In the dusk, a huge and monstrous shadow loomed over the hospital.

A section of railway track, a block long, swept toward the doomed building. Zack and Charles stared at this deadly apparition in helpless horror. At the same time, both men reached for Lenie, standing behind them, and grasped her arms just as the iron monster crashed into the hospital. The thick walls snapped like dry sticks and the tsunami poured in.

In that split second, Phillip pulled Ellie toward an open window; they jumped into the wave as the entire structure collapsed upon the hundreds of souls trapped within it.

The underwater vortex hungrily sucked the intertwined couple downward into the depths, as their arms clenched around each other, kept them together.    Ellie's long skirt snagged on a tree branch, holding them down despite Phillip’s frantic kicking toward what he thought was the air. Feeling his way along the length of her body, Phillip ripped the cloth, freeing them both. Together they fought their way to the surface, gasping for air.

The relentless sea twirled them again, like a malevolent spinning top, round and round, up and down, not satisfied until the desperate couple was finally wrenched apart.  

"Phillip! Phillip!" screamed Ellie, before she went under again.   And then her screams were swallowed up in the everlasting night.

"HELP ME! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!" shrieked one lost soul.

“Mama! Mama!” cried a terrified child piteously.

"I'm John Bullock. Please tell my wife I love her," said yet another desperate voice, over and over again, before the wind and water silenced the piteous last wish.

Heaven was busy welcoming too many souls that day to show mercy for those still trapped on earth.

           

But Fortune smiled at last upon Zack and Lenie, who found themselves clinging to a piece of masonry, riding the waves like a miniature raft. Zack grasped Lenie's hand, pulling her closer.

"Hold on to me!" he panted.

"Lenie! Lenie!" Faintly, they heard Charles’ voice through the whining storm.

"Charles! Charles! Over here!" yelled Lenie with all the force she could muster. But her shout came out as a puny whimper, lost in the shrieking tempest.

She spied Charles floating by, clinging to one of the shutters, his hair plastered to his skull and his skin waxen with strain. He struggled to swim to them, was almost there when a piece of driftwood caught him in the head. He lost his grip on his makeshift life raft and slipped out of sight below the surface of the hungry waters.

Zack watched the disappearing form, thinking dimly that justice was finally done.  His grip on Lenie tightened as she struggled to break free and go after her husband.

"Zack! Let me go for him!" cried Lenie.

Her frantic writhing convinced Zack that she would lose her own life in this fruitless struggle unless he intervened. Once again, the urge to protect his own overcame fear, and even his desire for revenge.   

"NO! You hold on! I’ll go!" ordered Zack.

He hesitated just a moment, then propelled himself out into the water toward Charles. Disoriented, buffeted by the winds and the pellets of sharp rain, Zack, too, went under. Lost and confused, he could only kick his exhausted legs and reach upward toward his old adversary with arms that felt like dead weights. Unable to hold his breath, his willful lungs sucked in the salty water.

“I’m drowning,” thought Zack, his mind completely clear. In a second, his life appeared before him; he watched the scenes whiz by as he pondered the irony of dying in an attempt to save his worst enemy, especially after all the near escapes Fortune had bestowed upon him in the War.

On her violently heaving raft, Lenie swiveled her head looking in vain for either of the two men. The most fervent prayers of her life caught in her throat.