The characters in Joseph Altsheler's "Before the Dawn" have also fallen upon "bluggy" times; but, compared with John Oxenham, Mr. Altsheler is evidently a man of peace. He has added another to the grist of Civil War stories, but he has gone a little aside from the beaten path, and has given us a story of the fall of Richmond, of the wreck of the old regime, of the death-struggle of the Confederacy. There is no violent sectional feeling in the book, and though the heroine is a Northern woman and the hero a Virginian, even that complication rouses little bitterness. Mr. Altsheler has not pictured all Southern women fair and all Southern men chivalrous, but he has done full justice to the honor and courage that supported a lost cause, has been just to Lee, the gallant and brave, as to Grant, the grim and tenacious; and, when the two great men lock forces in the Battle of the Wilderness, one forgets the cause in the magnitude of the struggle, feels only the pity of it all, the tragedy of the sacrifice upon the Union's altar.
Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Liczba stron: 619
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Before the Dawn - A Story of the Fall of Richmond
Joseph A. Altsheler
A Woman In Brown
A Man's Mother
The Mosaic Club
The Secretary Moves
An Elusive Face
The Pursuit Of A Woman
The Cottage In The Side Street
The Pall Of Winter
Robert And Lucia
Feeding The Hungry
Mr. Sefton Makes A Confidence
A Flight By Two
The Great Rivals
The Great Revival
Day In The Wilderness
Night In The Wilderness
The Secretary Looks On
A Delicate Situation
The Lone Sentinel
Out Of The Forest
The Despatch Bearer
The Mountain General
The Secretary And The Lady
The Way Out
The Fall Of Richmond
The Telegraph Station
The Coin Of Gold
Before the Dawn, J. A. Altsheler
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Germany
RICHMOND is at the head of tide and navigation, on the north bank of James river, one hundred and twenty-five miles by water from the ocean.
1607. (May) Discovery of the site by Newport and Capt. John Smith, who explored the river to the falls. .
1645. Fort Charles erected for protection of the frontier.
1656. Probable date of Bloody Run Indian battle.
1733. Town " at Shaccos, to be called Richmond," projected by Col. William Byrd.
1737. Richmond founded, and lots offered for sale.
1740. St. John's church built.
1742. Richmond incorporated as a town.
1771. Great flood in James river.
1775. Virginia Convention met in St. John's church' Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech.
1779. Capital moved from Williamsburg.
1781. Richmond invaded by Arnold; Tarleton's raid disperses the Legislature.
1782. Incorporated as a city.
1785. Foundation of Capitol building laid.
1786. Old Masons' Hall erected; first Masonic building in America.
1787. Mayo's bridge built. A destructive fire burnt fifty houses.
1788. Virginia Convention ratified Federal Constitution.
1790. Population 3,761 . About 300 houses in the city.
1792. Capitol completed.
1793. Richmond Light Infantry Blues organized.
1800. Population 5,730.
1809. Haxall Flour Mills established.
1810. Population 9,785.
1811. (Dec. 26) Burning- of Theatre; sixty lives lost.
1812. War vessel built by contributions of ladies of Richmond.
1814. Stone bridge built over Shockoe creek. Monumental church built.
1817. Union Hotel and Marshall Theatre built.
1820. Population 12,067.
1830. Population 16,060. Richmond College founded.
1831. Reservoir and water-works finished.
1837. Tredegar Iron Works established.
1838. Medical College established.
1840. Population 20,153. Exchange Hotel built.
1849. Hollywood Cemetery dedicated.
1850. Population 27,570. Corner-stone of Washington Monument laid.
1851. Streets lighted with gas.
1858. Washington Monument dedicated.
1860. Population 37,910. State Convention met in December.
1861. State seceded from Union April 17th; 5,000 Richmond troops volunteered for service. ' ' Pawnee ' ' war, April 21st.
1862. Seven days' battles, June 25th-July 1st.
1864. (May-June) Grant's campaign around city.
1865. (April 3rd) Evacuation by Confederate army ; large section of the city burnt.
1866. Richmond (now Commonwealth) Club founded.
1867. " Reconstruction" Convention met. Chamber of Commerce established.
1870. Population 51,038. April 27th, Capitol disaster, 65 killed, 200 injured. December 25th, Spotswood Hotel burnt, with loss of three lives.
1875. (October 26th) Jackson Statue dedicated.
1876. Mozart Association organized.
1877. Westmoreland Club founded. Great flood in river, with rise of 25 feet.
1880. Population 63,600. Commercial Club founded.
1881. Yorktown Centennial celebration.
1885. Cluverius murder case. August, four companies military attend General Grant's funeral in New York.
1886. Mozart Academy of Music dedicated. Electric lights introduced. August 31st, heavy earthquake shock.
1888. Electric railways inaugurated.
1890. Population 81,388. Lee Monument dedicated.
1892. Howitzer Statue dedicated.
1894. Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument dedicated. City Hall finished. Chamber of Commerce building finished.
1895. New Howitzer Armory finished. Jefferson Hotel opened.
1896. Population, estimated, 95,000.
Before the Dawn - A Story of the Fall of Richmond
A tall, well-favoured youth, coming from the farther South, boarded the train for Richmond one raw, gusty morning. He carried his left arm stiffly, his face was thin and brown, and his dingy uniform had holes in it, some made by bullets; but his air and manner were happy, as if, escaped from danger and hardships, he rode on his way to pleasure and ease.
He sat for a time gazing out of the window at the gray, wintry landscape that fled past, and then, having a youthful zest for new things, looked at those who traveled with him in the car. The company seemed to him, on the whole, to lack novelty and interest, being composed of farmers going to the capital of the Confederacy to sell food; wounded soldiers like himself, bound for the same place in search of cure; and one woman who sat in a corner alone, neither speaking nor spoken to, her whole aspect repelling any rash advance.
Prescott always had a keen eye for woman and beauty, and owing to his long absence in armies, where both these desirable objects were scarce, his vision had become acute; but he judged that this lone type of her sex had no special charm. Tall she certainly was, and her figure might be good, but no one with a fair face and taste would dress as plainly as she, nor wrap herself so completely in a long, brown cloak that he could not even tell the colour of her eyes. Beautiful women, as he knew them, always had a touch of coquetry, and never hid their charms wholly.
Prescott's attention wandered again to the landscape rushing past, but finding little of splendour or beauty, it came back, by and by, to the lone woman. He wondered why she was going to Richmond and what was her name. She, too, was now staring out of the window, and the long cloak hiding her seemed so shapeless that he concluded her figure must be bad. His interest declined at once, but rose again with her silence and evident desire to be left alone.
As they were approaching Richmond a sudden jar of the train threw a small package from her lap to the floor. Prescott sprang forward, picked it up and handed it to her. She received it with a curt "Thanks," and the noise of the train was so great that Prescott could tell nothing about the quality of her voice. It might or might not be musical, but in any event she was not polite and showed no gratitude. If he had thought to use the incident as an opening for conversation, he dismissed the idea, as she turned her face back to the window at once and resumed her study of the gray fields.
"Probably old and plain," was Prescott's thought, and then he forgot her in the approach to Richmond, the town where much of his youth had been spent. The absence of his mother from the capital was the only regret in this happy homecoming, but he had received a letter from her assuring him of her arrival in the city in a day or two.
When they reached Richmond the woman in the brown cloak left the car before him, but he saw her entering the office of the Provost-Marshal, where all passes were examined with minute care, every one who came to the capital in those times of war being considered an enemy until proved a friend. Prescott saw then that she was not only tall, but very tall, and that she walked with a strong, graceful step. "After all, her figure may be good," he thought, revising his recent opinion.
Her pass was examined, found to be correct, and she left the office before his own time came. He would have asked the name on her pass, but aware that the officer would probably tell him to mind his own business, he refrained, and then forgot her in the great event of his return home after so long a time of terrible war. He took his way at once to Franklin Street, where he saw outspread before him life as it was lived in the capital of the Confederate States of America. It was to him a spectacle, striking in its variety and refreshing in its brilliancy, as he had come, though indirectly, from the Army of Northern Virginia, where it was the custom to serve half-rations of food and double rations of gunpowder. Therefore, being young, sound of heart and amply furnished with hope, he looked about him and rejoiced.
Richmond was a snug little town, a capital of no great size even in a region then lacking in city growth, but for the time more was said about it and more eyes were turned upon it than upon any other place in the world. Many thousands of men were dying in an attempt to reach this small Virginia city, and many other thousands were dying in an equally strenuous effort to keep them away.
Such thoughts, however, did not worry Prescott at this moment. His face was set resolutely toward the bright side of life, which is really half the battle, and neither the damp nor the cold was able to take from him the good spirits that were his greatest treasure. Coming from the bare life of a camp and the somber scenes of battlefields, he seemed to have plunged into a very whirlwind of gaiety, and his eyes sparkled with appreciation. He did not notice then that his captain's uniform was stained and threadbare enough to make him a most disreputable figure in a drawing-room, however gallant he might appear at the head of a forlorn hope.
The street was crowded, the pressure of the armies having driven much of the life of the country into the city, and Prescott saw men, women and children passing, some in rich and some in poor attire. He saw ladies, both young and old, bearing in their cheeks a faint, delicate bloom, the mark of the South, and he heard them as they spoke to each other in their soft, drawling voices, which reminded him of the waters of a little brook falling over a precipice six inches high.
It is said that soldiers, after spending a year or two in the serious business of slaying each other, look upon a woman as one would regard a divinity--a being to be approached with awe and respect; and such emotions sprang into the heart of Prescott when he glanced into feminine faces, especially youthful ones. Becoming suddenly conscious of his rusty apparel and appearance, he looked about him in alarm. Other soldiers were passing, some fresh and trim, some rusty as himself, but a great percentage of both had bandaged limbs or bodies, and he found no consolation in such company, wishing to appear well, irrespective of others.
He noticed many red flags along the street and heard men calling upon the people in loud, strident voices to come and buy. At other places the grateful glow of coal fires shone from half-opened doorways, and the faint but positive click of ivory chips told that games of chance were in progress.
"Half the population is either buying something or losing something," he said to himself.
A shout of laughter came from one of the open doorways beyond which men were staking their money, and a voice, somewhat the worse for a liquid not water, sang:
"Little McClellan sat eating a melon The Chickahominy by; He stuck in his spade, Then a long while delayed, And cried: 'What a brave general am I!'"
"I'll wager that you had nothing to do with driving back McClellan," thought Prescott, and then his mind turned to that worn army by the Rapidan, fighting with such endurance, while others lived in fat ease here in Richmond.
Half a dozen men, English in face and manner and rolling in their walk like sailors, passed him. He recognized them at once as blockade runners who had probably come up from Wilmington to sell their goods for a better price at the capital. While wondering what they had brought, his attention was distracted by one of the auctioneers, a large man with a red face and tireless voice.
"Come buy! Come buy!" he cried. "See this beautiful new uniform of the finest gray, a sample of a cargo made in England and brought over five days ago on a blockade runner to Wilmington."
Looking around in search of a possible purchaser, his eye caught Prescott.
"This will just suit you," he said. "A change of a strap or two and it will do for either captain or lieutenant. What a figure you will be in this uniform!" Then he leaned over and said persuasively: "Better buy it, my boy. Take the advice of a man of experience. Clothes are half the battle. They may not be so on the firing line, but they are here in Richmond."
Prescott looked longingly at the uniform which in colour and texture was all that the auctioneer claimed, and fingered a small package of gold in his pocket. At that moment some one bid fifty dollars, and Prescott surveyed him with interest.
The speaker was a man of his own age, but shorter and darker, with a hawk-like face softened by black eyes with a faintly humourous twinkle lurking in the corner of each. He seemed distinctly good-natured, but competition stirred Prescott and he offered sixty dollars. The other man hesitated, and the auctioneer, who seemed to know him, asked him to bid up.
"This uniform is worth a hundred dollars if it's worth a cent, Mr. Talbot," he said.
"I'll give you seventy-five dollars cash or five hundred on a credit," said Talbot; "now which will you take?"
"If I had to take either I'd take the seventy-five dollars cash, and I'd be mighty quick about making a choice," replied the auctioneer.
Talbot turned to Prescott and regarded him attentively for a moment or two. Then he said:
"You look like a good fellow, and we're about the same size. Now, I haven't a hundred dollars in gold, and I doubt whether you have. Suppose we buy this uniform together, and take turns in wearing it."
Prescott laughed, but he saw that the proposition was made in entire good faith, and he liked the face of the man whom the auctioneer had called Talbot.
"I won't do that," he replied, "because I have more money than you think. I'll buy this and I'll lend you enough to help you in buying another."
Friendships are quickly formed in war time, and the offer was accepted at once. The uniforms were purchased and the two young men strolled on together, each carrying a precious burden under his arm.
"My name is Talbot, Thomas Talbot," said the stranger. "I'm a lieutenant and I've had more than two years' service in the West. I was in that charge at Chickamauga when General Cheatham, leading us on, shouted: 'Boys, give 'em hell'; and General Polk, who had been a bishop and couldn't swear, looked at us and said: 'Boys, do as General Cheatham says!' Well, I got a bad wound in the shoulder there, and I've been invalided since in Richmond, but I'm soon going to join the Army of Northern Virginia."
Talbot talked on and Prescott found him entertaining, as he was a man who saw the humourous side of things, and his speech, being spontaneous, was interesting.
The day grew darker and colder. Heavy clouds shut out the sun and the rain began to fall. The people fled from the streets, and the two officers shivered in their uniforms. The wind rose and whipped the rain into their faces. Its touch was like ice.
"Come in here and wait till the storm passes," said Talbot, taking his new friend by the arm and pulling him through an open door. Prescott now heard more distinctly than ever the light click of ivory chips, mingled with the sound of many voices in a high or low key, and the soft movement of feet on thick carpets. Without taking much thought, he followed his new friend down a short and narrow hall, at the end of which they entered a large, luxurious room, well lighted and filled with people.
"Yes, it's a gambling room--The Nonpareil--and there are plenty more like it in Richmond, I can tell you," said Talbot. "Those who follow war must have various kinds of excitement. Besides, nothing is so bad that it does not have its redeeming point, and these places, without pay, have cared for hundreds and hundreds of our wounded."
Prescott had another errand upon which his conscience bade him hasten, but casting one glance through the window he saw the soaking streets and the increasing rain, swept in wild gusts by the fierce wind. Then the warmth and light of the place, the hum of talk and perhaps the spirit of youth infolded him and he stayed.
There were thirty or forty men in the room, some civilians and others soldiers, two bearing upon their shoulders the stripes of a general. Four carried their arms in slings and three had crutches beside their chairs. One of the generals was not over twenty-three years of age, but this war furnished younger generals than he, men who won their rank by sheer hard service on great battlefields.
The majority of the men were playing faro, roulette or keno, and the others sat in softly upholstered chairs and talked. Liquors were served from a bar in the corner, where dozens of brightly polished glasses of all shapes and sizes glittered on marble and reflected the light of the gas in vivid colours.
Prescott's mind traveled back to long, lonely watches in the dark forest under snow and rain, in front of the enemy's outposts, and he admitted that while the present might be very wicked it was also very pleasant.
He gave himself up for a little while to the indulgence of his physical senses, and then began to examine those in the room, his eyes soon resting upon the one who was most striking in appearance. It was a time of young men, and this stranger was young like most of the others, perhaps under twenty-five. He was of middle height, very thick and broad, and his frame gave the impression of great muscular strength and endurance. A powerful neck supported a great head surmounted by a crop of hair like a lion's mane. His complexion was as delicate as a woman's, but his pale blue eyes were bent close to the table as he wagered his money with an almost painful intentness, and Prescott saw that the gaming madness was upon him.
Talbot's eyes followed Prescott's and he smiled.
"I don't wonder that you are looking at Raymond," he said. "He is sure to attract attention anywhere. You are beholding one of the most remarkable men the South has produced."
Prescott recognized the name as that of the editor of the Patriot, a little newspaper published on a press traveling in a wagon with the Western army until a month since, when it had come over to the Army of Northern Virginia. The Patriot was "little" only in size. The wit, humour, terseness, spontaneous power of expression, and above all of phrase-making, which its youthful editor showed in its columns, already had made Raymond a power in the Confederacy, as they were destined in his maturity to win him fame in a reunited nation.
"He's a great gamester and thinks that he's a master of chance," said Talbot, "but as a matter of fact he always loses. See how fast his pile of money is diminishing. It will soon be gone, but he will find another resource. You watch him."
Prescott did not need the advice, as his attention was already concentrated on Raymond's broad, massive jaw and the aggressive curve of his strong face. His movements were quick and nervous; face and figure alike expressed the most absolute self-confidence. Prescott wondered if this self-confidence did not lie at the basis of all success, military, literary, mercantile or other, enabling one's triumphs to cover up his failures and make the people remember only the former.
Raymond continued to lose, and presently, all his money being gone, he began to feel in his pockets in an absent-minded way for more, but the hand came forth empty from each pocket. He did not hesitate.
A man only two or three years older was sitting next to Raymond, and he, too, was intent on the game. Beside him was a very respectable little heap of gold and notes, and Raymond, reaching over, took half of the money and without a word, putting it in front of himself, went on with his wagers. The second man looked up in surprise, but seeing who had robbed him, merely made a wry face and continued his game. Several who had noticed the action laughed.
"It's Raymond's way," said Talbot. "I knew that he would do it. That's why I told you to watch him. The other man is Winthrop. He's an editor, too--one of our Richmond papers. He isn't a genius like Raymond, but he's a slashing writer--loves to criticize anybody from the President down, and he often does it. He belongs to the F. F. V.'s himself, but he has no mercy on them--shows up all their faults. While you can say that gambling is Raymond's amusement, you may say with equal truth that dueling is Winthrop's."
"Dueling!" exclaimed Prescott in surprise. "Why, I never saw a milder face!"
"Oh, he doesn't fight duels from choice," replied Talbot. "It's because of his newspaper. He's always criticizing, and here when a man is criticized in print he challenges the editor. And the funny thing about it is, that although Winthrop can't shoot or fence at all, he's never been hurt. Providence protects him, I suppose."
"Has he ever hit anybody?" asked Prescott.
"Only once," replied Talbot, "and that was his eleventh duel since the war began. He shot his man in the shoulder and then jumped up and down in his pride. 'I hit him! I hit him!' he cried. 'Yes, Winthrop,' said his second, 'some one was bound to get in the way if you kept on shooting long enough.'"
The place, with its rich colours, its lights shining from glasses and mirrors, its mellow odours of liquids and its softened sounds began to have a soporific effect upon Prescott, used so long to the open air and untold hardships. His senses were pleasantly lulled, and the voice of his friend, whom he seemed now to have known for a long time, came from far away. He could have closed his eyes and gone to sleep, but Talbot talked on.
"Here you see the back door of the Confederacy," he said. "You men at the front know nothing. You are merely fighting to defend the main entrance. But while you are getting yourselves shot to pieces without knowing any special reason why, all sorts of people slip in at this back door. It is true not only of this government, but also of all others."
A middle-aged, heavy-faced man in a general's uniform entered and began to talk earnestly to one of the other generals.
"That is General Markham," said Talbot, "who is specially interesting not because of himself, but on account of his wife. She is years younger than he, and is said to be the most brilliant woman in Richmond. She has plans for the General, but is too smart to say what they are. I doubt whether the General himself knows."
Raymond and Winthrop presently stopped playing and Talbot promptly introduced his new friend.
"We should know each other since we belong to the same army," said Raymond. "You fight and I write, and I don't know which of us does the more damage; but the truth is, I've but recently joined the Army of Northern Virginia. I've been following the army in the West, but the news didn't suit me there and I've come East."
"I hope that you have many victories to chronicle," said Prescott.
"It's been a long time since there's been a big battle," resumed the editor, "and so I've come up to Richmond to see a little life."
He glanced about the room.
"And I see it here," he added. "I confess that the fleshpots of Richmond are pleasant."
Then he began to talk of the life in the capital, the condition of the army and the Confederate States, furnishing a continual surprise to Prescott, who now saw that beneath the man's occasional frivolity and epicurean tastes lay a mind of wonderful penetration, possessing that precious quality generally known as insight. He revealed a minute knowledge of the Confederacy and its chieftains, both civil and military, but he never risked an opinion as to its ultimate chances of success, although Prescott waited with interest to hear what he might say upon this question, one that often troubled himself. But however near Raymond might come to the point, he always turned gracefully away again.
They were sitting now in a cheerful corner as they talked, but at the table nearest them was a man of forty, with immense square shoulders, a heavy red face and an overbearing manner. He was playing faro and losing steadily, but every time he lost he marked the moment with an angry exclamation. The others, players and spectators alike, seemed to avoid him, and Winthrop, who noticed Prescott's inquiring glance, said:
"That's Redfield, a member of our Congress," and he named the Gulf State from which Redfield came. "He belonged to the Legislature of his State before the war, which he advocated with all the might of his lungs--no small power, I assure you--and he was leader in the shouting that one Southern gentleman could whip five Yankees. I don't know whether he means that he's the Southern gentleman, as he's never yet been on the firing line, but he's distinguishing himself just now by attacking General Lee for not driving all the Yankees back to Washington."
Redfield at length left the game, uttering with an oath his opinion that fair play was impossible in the Nonpareil, and turned to the group seated near him, regarding the Richmond editor with a lowering brow.
"I say, Winthrop," he cried, "I've got a bone to pick with you. You've been hitting me pretty hard in that rag of yours. Do you know what a public man down in the Gulf States does with an editor who attacks him! Why, he goes around to his office and cowhides the miserable little scamp until he can't lie down comfortably for a month."
A slight pink tint appeared in the cheeks of Winthrop.
"I am not well informed about the custom in the Gulf States, Mr. Redfield," he said, "but here I am always at home to my enemies, as you ought to know."
"Oh, nonsense!" exclaimed Raymond. "You two can't fight. We can't afford to lose Redfield. He's going to lead a brigade against the Yankees, and if he'll only make one of those fiery speeches of his it will scare all the blue-backs out of Virginia."
Redfield's red face flushed to a deeper hue, and he regarded the speaker with aversion, but said nothing in reply, fearing Raymond's sharp tongue. Instead, he turned upon Prescott, who looked like a mild youth fit to stand much hectoring.
"You don't introduce me to your new friend," he said to Talbot.
"Mr. Redfield, Captain Prescott," said Talbot. "Mr. Redfield is a Member of Congress and Captain Prescott comes from the Army of Northern Virginia, though by way of North Carolina, where he has been recently on some special duty."
"Ah, from the Army of Northern Virginia," said Redfield in a heavy growl. "Then can you tell me, Mr. Prescott, why General Lee does not drive the Yankees out of Virginia?"
A dark flush appeared on Prescott's face. Usually mild, he was not always so, and he worshiped General Lee.
"I think it is because he does not have the help of men like yourself," he replied.
A faint ray of a smile crossed the face of Raymond, but the older man was not pleased.
"Do you know, sir, that I belong to the Confederate Congress?" he exclaimed angrily; "and moreover, I am a member of the Military Committee. I have a right to ask these questions."
"Then," replied Prescott, "you should know that it is your duty to ask them of General Lee and not of me, a mere subaltern."
"Now, Mr. Redfield," intervened Raymond, "don't pick a quarrel with Captain Prescott. If there's to be a duel, Winthrop has first claim on you, and I insist for the honour of my profession that he have it. Moreover, since he is slender and you are far from it, I demand that he have two shots to your one, as he will have at least twice as much to kill."
Redfield growled out other angry words, which stopped under the cover of his heavy mustache, and then turned abruptly away, leaving Prescott in some doubt as to his personal courage but none at all as to his ill will.
"It is the misfortune of the South," said Raymond, "to have such men as that, who think to settle public questions by personal violence. They give us a bad name which is not wholly undeserved. In fact, personal violence is our great sin."
"And the man has a lot of power. That's the worst of it," added Talbot. "The boys at the front are hauled around so much by the politicians that they are losing confidence in everybody here in Richmond. Why, when President Davis himself came down and reviewed us with a great crowd of staff officers before Missionary Ridge, the boys all along the line set up the cry: 'Give us somethin' to eat, Mr. Jeff; give us somethin' to eat! We're hungry! We're hungry!' And that may be the reason why we were thrashed so badly by Grant not long after."
Prescott saw that the rain had almost ceased, and as he suggested that he must hurry on, the others rose to go with him from the house. He left them at the next corner, glad to have made such friends, and quickened his footsteps as he continued alone.
It was a modest house to which Prescott turned his steps, built two stories in height, of red brick, with green shutters over the windows, and in front a little brick-floored portico supported on white columns in the Greek style. His heart gave a great beat as he noticed the open shutters and the thin column of smoke rising from the chimney. The servants at least were there! He had been gone three years, and three years of war is a long time to one who is not yet twenty-five. There was no daily mail from the battlefield, and he had feared that the house would be closed.
He lifted the brass knocker and struck but once. That was sufficient, as before the echo died his mother herself, come before the time set, opened the door. Mrs. Prescott embraced her son, and she was even less demonstrative than himself, though he was generally known to his associates as a reserved man; but he knew the depth of her feelings. One Northern mother out of every ten had a son who never came back, but it was one Southern mother in every three who was left to mourn.
She only said: "My son, I feared that I should never see you again." Then she noticed the thinness of his clothing and its dampness. "Why, you are cold and wet," she added.
"I do not feel so now, mother," he replied.
She smiled, and her smile was that of a young girl. As she drew him toward the fire in a dusky room it seemed to him that some one else went out.
"I heard your footsteps on the portico," she said.
"And you knew that it was me, mother," he interrupted, as he reached down and patted her softly on the cheek.
He could not remember the time when he did not have a protecting feeling in the presence of his mother--he was so tall and large, and she so small. She scarcely reached to the top of his shoulder, and even now, at the age of forty-five, her cheeks had the delicate bloom and freshness of a young girl's.
"Sit by the fire here," she said, as she pushed him into an armchair that she pulled directly in front of the grate.
"No, you must not do that," she added, taking the poker from his hand. "Don't you know that it is a delight for me to wait upon you, my son come from the war!"
Then she prodded the coals until they glowed a deep red and the room was suffused with generous warmth.
"What is this bundle that you have?" she asked, taking it from him.
"A new uniform, mother, that I have just bought, and in which I hope to do you credit."
She flitted about the room attending to his wants, bringing him a hot drink, and she would listen to no account of himself until she was sure that he was comfortable. He followed her with his eyes, noting how little she had changed in the three years that had seemed so long.
She was a Northern woman, of a Quaker family in Philadelphia, whom his father had married very young and brought to live on a great place in Virginia. Prescott always believed she had never appreciated the fact that she was entering a new social world when she left Philadelphia; and there, on the estate of her husband, a just and generous man, she saw slavery under its most favourable conditions. It must have been on one of their visits to the Richmond house, perhaps at the slave market itself, that she beheld the other side; but this was a subject of which she would never speak to her son Robert. In fact, she was silent about it to all people, and he only knew that she was not wholly like the Southern women about him. When the war came she did not seek to persuade her son to either side, but when he made his choice he was always sure that he caused her pain, though she never said a word.
"Do you wear such thin clothing as this out there in those cold forests?" she asked, fingering his coat.
"Mother," he replied with a smile, "this is the style now; the shops recommend it, and you know we've all heard that a man had better be dead than out of the style."
"And you have become a great soldier?" she said, looking at him fondly.
He laughed, knowing that in any event he would seem great to her.
"Not great, mother," he replied; "but I know that I have the confidence of General Lee, on whose staff I serve."
"A good man and a great one," she said, clasping her hands thoughtfully. "It is a pity----"
She stopped, and her son asked:
"What is a pity, mother?"
She did not answer, but he knew. It was said by many that Lee hesitated long before he went with his State.
"Now," she said, "you must eat," and she brought him bread and meat and coffee, serving them from a little table that she herself placed by his side.
"How happens it, mother," he asked, "that this food is still warm? It must have been hours since you had breakfast."
A deep tint of red as of a blush suffused her cheeks, and she answered in a hesitating voice:
"Since there was a pause in the war, I knew that sooner or later you would come, and I remember how hungry you used to be as a growing boy."
"And through all these days you have kept something hot on the fire for me, ready at a moment's notice!"
She looked at him and there was a faint suspicion of tears in her eyes.
"Yes, yes, Robert," she replied. "Now don't scold me."
He had no intention of scolding her, but his thought was: "Has any other man a mother like mine?" Then he corrected himself; he knew that there must be myriads of others.
He said nothing in reply, merely smiling at her, and permitted her to do as she would. She went about the room with light, easy step, intent on her little services.
She opened the window shutters and the rich sunlight came streaming in, throwing a golden glow across the brown face of him who had left her a boy and come back a man. She sighed a little as she noticed how great was the change, but she hid the sigh from her son.
"Mother," he asked presently, "was there not some one else in this room when I came in? The light was faint, but I thought I saw a shadowy figure disappear."
"Yes," she answered; "that was Helen Harley. She was with me when you came. She may have known your footstep, too, and if not, she guessed it from my face, so she went out at once. She did not wish to be a mere curious onlooker when a mother was greeting her son, come home after three years in the war."
"She must be a woman now."
"She is a woman full grown in all respects. Women have grown old fast in the last three years. She is nearly a head taller than I."
"You have been comfortable here, mother?" he asked.
"As much so as one can be in such times," she replied. "I do not lack for money, and whatever deprivations I endure are those of the common lot--and this community of ill makes them amusing rather than serious."
She rose and walked to a door leading into the garden.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I shall return in a few moments."
When she came back she brought with her a tall young woman with eyes of dark blue and hair of brown shot with gold wherever the firelight fell upon it. This girl showed a sinuous grace when she walked and she seemed to Prescott singularly self-contained.
He sprang to his feet at once and took her hand in the usual Southern fashion, making a compliment upon her appearance, also in the usual Southern fashion. Then he realized that she had ceased to be a little girl in all other respects as well as in the physical.
"I have heard that gallantry in the face of the ladies as well as of the foe is part of a soldier's trade, Robert," she replied.
"And you do not know which requires the greater daring."
"But I know which your General ought to value the more."
After this she was serious. Neither of the younger people spoke much, but left the thread of the talk to Mrs. Prescott, who had a great deal to say. The elder woman, for all her gentleness and apparent timidity, had a bold spirit that stood in no awe of the high and mighty. She was full of curiosity about the war and plied her son with questions.
"We in Richmond know little that is definite of its progress," she said. "The Government announces victories and no defeats. But tell me, Robert, is it true, as I hear, that in the knapsacks of the slain Southern soldiers they find playing-cards, and in those of the North, Bibles?"
"If the Northern soldiers have Bibles, they do not use them," said Helen.
"And if the Southern soldiers have playing-cards, they do use them," said Mrs. Prescott.
"I daresay that both sides use their cards too much and their Bibles too little," he said.
"Do not be alarmed, Robert," said his mother; "such encounters between Helen and myself are of a daily occurrence."
"And have not yet resulted in bloodshed," added Miss Harley.
Prescott watched the girl while his mother talked, and he seemed to detect in her a certain aloofness as far as he was concerned, although he was not sure that the impression was not due to his absence so long from the society of women. It gave him a feeling of shyness which he found difficult to overcome, and which he contrasted in his own mind with her ease and indifference of manner.
When she asked him of her brother, Colonel Harley, the brilliant cavalry commander, whose exploits were recounted in Richmond like a romance, she showed enthusiasm, her eyes kindling with fire, and her whole face vivid. Her pride in her brother was large and she did not seek to conceal it.
"I hear that he is considered one of the best cavalry leaders of the age," she said, and she looked questioningly at Prescott.
"There is no doubt of it," he replied, but there was such a lack of enthusiasm in his own voice that his mother looked quickly at him. Helen did not notice. She was happy to hear the praises of her brother, and she eagerly asked more questions about him--his charge at this place, the famous ruse by which he had beaten the Yankees at that place, and the esteem in which he was held by General Lee; all of which Prescott answered readily and with pleasure. Mrs. Prescott looked smilingly at Miss Harley.
"It does not seem fair for a girl to show such interest in a brother," she said. "Now, if it were a lover it would be all right."
"I have no lover, Mrs. Prescott," replied Helen, a slight tint of pink appearing in her cheeks.
"It may be so," said the older woman, "but others are not like you." Then after a pause she sighed and said: "I fear that the girls of '61 will show an unusually large crop of old maids."
She spoke half humourously of what became in reality a silent but great tragedy, especially in the case of the South.
The war was prominent in the minds of the two women. Mrs. Prescott had truly said that knowledge of it in Richmond was vague. Gettysburg, it was told, was a great victory, the fruits of which the Army of Northern Virginia, being so far from its base, was unable to reap; moreover, the Army of the West beyond a doubt had won a great triumph at Chickamauga, a battle almost as bloody as Gettysburg, and now the Southern forces were merely taking a momentary rest, gaining fresh vigour for victories greater than any that had gone before.
Nevertheless, there was a feeling of depression over Richmond. Bread was higher, Confederate money was lower; the scarcity of all things needed was growing; the area of Southern territory had contracted, the Northern armies were coming nearer and nearer, and a false note sometimes rang in the gay life of the capital.
Prescott answered the women as he best could, and, though he strove to keep a bold temper, a tone of gloom like that which afflicted Richmond appeared now and then in his replies. He was sorry that they should question him so much upon these subjects. He was feeling so good, and it was such a comfort to be there in Richmond with his own people before a warm fire, that the army could be left to take care of itself for awhile. Nevertheless, he understood their anxiety and permitted no show of hesitation to appear in his voice. Miss Harley presently rose to go. The clouds had come again and a soft snow was falling.
"I shall see you home," said Prescott. "Mother, will you lend me an umbrella?"
Mrs. Prescott laughed softly.
"We don't have umbrellas in Richmond now!" she replied. "The Yankees make them, not we, and they are not selling to us this year."
"Mother," said Prescott, "if the Yankees ever crush us it will be because they make things and we don't. Their artillery, their rifles, their ammunition, their wagons, their clothes, everything that they have is better than ours."
"But their men are not," said Helen, proudly.
"Nevertheless, we should have learned to work with our hands," said Prescott.
They slipped into the little garden, now bleak with winter waste. Helen drew a red cloak about her shoulders, which Prescott thought singularly becoming. The snow was falling gently and the frosty air deepened the scarlet in her cheeks. The Harley house was only on the other side of the garden and there was a path between the two. The city was now silent. Nothing came to their ears save the ringing of a church bell.
"I suppose this does not seem much like war to you," said Helen.
"I don't know," replied Robert. "Just now I am engaged in escorting a very valuable convoy from Fort Prescott to Fort Harley, and there may be raiders."
"And here may come one now," she responded, indicating a horseman, who, as he passed, looked with admiring eyes over the fence that divided the garden from the sidewalk. He was a large man, his figure hidden in a great black cloak and his face in a great black beard growing bushy and unkempt up to his eyes. A sword, notable for its length, swung by his side.
Prescott raised his hand and gave a salute which was returned in a careless, easy way. But the rider's bold look of admiration still rested on Helen Harley's face, and even after he had gone on he looked back to see it.
"You know him?" asked Helen of Robert.
"Yes, I know him and so do you."
"If I know him I am not aware of it."
"That is General Wood."
Helen looked again at the big, slouching figure disappearing at the corner. The name of Wood was famous in the Confederacy. The greatest of all the cavalry commanders in a service that had so many, a born military genius, he was an illiterate mountaineer, belonging to that despised, and often justly despised, class known in the South as "poor white trash." But the name of Wood was now famous in every home of the revolting States. It was said that he could neither read nor write, but his genius flamed up at the coming of war as certainly as tow blazes at the touch of fire. Therefore, Helen looked after this singular man with the deepest interest and curiosity.
"And that slouching, awkward figure is the great Wood!" she said.
"He is not more slouching and awkward than Jackson was."
"I did not mean to attack him," she said quickly.
She had noticed Wood's admiring glance. In fact, it brought a tint of red to her cheeks, but she was not angry. They were now at her own door.
"I will not ask you to come in," she said, "because I know that your mother is waiting for you."
"But you will some other time?"
"Yes, some other time."
When he returned to his own house Mrs. Prescott looked at him inquiringly but said nothing.
Prescott was a staff officer and a captain, bearing a report from the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia to the President of the Confederacy; but having been told in advance that it was perfunctory in its nature, and that no haste was necessary in its delivery, he waited until the next morning before seeking the White House, as the residence of the President was familiarly called at Richmond, in imitation of Washington. This following of old fashions and old ways often struck Prescott as a peculiar fact in a country that was rebelling against them.
"If we succeed in establishing a new republic," he said to himself, "it will be exactly like the one that we quit."
He was told at the White House that the President was then in conference with the Secretary of War, but Mr. Sefton would see him. He had heard often of Mr. Sefton, whose place in the Government was not clearly defined, but of whose influence there was no doubt. He was usually known as the Secretary. "The Secretary of what?" "The Secretary of everything," was the reply.
Mr. Sefton received Prescott in a large dark room that looked like a workshop. Papers covered the tables and others were lying on the floor, indicating the office of a man who worked. The Secretary himself was standing in the darkest corner--a thin, dark, rather small man of about forty, one who seemed to be of a nervous temperament ruled by a strong will.
Prescott remembered afterward that throughout the interview the Secretary remained in the shadow and he was never once able to gain a clear view of his face. He found soon that Mr. Sefton, a remarkable man in all respects, habitually wore a mask, of which the mere shadow in a room was the least part.
Prescott gave his report, and the Secretary, after reading it attentively, said in a singularly soft voice:
"I have heard of you, Captain Prescott. I believe that you distinguished yourself in the great charge at Gettysburg?"
"Not more than five thousand others."
"At least you came out of the charge alive, and certainly five thousand did not do that."
Prescott looked at him suspiciously. Did he mean to cast some slur upon his conduct? He was sorry he could not see the Secretary's face more clearly, and he was anxious also to be gone. But the great man seemed to have another object in view.
"I hear that there is much discontent among the soldiers," said Mr. Sefton in a gentle, sympathetic voice. "They complain that we should send them supplies and reinforcements, do they not?"
"I believe I have heard such things said," reluctantly admitted Prescott.
"Then I have not been misinformed. This illustrates, Captain, the lack of serious reflection among the soldiers. A soldier feels hungry. He wants a beefsteak, soft bread and a pot of coffee. He does not see them and at once he is angry. He waves his hand and says: 'Why are they not here for me?' The Government does not own the secret of Arabian magic. We cannot create something where nothing is."
Prescott felt the Secretary gazing at him as if he alone were to blame for this state of affairs. Then the door opened suddenly and several men entered. One, tall, thin and severe of countenance, the typical Southern gentleman of the old school, Prescott recognized at once as the President of the Confederacy. The others he inferred were members of his Cabinet, and he rose respectfully, imitating the example of Mr. Sefton, but he did not fail to notice that the men seemed to be disturbed.
"A messenger from General Lee, Mr. President," said Mr. Sefton, in his smooth voice. "He repeats his request for reinforcements."
The worried look of the President increased. He ran his hand across his brow.
"I cannot furnish them," he said. "It is no use to send any more such requests to me. Even the conscription will not fill up our armies unless we take the little boys from their marbles and the grandfathers from their chimney-corners. I doubt whether it would do so then."
Mr. Sefton bowed respectfully, but added nothing to his statement.
"The price of gold has gone up another hundred points, Mr. Sefton," said the President. "Our credit in Europe has fallen in an equal ratio and our Secretary of State has found no way to convince foreign governments that they are undervaluing us."
Prescott looked curiously at the Secretary of State--it was the first time that he had ever seen him--a middle-aged man with broad features of an Oriental cast. He it was to whom many applied the words "the brains of the Confederacy." Now he was not disturbed by the President's evident annoyance.
"Why blame me, Mr. President?" he said. "How long has it been since we won a great victory? Our credit is not maintained here in Richmond nor by our agents in Europe, but on the battlefield."
Mr. Sefton looked at Prescott as if to say: "Just as I told you." Prescott thought it strange that they should speak so plainly before him, a mere subordinate, but policy might be in it, he concluded on second thought. They might desire their plain opinion to get back informally to General Lee. There was some further talk, all of which they seemed willing for him to hear, and then they returned to the inner room, taking Mr. Sefton, who bade Prescott wait.
The Secretary returned in a half-hour, and taking Prescott's arm with an appearance of great familiarity and friendliness, said:
"I shall walk part of the way with you, if you will let me, Captain Prescott. The President asks me to say to you that you are a gallant soldier and he appreciates your services. Therefore, he hopes that you will greatly enjoy your leave of absence in Richmond."
Prescott flushed with pleasure. He liked a compliment and did not deem it ignoble to show his pleasure. He was gratified, too, at the confidence that the Secretary, a man whose influence he knew was not exaggerated, seemed to put in him, and he thanked him sincerely.
So they walked arm in arm into the street, and those who met them raised their hats to the powerful Secretary, and incidentally to Prescott also, because he was with Mr. Sefton.
"If we win," said Mr. Sefton, "Richmond will become a great city--one of the world's capitals."
"Yes--if we win," replied Prescott involuntarily.
"Why, you don't think that we shall lose, do you?" asked the Secretary quickly.
Prescott was confused and hesitated. He regretted that he had spoken any part of his thoughts, and felt that the admission had been drawn from him, but now thought it better to be frank than evasive.
"Napoleon said that Providence was on the side of the heaviest battalions," he replied, "and therefore I hope ours will increase in weight soon."
The Secretary did not seem to be offended, leaning rather to the other side as he commended the frankness of the young Captain's speech. Then he began to talk to him at great length about the army, its condition, its prospects and the spirit of the soldiers. He revealed a knowledge of the camp that surprised Prescott and aroused in him admiration mingled with a lingering distrust.
Mr. Sefton seemed to him different, indeed, from the average Southerner. Very few Southern men at that time sought to conceal their feelings. Whatever their faults they were open, but Mr. Sefton wore his mask always. Prescott's mind went back unconsciously to the stories he had read of the agile Italian politicians of the Middle Ages, and for a moment paused at the doctrine of reincarnation. Then he was ashamed of himself. He was wronging Mr. Sefton, an able man devoted to the Southern cause--as everybody said.
They stopped just in front of Mrs. Prescott's house.
"You live here?" said the Secretary. "I know your mother. I cannot go in, but I thank you. And Miss Harley lives in the next house. I know her, too--a spirited and beautiful woman. Good-day, Captain Prescott; I shall see you again before you return to the army."
He left Prescott and walked back toward the White House. The young captain entered his own home, thinking of what he had seen and heard, and the impression remained that he had given the Secretary full information about the army.
Prescott received a call the next morning from his new friend Talbot.
"You are invited to a meeting of the Mosaic Club to-night at the house of Mrs. Markham," he said.
"And what is the Mosaic Club?" asked Prescott.
"The Mosaic is a club without organization, by-laws or members!" replied Talbot. "It's just the choice and congenial spirits of Richmond who have got into the habit of meeting at one another's houses. They're worth knowing, particularly Mrs. Markham, the hostess to-night. She heard of you and told me to invite you. Didn't write you a note--stationery's too high."
Prescott looked doubtfully at his mother.
"Why, of course you'll go," she said. "You did not come home to sit here all the time. I would not have you do that."
Talbot called for him shortly after dusk and the two strolled together toward the street where the Markham residence stood.
"Richmond is to be a great capital some day," said Talbot as they walked on, "but, if I may use the simile, it's a little ragged and out-at-elbows now."
This criticism was drawn from him by a misstep into the mud, but he quickly regained the ill-paved sidewalk and continued his course with unbroken cheerfulness. The night was dark, the few and widely scattered street lamps burned dimly, and the city loomed through the dusk, misshapen and obscure.
"Do you know," said Talbot, "I begin to believe that Richmond wouldn't amount to much of a town in the North?"
"It would not," replied Prescott; "but we of the South are agricultural people. Our pride is in the country rather than the towns."
A cheerful light shone from the windows of the Markham house as they approached it. When they knocked at the door it was opened by a coloured servant, and they passed into a large room, already full of people who were talking and laughing as if they had known one another all their lives. Prescott's first glimpse was of Helen Harley in a flowered silk dress, and he felt a thrill of gladness. Then he was presented to his hostess, Mrs. Markham, a small woman, very blonde, bright in attire and wearing fine jewels. She was handsome, with keen features and brilliant eyes.
"You are from General Lee's camp," she said, "and it is a Yankee bullet that has enabled you to come here. If it were not for those Yankee bullets we should never see our brave young officers; so it's an ill ball that brings nobody good."
She smiled into his eyes, and her expression was one of such great friendliness and candour that Prescott liked her at once. She held him and Talbot a few moments longer with light talk, and then he passed on.
It was a large room, of much width and greater length, containing heavy mahogany furniture, while the floor was carpeted in dark colours. The whole effect would have been somber without the presence of so many people, mostly young, and the cheerful fire in the grate glowing redly across the shades of the carpet.
There were a half-dozen men, some in uniform and some in civilian garb, around Helen Harley, and she showed all a young girl's keen and natural delight in admiration and in the easy flow of talk. Both Raymond and Winthrop were in the circle, and so was Redfield, wearing a black frock coat of unusual length and with rings on his fingers. Prescott wondered why such a man should be a member of this group, but at that moment some one dropped a hand upon his shoulder and, turning, he beheld the tall figure of Colonel Harley, Helen's brother.
"I, too, have leave of absence, Prescott," he said, "and what better could a man do than spend it in Richmond?"
Harley was a large, fair man, undeniably handsome, but with a slight expression of weakness about the mouth. He had earned his military reputation and he visibly enjoyed it.
"Where could one find a more brilliant scene than this?" continued the Colonel. "Ah, my boy, our Southern women stand supreme for beauty and wit!"
Tysiące ebooków i audiobooków
Ich liczba ciągle rośnie, a Ty masz gwarancję niezmiennej ceny.
Napisali o nas:
Nowy sposób na e-księgarnię
Czytelnicy nie wierzą
Legimi idzie na całość
Projekt Legimi wielkim wydarzeniem
Spotify for ebooks