Marsena (and other stories of wartime) - Harold Frederic - ebook
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Those who have read Mr. Harold Frederic's novels and short stories will need no commendation of this book. The tale of the progress of Marsena Pulford, a young man with an artistic temperament in embryo (and absolutely, as his office boy would have said, " without no show"), is told with acuteness through the times when Marsena was a village photographer, having failed as a painter, and through the period of his service in the war, straight on to the hopeless tragedy at the last. It scarcely seems possible that any young woman could be both a hospital nurse and such a wicked fool as Miss Julia Parmalee is represented to be; but as the red-nosed man once said to Mr. Peter Magnus : " Rum creeters is women." There are three other stories in the book - all "of the wartime," and all well told.

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Marsena

 

and other stories of Wartime

 

HAROLD FREDERIC

 

 

 

Marsena, H. Frederic

Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck

86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9

Deutschland

 

ISBN: 9783849649364

 

www.jazzybee-verlag.de

admin@jazzybee-verlag.de

 

 

 

CONTENTS:

 

Marsena. 1

The War Widow.. 38

The Eve of the Fourth. 58

My Aunt Susan. 71

MARSENA

MARSENA PULFORD, what time the village of Octavius knew him, was a slender and tall man, apparently skirting upon the thirties, with sloping shoulders and a romantic aspect.

It was not alone his flowing black hair, and his broad shirt-collars turned down after the ascertained manner of the British poets, which stamped him in our humble minds as a living brother to " The Corsair," " The Last of the Suliotes," and other heroic personages engraved in the albums and keepsakes of the period. His face, with its darkling eyes and distinguished features, conveyed wherever it went an impression of proudly silent melancholy. In those days — that is, just before the war — one could not look so convincingly and uniformly sad as Marsena did without raising the general presumption of having been crossed in love. We had a respectful feeling, in his case, that the lady ought to have been named Inez, or at the very least Oriana.

Although he went to the Presbyterian Church with entire regularity, was never seen in public save in a long-tailed black coat, and in the winter wore gloves instead of mittens, the local conscience had always, I think, sundry reservations about the moral character of his past. It would not have been reckoned against him, then, that he was obviously poor. We had not learned in those primitive times to measure people by dollar-mark standards. Under ordinary conditions, too, the fact that he came from New England — had indeed lived in Boston — must have counted rather in his favor than otherwise. But it was known that he had been an artist, a professional painter of pictures and portraits, and we understood in Octavius that this involved acquaintanceship, if not even familiarity, with all sorts of occult and deleterious phases of city life.

Our village held all vice, and especially the vice of other and larger places, in stern reprobation. Yet, though it turned this matter of the newcomer's previous occupation over a good deal in its mind, Marsena carried himself with such a gentle picturesqueness of subdued sorrow that these suspicions were disarmed, or, at the worst, only added to the fascinated interest with which Octavius watched his spare and solitary figure upon its streets, and noted the progress of his efforts to find a footing for himself in its social economy.

It was taken for granted among us that he possessed a fine and well-cultivated mind, to match that thoughtful countenance and that dignified deportment. This assumption continued to hold its own in the face of a long series of failures in the attempt to draw him out. Almost everybody who was anybody at one time or another tried to tap Marsena's mental reservoirs — and all in vain. Beyond the barest commonplaces of civil conversation he could never be tempted. Once, indeed, he had volunteered to the Rev. Mr. Bunce the statement that he regarded Washington Allston as in several respects superior to Copley; but as no one in Octavius knew who these men were, the remark did not help us much. It was quoted frequently, however, as indicating the lofty and recondite nature of the thoughts with which Mr. Pulford occupied his intellect. As it became more apparent, too, that his reserve must be the outgrowth of some crushing and incurable heart grief, people grew to defer to it and to avoid vexing his silent moods with talk.

Thus, when he had been a resident and neighbor for over two years, though no one knew him at all well, the whole community regarded him with kindly and even respectful emotions, and the girls in particular felt that he was a distinct acquisition to the place.

I have said that Marsena Pulford was poor. Hardly anybody in Octavius ever knew to what pathetic depths his poverty during the second winter descended. There was a period of several months, in sober truth, during which he fed himself upon six or seven cents a day. As he was too proud to dream of asking credit at the grocer's and butcher's, and walked about more primly erect than ever, meantime, in his frock-coat and gloves, no idea of these privations got abroad. And at the end of this long evil winter there came a remarkable spring, which altered in a violent way the fortunes of millions of people — among them Marsena. We have to do with events somewhat subsequent to that even, and with the period of Mr. Pulford's prosperity.

The last discredited strips of snow up in the ravines on the hill-sides were melting away; the robins had come again, and were bustling busily across between the willows, already in the leaf, and the budded elms; men were going about the village streets without their overcoats, and boys were telling exciting tales about the suckers in the creek; our old friend Homer Sage had returned from his winter's sojourn in the county poorhouse at Thessaly, and could be seen daily sitting in the sunshine on the broad stoop of the Excelsior Hotel. It was April of 1862. A whole year had gone by since that sudden and memorable turn in Marsena Pulford's luck. So far from there being signs now of a possible adverse change, this new springtide brought such an increase of good fortune, with its attendant responsibilities, that Marsena was unable to bear the halcyon burden alone. He took in a partner to help him, and then the firm jointly hired a boy. The partner painted a signboard to mark this double event, in bold red letters of independent form upon a yellow ground:

PULFORD & SHULL.

Empire State Portrait Athenaeum and Studio.

War Likenesses at Peace Prices.

Marsena discouraged the idea of hanging this out on the street; and, as a compromise, it was finally placed at the end of the operating-room, where for years thereafter it served for the sitters to stare at when their skulls had been clasped in the iron head-rest and they had been adjured to look pleasant. A more modest and conventional announcement of the new firm's existence was put outside, and Octavius accepted it as proof that the liberal arts were at last established within its borders on a firm and lucrative basis.

The head of the firm was not much altered by this great wave of prosperity. He had been drilled by adversity into such careful ways with his wardrobe that he did not need to get any new clothes. Although the villagers, always kindly, sought now with cordial effusiveness to make him feel one of themselves, and although he accepted all their invitations and showed himself at every public meeting in his capacity as a representative and even prominent citizen, yet the heart of his mystery remained unplucked. Marsena was too busy in these days to be much upon the streets. When he did appear he still walked alone, slowly and with an air of settled gloom. He saluted such passers-by as he knew in stately silence. If they stopped him or joined him in his progress, at the most he would talk sparingly of the weather and the roads.

Neither at the fortnightly sociables of the Ladies' Church Mite Society, given in turn at the more important members' homes, nor in the more casual social assemblages of the place, did Marsena ever unbend. It was not that he held himself aloof, as some others did, from the simple amusements of the evening. He never shrank from bearing his part in " pillow," " clap in and clap out," "post-office," or in whatever other game was to be played, and he went through the kissing penalties and rewards involved without apparent aversion. It was also to be noted, in fairness, that, if any one smiled at him full in the face, he instantly smiled in response. But neither smile nor chaste salute served to lift for even the fleeting instant that veil of reserve which hung over him.

Those who thought that by having Marsena Pulford take their pictures they would get on more intimate terms with him fell into grievous error. He was more sententious and unapproachable in his studio, as he called it, than anywhere else. In the old days, before the partnership, when he did everything himself, his manner in the reception-room downstairs, where he showed samples, gave the prices of frames, and took orders, had no equal for formal frigidity — except his subsequent demeanor in the operating-room upstairs. The girls used to declare that they always emerged from the gallery with " cold shivers all over them." This, however, did not deter them from going again, repeatedly, after the outbreak of the war had started up the universal notion of being photographed.

When the new partner came in, in this April of 1862, Marsena was able to devote himself exclusively to the technical business of the camera and the dark-room, on the second floor. He signaled this change by wearing now every day an old russet-colored velveteen jacket, which we had never seen before. This made him look even more romantically melancholy and picturesque than ever, and revived something of the fascinating curiosity as to his hidden past; but it did nothing toward thawing the ice-bound shell which somehow came at every point between him and the good-fellowship of the community.

The partnership was scarcely a week old when something happened. The new partner, standing behind the little show case in the reception-room, transacted some preliminary business with two customers who had come in. Then, while the sound of their ascending footsteps was still to be heard on the stairs, he hastily left his post and entered the little workroom at the back of the counter.

" You couldn't guess in a baker's dozen of tries who's gone upstairs," he said to the boy. Without waiting for even one effort, he added: " It's the Parmalee girl, and Dwight Ransom's with her, and he's got a Lootenant's uniform on, and they're goin' to be took together! "

"What of it?" asked the unimaginative boy. He was bending over a crock of nitric acid, transferring from it one by one to a tub of water a lot of spoiled glass plates. The sickening fumes from the jar, and the sting of the acid on his cracked skin, still further diminished his interest in contemporary sociology. " Well, what of it? " he repeated, sulkily.

" Oh, I don't know," said the new partner, in a listless, disappointed way. "It seemed kind o' curious, that's all. Holdin' her head up as high in the air as she does, you wouldn't think she'd so much as look at an ordinary fellow like Dwight Ransom."

" I suppose this is a free country," remarked the boy, rising to rest his back.

"Oh, my, yes," returned the other; "if she's pleased, I'm quite agreeable. And — I don't know, too — I daresay she's gettin' pretty well along. May be she thinks they ain't any too much time to lose, and is making a grab at what comes handiest. Still, I should 'a' thought she could 'a' done better than Dwight. I worked with him for a spell once, you know."

There seemed to be very few people with whom Newton Shull had not at one time or another worked. Apparently there was no craft or calling which he did not know something about. The old phrase, " Jack of all trades," must surely have been coined in prophecy for him. He had turned up in Octavius originally, some years before, as the general manager of a " Whaler's Life on the Rolling Deep" show, which was specially adapted for moral exhibitions in connection with church fairs. Calamity, however, had long marked this enterprise for its own, and at our village its career culminated under the auspices of a sheriff's officer. The boat, the harpoons, the panorama sheet and rollers, the whale's jaw, the music-box with its nautical tunes — these were sold and dispersed. Newton Shull remained, and began work as a mender of clocks. Incidentally, he cut out stencil-plates for farmers to label their cheese-boxes with, and painted or gilded ornamental designs on chair-backs through perforated paper patterns. For a time he was a maker of children's sleds. In slack seasons he got jobs to help the druggist, the tinsmith, the dentist, or the Town Clerk, and was equally at home with each. He was one of the founders of the Octavius Philharmonics, and offered to play any instrument they liked, though his preference was for what he called the bull fiddle. He spoke often of having travelled as a bandsman with a circus. We boys believed that he was quite capable of riding a horse bareback as well.

When Marsena Pulford, then, decided that he must have some help, Newton Shull was obviously the man. How the arrangement came to take the form of a partnership was never explained, save on the conservative village theory that Marsena must have reasoned that a partner would be safer with the cash-box downstairs, while he was taking pictures upstairs, than a mere hired man. More likely it grew out of their temperamental affinity. Shull was also a man of grave and depressed moods (as, indeed, is the case with all who play the bass viol), only his melancholy differed from Marsena's in being of a tirelessly garrulous character. This was not always an advantage. When customers came in, in the afternoon, it was his friendly impulse to engage them in conversation at such length that frequently the light would fail altogether before they got upstairs. He recognized this tendency as a fault, and manfully combated it — leaving the reception-room with abruptness at the earliest possible moment, and talking to the boy in the work-room instead.

Mr. Shull was a short, round man, with a beard which was beginning to show gray under the lip. His reception-room manners were urbane and persuasive to a degree, and he particularly excelled in convincing people that the portraits of themselves, which Marsena had sent down to him in the dummy to be dried and varnished, and which they hated vehemently at first sight, were really unique and precious works of art. He had also much success in inducing country folks to despise the cheap ferrotype which they had intended to have made, and to adventure upon the costlier ambrotype, daguerreotype, or even photograph instead. If they did not go away with a family album or an assortment oi~ frames that would come in handy as well, it was no fault of his.

He made these frames himself, on a bench which he had fitted up in the work-room. Here he constructed show-cases, too, cut out mats and mounts, and did many other things as adjuncts to the business, which honest Marsena had never dreamed of.

" Yes," he went on now, " I carried a chain for Dwight the best part o' one whole summer, when he was layin' levels for that Nedahma Valley Railroad they were figurin' on buildin'. Guess they ruther let him in over that job — though he paid me fair enough. It ain't much of a business, that surveyin'. You spend about half your time in findin' out for people the way they could do things if they only had the money to do 'em, and the other half in settlin' miserable farmers' squabbles about the boundaries of their land. You've got to pay a man day's wages for totin' round your chain and axe and stakes — and, as like as not, you never get even that money back, let alone any pay for yourself. I know something about a good many trades, and I say surveyin' is pretty nigh the poorest of 'em all."

" George Washington was a surveyor," commented the boy, stooping down to his task once more.

" Yes," admitted Mr. Shull; " so he was, for a fact. But then he had influence enough to get government jobs. I don't say there ain't money in that. If Dwight, now, could get a berth on the canal, say, it 'ud be a horse of another color. They say, there's some places there that pay as much as $3 a day. That's how George Washington got his start, and, besides, he owned his own house and lot to begin with. But you'll notice that he dropped surveyin' like a hot potato the minute there was any soldierin' to do. He knew which side his bread was buttered on! "

" Well." said the boy, slapping the last plates sharply into the tub, " that's just what Dwight's doin' too, ain't it? "

"Yes," Mr. Shull conceded; "but it ain't the same thing. You won't find Dwight Ransom gettin' to be a general, or much of anything else. He's a nice fellow enough, in his way, of course; but, somehow, after it's all said and done, there ain't much to him. I always sort o' felt, when I was out with him, that by good rights I ought to be working the level and him hammerin' in the stakes."

The boy sniffed audibly as he bore away the acid-jar. Mr. Shull went over to the bench, and took up a chisel with a meditative air. After a moment he lifted his head and listened, with aroused interest written all over his face.

There had been audible from the floor above, at intervals, the customary noises of the camera being wheeled about to different points under the skylight. There came echoing downward now quite other and most unfamiliar sounds — the clatter of animated, even gay, conversation, punctuated by frank outbursts of laughter. Newton Shull could hardly believe his ears: but they certainly did tell him that there were three parties to that merriment overhead. It was so strange that he laid aside the chisel, and tiptoed out into the reception-room, with a notion of listening at the stair door. Then he even more hurriedly ran back again. They were coming downstairs.

It might have been a whole wedding-party that trooped down the resounding stairway, the voices rising above the clump of Dwight's artillery boots and sword on step after step, and overflowed into the stuffy little reception-room with a cheerful tumult of babble. The new partner and the boy looked at each other, then directed a joint stare of bewilderment toward the door.

Julia Parmalee had pushed her way behind the show-case, and stood in the entrance to the work-room, peering about her with an affectation of excited curiosity which she may have thought pretty and playful, but which the boy, at least, held to be absurd.

She had been talking thirteen to the dozen all the time. " Oh, I really must see everything! " she rattled on now. " If I could be trusted alone in the dark-room with you, Mr. Pulford, I surely may be allowed to explore all these minor mysteries. Oh, I see," she added, glancing round, and incidentally looking quite through Mr. Shull and the boy, as if they had been transparent: " here's where the frames and the washing are done. How interesting! "

What really was interesting was the face of Marsena Pulford, discernible in the shadow over her shoulder. No one in Octavius had ever seen such a beaming smile on his saturnine countenance before.

II.

NEXT to the War, the chief topic of interest and conversation in Octavius at this time was easily Miss Julia Parmalee.

To begin with, her family had for two generations or more been the most important family in the village. When Lafayette stopped here to receive an address of welcome, on his tour through the State in 1825, it was a Parmalee who read that address, and who also, as tradition runs, made on his own account several remarks to the hero in the French language, all of which were understood. The elder son of this man has a secure place in history. He is the Judge Parmalee whose portrait hangs in the Court House, and whose learned work on " The Treaties of the Tuscarora Nation," handsomely bound in morocco, used to have a place of honor on the parlor table of every well-to-do and cultured Octavius home.

This Judge was a banker, too, and did pretty well for himself in a number of other commercial paths. He it was who built the big Parmalee house, with a stone wall in front and the great garden and orchard stretching back to the next street, and the buff-colored statues on either side of the graveled walk, where the Second National Dearborn County Bank now stands. The Judge had no children, and, on his widow's death, the property went to his much younger brother Charles, who, from having been as a stripling on some forgotten Governor's staff, bore through life the title of Colonel in the local speech.

This Colonel Parmalee had a certain distinction, too, though not of a martial character. His home was in New York, and for many years Octavius never laid eyes on him. He was understood to occupy a respected place among American men of letters, though exactly what he wrote did not come to our knowledge. It was said that he had been at Brook Farm. I have not been able to find anyone who remembers him there, but the report is of use as showing the impression of superior intellectual force which he created, even by hearsay, in his native village. When he finally came back to us, to play his part as the head of the Parmalee house, we saw at intervals, when the sun was warm and the sidewalks were dry, the lean and bent figure of an old man, with a very yellow face and a sharp-edged brown wig, moving feebly about with a thick gray shawl over his shoulders. His housekeeper was an elderly maiden cousin, who seemed never to come out at all, whether the sun was shining or not.

There were three or four of the Colonel's daughters — all tall, well-made girls, with strikingly dark skins, and what we took to be gypsyish faces. Their appearance certainly bore out the rumor that their mother had been an opera -singer — some said an Italian, others a lady of Louisiana Creole extraction. No information, except that she was dead, ever came to hand about this person. Her daughters, however, were very much in evidence. They seemed always to wear white dresses, and they were always to be seen somewhere, either on their lawn playing croquet, or in the streets, or at the windows of their house. The consciousness of their existence pervaded the whole village from morning till night. To watch their goings and comings, and to speculate upon the identity and business of the friends from strange parts who were continually arriving to visit them, grew to be quite the standing occupation of the idler portion of the community.

Before such of our young people as naturally took the lead in these matters had had time to decide how best to utilize for the general good this influx of beauty, wealth, and ancestral dignity, the village was startled by an unlooked-for occurrence. A red carpet was spread one forenoon from the curb to the doorway of the Episcopal Church: the old-fashioned Parmalee carriage turned out, with its driver clasping white reins in white cotton gloves; we had a confused glimpse of the dark Parmalee girls with bouquets in their hands, and dressed rather more in white than usual: and then astonished Octavius learned that two of them had been married, right there under its very eyes, and had departed with their husbands. It gave an angry twist to the discovery to find that the bridegrooms were both strangers, presumably from New York.

This episode had the figurative effect of doubling or trebling the height of that stone wall which stood between the Parmalee place and the public. Such budding hopes and projects of intimacy as our villagers may have entertained toward these polished new-comers fell nipped and lifeless on the stroke. Shortly afterward — that is to say, in the autumn of 1860 — the family went away, and the big house was shut up. News came in time that the Colonel was dead: something was said about another daughter's marriage; then the war broke out, and gave us other things to think of. We forgot all about the Parmalees.

It must have been in the last weeks of 1861 that our vagrant attention was recalled to the subject by the appearance in the village of an elderly married couple of servants, who took up their quarters in the long empty mansion, and began fitting it once more for habitation. They set all the chimneys smoking, shoveled the garden paths clear of snow, laid in huge supplies of firewood, vegetables, and the like, and turned the whole place inside out in a vigorous convulsion of housecleaning. Their preparations were on such a bold, large scale that we assumed the property must have passed to some voluminous collateral branch of the family, hitherto unknown to us. It came indeed to be stated among us, with an air of certainty, that a remote relation named Amos or Erasmus Parmalee, with eight or more children and a numerous adult household, was coming to live there. The legend of this wholly mythical personage had nearly a fortnight's vogue, and reached a point of distinctness where we clearly understood that the coming stranger was a violent secessionist. This seemed to open up a troubled and sinister prospect before loyal Octavius, and there was a good deal of plain talk in the barroom of the Excelsior Hotel as to how this impending crisis should be met.