We begin our tragedy in a place where no harm will come to you. I would be remiss if I did not tell you that while you are reading this, you are perfectly safe at home. It is the characters in our story that will be the victims of my folly, but you, the reader, are perfectly safe.
Imagine if you will a garden. Tall hedges line the perimeter. Climbing roses abound with statuary and fountains throughout. It is a glorious garden, blooming near midsummer. The sultry scent of magnolias fills the humid air. The trees are blossoming in full glory with leaves spread wide and proud to shelter the seated areas of the garden from the sun’s brutal onslaught. The summer solstice is upon us. In the garden, two people sit on a bench. The year is 1884. The garden is in Atlanta, Georgia. A woman sits beside a man. She is garbed in a full and beautiful gown that is appropriate to the season, light in color and not heavy in skirt. It covers every portion of her frame. Great care has been taken to ensure that everything is left to the imagination. Over her shoulder, a white, lace parasol is perched. She smiles kindly to the man and poses in her lilting southern accent, “Sir… surely you cannot mean that it would be possible for such a thing to happen again. Many lives were lost in the series of storms that hit the south in February. My father tells me that such events are rare.”
The gentleman cleared his throat and shook his head before answering her in a distinguished British accent, “Miss Caroline, while it is true that such disastrous events are not commonplace in your part of the United States, I would have to say without a doubt, that it can happen again. Perhaps even today.”
Caroline frowned as she glanced up at the sky. “Lord Humphrey, are you saying that it is likely that we would have such a storm on a day so clear and beautiful?” She laughed, though not too loudly, anything more would have been perceived as an insult. “I think you are mistaken. These storms only attack us during the spring. We do not have anything to worry about now.”
For his part, Lord Humphrey frowned and turned his own gaze to the sky. “Is it true, Miss Caroline, that the sky often turns green during such storms?”
“I have never seen such a thing and so I am led to believe that it does not happen often.” The woman frowned and wrapped one hand over the other to steady the parasol against an abrupt breeze. “My brother told me about it though. He was caught in the middle of one of those tornadoes during February. Lance – my brother, the one I wrote you about that broke his leg – said the sky turned green as… hm.” Caroline paused, “It is a Mexican sauce of some kind, they put it on their food… it has avocadoes in it…”
Lord Humphrey raised an eyebrow, “Would you mean, guacamole?”
“That is it. Thank you. He said the sky and everything turned as green as guacamole.” She paused and tilted her head to the side, “In all our correspondence, you never mentioned having gone to Mexico. Have you been to visit there, Lord Humphrey?”
The man nodded, “I have, yes. I went with my late father some time before our correspondence began. Lovely weather no matter which time of year you visit. I spent the Christmas holiday in Mexico City, very warm. It failed to snow and I found it rather odd to be wearing a summer coat and trousers on Christmas Day.”
The woman laughed politely, and then she returned her eyes to the sky. “I do not imagine any such storm will happen upon us here anytime soon Lord Humphrey. Be glad that you were not here to see it.”
“I shall. I shall indeed. How many were killed did you say?”
“I am not entirely sure. I think it might have been as high as four hundred people.”
Lord Humphrey took another look at the sky and nodded faintly, “Four hundred… how sad to die in a freak accident of nature.”
She shook her head and smiled faintly, “My mother says the Lord works in mysterious ways. If he took those people, it was because it was simply their time. Nothing can be done to stop a thing if it is God’s will.”
A few hours have passed. It is the eve of the summer solstice. Caroline’s parents, held a garden party in honor of midsummer. A bonfire was lit and there was an outdoor dinner with musicians and dancing. The guests consisted of most of the city of Atlanta’s upper crust and had been directed to arrive at sunset. It was an odd time for a party, but the sunset that evening was spectacular and well worth the trip up the hill to the Johnston’s plantation.
As the sun had dipped below the horizon, everything took on a faint, greenish hue. The guests had wondered at it and been amazed by the event. The wind picked up slightly, giving a cool breeze and the perfect temperature for the gathering. All were pleased with the way things had turned out, all, except for Lord Humphrey. Caroline flitted about from one grouping to another, playing the perfect hostess. Mrs. Johnston had dazzled the mayor with her knowledge of the political climate. Caroline had amazed the judge with her astute observations of the law. She was an excellent copy of her mother, both portrayed the same parts in the gathering this evening and they made an amazing team.
Humphrey had managed to pin Caroline down to a bench to express his concerns, “Miss Caroline, our correspondence has gone on for a number of years, I feel that I know you as well as I know myself, and as such is the case I find no wrong in expressing my concerns. Did you not see the sky turn green just as the sun went down?”
“Why of course I did Lord Humphrey. It has simply been the talk of the party all evening.”
“I believe it means we are in danger Caroline. I could not bear it if some great tragedy were to befall you. Please come away with me tonight.”
Caroline’s jaw dropped. For as long as she’d been receiving his letters, she had secretly hoped that he might fall in love with her, but such an expression of concern was no clear indication of his feelings. She took a breath to calm herself so she could answer him properly, “Lord Humphrey… I simply cannot leave with you tonight. My father would be furious.”
“Then bring him with us.”
“Bring him with us?” The shock was apparent in her voice.
Humphrey stared at her for a moment and then said quietly, “Caroline, I wish to marry you, and I have already asked your father for permission to propose. But for the time being, my primary concern is getting away from the storm that I know is coming. I will not be able to ask you for your hand properly if you do not leave with me at once.”
“Lord Alistair Humphrey! Are you saying that you discussed this with my father before ever asking me?”
“I did Caroline, I have… I do wish to marry you, more than I have ever wished for anything. In order for me to do so, however, you must remain alive.”
“I will say this is the oddest proposal I have ever had, but I accept. Now let us go back and tell everyone the good news.”
He sighed, and shook his head. “Only if you swear to me that you will come away with me after our engagement has been announced.”
It was her turn to sigh. “If you insist.”
“Then the matter is settled.”
Once the announcement was made, the two made their way to the stables and had their horses readied. Caroline was still not happy about leaving her parents’ party, but it couldn’t be helped. In truth, the proposal from Lord Humphrey was the first she’d ever received and she was already eighteen years old. To turn away the first opportunity to marry a man, particularly when it was one she loved, would be far worse than leaving the party for the sake of placating her new fiancé.
The wind whipped around them, blowing up Caroline’s skirts, as they climbed onto their horses and set off down the road at a stately pace. Occasionally, Lord Humphrey would look over at her and smile. After a mile or so, Humphrey stopped and stared over at the young lady. “You are out of danger. I am afraid I must leave you now Caroline.”
“Danger! Leave? Lord Humphrey! What are you saying?”
Humphrey smiled and turned in his saddle to point behind them. She heard a low roar coming from the direction of the plantation and turned to look. In the sky behind her, over the copse of trees, there was the faintest outline of something large and black. “Humphrey…” her voice was soft and filled with fear. “What is that?”
She heard his voice answer, though she could not see him, “That, my lady, is a tornado. One of those storms that you said would not come. I must leave you now, as I said, but I will see you again in a week.”
When she turned back to ask him what he meant, he was gone. Soon after, the storm was gone as well. Caroline Johnston was left to sit on the back of her horse, alone on the wooded road. The silence was deafening.
It was morning before Caroline returned to the plantation. When she arrived, she found the force of the twister had razed the beautiful home that she’d been born in. Nothing remained of the house but the foundation. She walked into the gardens and found them largely in tact. Mere steps from her favorite bench, she found her father’s body on the ground, still holding on to her mother’s hand. Her mother laid twenty feet away atop the climbing rose.
All hundred or so people that had been present on that night, midsummer’s eve, 1884 had died, except for Caroline.
A week later, a letter arrived in the post as Caroline sat on the bench in the gardens reading and overseeing the construction of a new home where her old one had once stood.
My dearest Caroline,
By the time you receive this, I should be seeing you shortly there after. I am on my way to America to meet you at long last. I have been concerned for you ever since a dream came to me just three weeks ago, in which you were killed in a vicious tornado, just as the one that broke your brother’s leg, which you wrote to me about in February. My concern for you has been great.
This letter also comes to you, the bearer of happy news. We have written to one another for so long that I find myself deeply in love with you. I received word from your father that I have permission to ask you for your hand upon my arrival in Atlanta.
Before I end this message, I must tell you that I had the most amazing dream of you. I dreamt that I had already asked you to propose and saved you from a storm that was coming to take you away from me. Oddly enough, I left your side when you needed me most. I am glad that this incident has not happened, as I would never be able to forgive myself for abandoning you in your hour of need.
Oh lovely Caroline! Think upon my proposal and answer me when we meet at your home on the first of July.
Lord Alistair Humphrey