A SOLDIER OF VIRGINIA
A TALE OF COLONEL WASHINGTON AND BRADDOCK'S DEFEAT
BY BURTON EGBERT STEVENSON
TO THE MEMORY OF THE GALLANT MEN WHO FELL WITH DUST OF FAILURE BITTER ON THEIR LIPS THAT OTHERS MIGHT BE TAUGHT THE LESSON OF THE WILDERNESS
I. LIEUTENANT ALLEN GROWS INSULTING
II. THE STORY OF FONTENOY
III. IN WHICH I INTRODUCE MYSELF
IV. THE ENDING OF THE HONEYMOON
V. THE SECRET OF A HEART
VI. I AM TREATED TO A SURPRISE
VII. I DECIDE TO BE A SOLDIER
VIII. A RIDE TO WILLIAMSBURG
IX. MY FIRST TASTE OF WARFARE
X. THE FRENCH SCORE FIRST
XI. DREAM DAYS AT RIVERVIEW
XII. DOROTHY MAKES HER CHOICE
XIII. LIEUTENANT ALLEN SHOWS HIS SKILL
XIV. I CHANCE UPON A TRAGEDY
XV. WE START ON A WEARY JOURNEY
XVI. THE END IN SIGHT
XVII. THE LESSON OF THE WILDERNESS
XVIII. DEFEAT BECOMES DISHONOR
XIX. ALLEN AND I SHAKE HANDS
XX. BRADDOCK PAYS THE PRICE
XXI. VIRGINIA BIDS US WELCOME
XXII. A NEW DANGER AT RIVERVIEW
XXIII. THE GOVERNOR SHOWS HIS GRATITUDE
XXIV. A WARNING FROM THE FOREST
XXV. I FIND MYSELF IN A DELICATE SITUATION
XXVI. A DESPERATE DEFENSE
XXVII. I COME INTO MY OWN
XXVIII. AND SO, GOOD-BY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"I DO NOT LOVE HIM, TOM"
"FOR SHAME, GENTLEMEN!"
THE SAVAGES POURED OVEB THE THRESHOLD
A SOLDIER OF VIRGINIA
LIEUTENANT ALLEN GROWS INSULTING
It was not until he sneered at me openly across the board that I felt my self-control slipping from me. "Lieutenant Allen seems to have a poor opinion of the Virginia troops," I said, as calmly as I could.
"Egad, you are right, Lieutenant Stewart," he retorted, his eyes full on mine. "These two weeks past have I been trying to beat some sense into the fools, and 'pon my word, 't is enough to drive a man crazy to see them."
He paused to gulp down a glass of wine, of which I thought he had already drunk too much.
"I saw them this forenoon," cried Preston, who was sitting at Allen's right, "and was like to die of laughing. Poor Allen, there, was doing his best to teach them the manual, and curse me if they didn't hold their guns as though they burnt their fingers. And when they were ordered to 'bout face, they looked like nothing so much as the crowd I saw six months since at Newmarket, trying to get their money on Jason."
The others around the table laughed in concert, and I could not but admit there was a grain of truth in the comparison.
"'Tis granted," I said, after a moment, "that we Virginians have not the training of you gentlemen of the line; but we can learn, and at least no one can doubt our courage."
"Think you so?" and Allen laughed an insulting laugh. "There was that little brush at Fort Necessity last year, from which they brought away nothing but their skins, and damned glad they were to do that."
"They brought away their arms," I cried hotly, "and would have brought away all their stores and munitions, had the French kept faith and held their Indians off. That, too, in face of an enemy three times their number. The Virginians have no cause to blush for their conduct at Fort Necessity. The Coldstreams could have done no better."
Allen laughed again. "Ah, pardon me, Stewart," he said contemptuously, "I forgot that you were present on that glorious day."
I felt my cheeks crimson, and I looked up and down the board, but saw only sneering faces. Yes, there was one, away down at the farther end, which did not sneer, but looked at me I thought pityingly, which was infinitely worse. And then, of course, there was Pennington, who sat next to me, and who looked immeasurably shamed at the turn the dispute had taken. He placed a restraining hand upon my sleeve, but I shook it off impatiently.
"Yes, I was present," I answered, my heart aflame within me, "and our provincial troops learned a lesson there which even the gentlemen of the Forty-Fourth may one day be glad to have us teach them."
"Teach us?" cried Allen. "Curse me, sir, but you grow insulting! As for your learning, permit me to doubt your ability to learn anything. I have been trying to teach you provincials the rudiments of drill for the past fortnight, without success. In faith, you seem to know less now than you did before I began."
"Yes?" I asked, my anger quite mastering me. "But may not that be the fault of the teacher, Lieutenant Allen?"
He was out of his chair with an oath, and would have come across the table at me, but that those on either side held him back.
"I suppose you considered your words before you spoke them, Lieutenant Stewart?" asked Preston, looking at me coldly, and still keeping tight hold on the swearing man at his side.
"Fully," I answered, as I arose from my chair.
"You know, of course, that there remains only one thing to be done?" he continued, with a glance I thought compassionate, and so resented.
"Certainly," I answered again. "I may be able to teach the gentleman a very pretty thrust in tierce."
Upon this Allen fell to cursing again, but Preston silenced him with a gesture of his hand.
"I am very willing," I added, "to give him the lesson at once, if he so desires. There is a charming place just without. I marked it as I passed to enter here, though with no thought I should so soon have need of it."
Now all this was merely the empty braggartry of youth, which I blush to remember. Nor was Allen the blustering bully I then deemed him, as I was afterwards to find out for myself. But I know of nothing which will so gloss over and disguise a man's real nature as a glass of wine too much.
"I shall be happy to give the lesson at once," I repeated.
"Yes, at once!" cried Allen savagely. "I'll teach you, sir, to keep a civil tongue in your head when you address an officer of the line."
"It seems that we are both to learn a lesson, then," I said lightly. "It remains only to be seen which is the better teacher. Will one of the other gentlemen present act as my second?"
"I shall be happy to do so, Lieutenant Stewart," cried my neighbor, stepping forward.
"Ah, Lieutenant Pennington, thank you," and I looked into his face with pleasure, for it was the one, of all those present, which I liked the best. "Will you arrange the details for me?"
"May I speak to you a moment first?" he asked, looking at me anxiously.
"Certainly," I answered, and together we walked over to one corner of the room.
"Believe me, Lieutenant Stewart," he said, in a low voice, "I deem you a brave man, and I honor you for defending the credit of your countrymen. I little thought, when I invited you to dine with us to-night, that there would be an issue such as this, for it can end in but one way. Allen is the best swordsman in the regiment, and a very devil when he is flushed with wine, as he is now."
"You would have me decline to meet him, then?" I asked, looking at him steadily.
"A word of apology," he stammered, but he did not meet my eyes. His heart was not in his words.
"Impossible," I said. "You forget that it was he who insulted me, and that an apology, if there be one, must come from him. He has insulted not only myself, but the whole body of Virginia volunteers. Though I were certain he would kill me, I could not draw back in honor. But I am not so certain," and I smiled down into his face. "There be some good swordsmen even in Virginia, sir."
"In faith, I am wondrous glad to hear it!" he cried, his face brightening. "I could not do less than warn you."
"And I thank you for your interest."
He held out his hand, and I clasped it warmly. Then we turned again to the group about the table.
"Well," cried Allen harshly, "does our Virginia friend desire to withdraw?"
"On the contrary," answered Pennington quietly, "he has positively refused to withdraw," and as he spoke, I saw that the others looked at me with attentive eyes. "There is a little green just back of the barracks. Let us proceed to it," and he led the way toward the door.
Allen and I followed him, and the whole rabble of officers crowded after. In a moment we were at the place, and I walked to one side while the seconds conferred together. The full moon had risen above the treetops and flooded the clearing with still radiance. The tall, coarse grass waved slowly to and fro in the faint breeze, and away off in the forest I heard a wolf howling. The note, long and clear, rose and quivered in the air, faint and far away. And as it died to silence, for the first time the thought came to me that perchance my skill in fence might not avail. Well, thank heaven, there was none to whom my death would cause much sorrow, except—yes, Dorothy might care. At thought of her, the forest faded from before me, and I saw her again as I had seen her last, looking down upon me from the stair-head, and her kiss was warm upon my lips.
"We are ready, Lieutenant Stewart," called Pennington, and I shook my forebodings from me as I strode back toward him.
"Lieutenant Allen instructs me to say," began Preston, who was acting as his second, "that an apology on the part of Lieutenant Stewart will avert consequences which may, perhaps, be unpleasant."
"Lieutenant Stewart has no apologies to offer," I said shortly. "We are wasting time, gentlemen."
"As you will," and Preston turned back to Allen.
My coat was off in an instant, and I rolled the sleeve of my shirt above my elbow, the better to have it out of the way.
"May I have your sword, lieutenant?" asked Pennington, and he walked with it over to where Preston stood. He was back in a moment. "Allen's sword is fully an inch the longer," he said. "I have insisted that he secure a shorter weapon."
"Nonsense!" I cried. "Let him keep his sword. I am two or three inches the taller, and the advantage will still be on my side."
Pennington looked at me a moment in something like astonishment.
"Very well," he said at last, and stepped over and spoke another word to Preston. Then he came back and handed me my sword. "You are a gallant man, Lieutenant Stewart," he said as he did so.
"No more than many others in Virginia. 'T is that I mean to prove to-night," I answered lightly, and I saluted my adversary and felt his blade against my own. The first pass showed me that he was master of the weapon, but I was far from dismayed. I saw his eyes widen with surprise as I parried his thrust and pressed him so closely that he gave back a step. I smiled dryly, for I knew my advantage. The earliest lesson I had learned at the foils was that victory comes only to the man who keeps his coolness. I had drunk little wine, while Allen had drunk much, and his bloodshot eyes told of previous nights spent over the cups and dice. No, decidedly, I had little to fear. Allen must have read something of my thought in my eyes, for his face flushed to a yet darker crimson, he pulled himself together with an effort, and by a trick which I had never seen, got inside my guard. His point was at my breast, but I leaped back and avoided it.
"Ah, you break!" he cried. "'Tis not so easy as you fancied!"
I did not answer, contenting myself with playing more cautiously than I had done in my self-satisfaction of a moment before. Out of the corners of my eyes, I could see a portion of the circle of white faces about us, but they made no sound, and what their expression was I could not tell. The night air and the fast work were doing much to sober my opponent, and I felt his wrist grow stronger as he held down my point for an instant. It was his turn to smile, and I felt my cheeks redden at the expression of his face. Again he got inside my guard, but again I was out of reach ere he could touch me. I saw that I was making but a sorry showing, and I tried the thrust of which I had had the bad taste to boast, but he turned it aside quite easily. And then, of a sudden, I heard the beat of a horse's hoofs behind me.
"For shame, gentlemen!" cried a clear voice, which rang familiar in my ears. "Can the king's soldiers find no enemies to his empire that they must fight among themselves?"
Our seconds struck up our swords, and Allen looked over my shoulder with a curse.
"Another damned provincial, upon my life!" he cried. "Was there ever such impudence!"
As he spoke, the horseman swung himself from the saddle with an easy grace which declared long training in it, and walked coolly toward us.
"Lieutenant Stewart," he said to me sternly, "I did not think to find you thus engaged, else had I thought twice before placing a sword in your hand."
"The insult was one which could not be passed over, Colonel Washington," I answered, as I saluted him. "It was not to myself only, but to all the Virginia troops who serve his Majesty."
"So," sneered Allen, "'t is the hero of Fort Necessity! I can well believe him averse to fighting."
My cheeks were hot with anger and I saw Washington flush darkly, but he gazed at Allen coldly, and his voice was calm as ever when he spoke.
"It shall be my privilege at some future time," he said, "to call the gentleman to account for his words. At present, my sword is pledged to the king and may be drawn in no other service, more especially not in my own. I trust, Lieutenant Stewart, you will have the courage to sheathe your blade."
I hesitated. It was a hard thing to ask a man to do.
"Yes, put up your sword!" cried Allen scornfully. "Allow yourself to be reproved like a naughty boy by this hero who knows only how to retreat. On my soul, 't was well he arrived when he did. I should have finished with you long ere this."
Washington looked at me steadily, without showing by the movement of a muscle that he had heard.
"And I promise you, Lieutenant Stewart," he continued, as though there had been no interruption, "that I shall be happy to act as your second, once this campaign is closed."
My cheeks flushed again, this time with pleasure, and I picked up my scabbard and sent my blade home.
"I must beg you to excuse me, Lieutenant Allen," I said. "Colonel Washington says right. My sword is not my own until we have met the French. Then I shall be only too pleased to conclude the argument."
Allen's lips curved in a disdainful smile.
"I thought you would be somewhat less eager to vindicate the courage of Virginia once you had pause for reflection," he sneered. "Provincials are all of a kind, and the breed is not a choice one."
I bit my lips to keep back the angry retort which leaped to them, and I saw Washington's hand trembling on his sword. It did me good to see that even he maintained his calmness only by an effort.
"Oh, come, Allen," cried Pennington, "you go too far. There can be no question of Lieutenant Stewart's courage. He was ready enough to meet you, God knows! Colonel Washington is right, our swords belong to the king while he has work for them," and the young fellow, with flushed face, held out his hand to Washington, who grasped it warmly.
"I thank you," he said simply. "I should be sorry to believe that all the king's officers could so far forget their duty. Come, lieutenant," he added to me, and taking me by the arm, he walked me out of the group, which opened before us, and I ventured to think that not all of the faces were unfriendly. "I have a message for Sir Peter Halket," he said, when we were out of earshot. "Show me his quarters, Tom, and so soon as I have finished my business, we will talk over this unhappy affair."
I led the way toward the building where the commander of the Forty-Fourth was quartered, too angry with myself and with the world to trust myself to speak. Why should I, who came of as good family as any in Virginia, be compelled to swallow insults as I had to-night? I almost regretted for the moment that I was in the service.
"But the time will come," I said, speaking aloud before I thought.
"Yes, the time will come, Tom," and Washington looked at me with a grim smile. "The time will come sooner than you think, perhaps, when these braggarts will be taught a lesson which they greatly need. Pray heaven the lesson be not so severe that it shake the king's empire on this continent."
"Shake the king's empire?" I repeated, looking at him in amazement. "I do not understand."
"No matter," he said shortly. "Here we are at headquarters. Do you wait for me. I will be but a moment;" and he ran up the steps, spoke a word to the sentry, and disappeared within.
THE STORY OF FONTENOY
My heart was thick with wrath as I walked up and down before Sir Peter Halket's quarters and waited for Colonel Washington to reappear. I asked myself again why I should be compelled to take the insults of any man. I clenched my hands together behind me, and swore that Allen should yet pay dearly. I recalled with bitterness the joy I had felt a week before, when I had received from Colonel Washington a letter in which he stated that he had procured my appointment as lieutenant in Captain Waggoner's Virginia company. I had been ahungered to make the campaign, and had donned my uniform with a light heart,—the same I had worn the year before, now much faded but inexpressibly dear to me,—mounted my horse, and ridden hotfoot to join the force here at Winchester. I had been received kindly enough by my companion officers of the provincial companies, many of whom were old friends. The contempt which the officers of the Forty-Fourth felt for the Virginia troops, and which they were at no pains to conceal, had vexed me somewhat from the first, yet it was not until to-night at the officers' mess, to which I had foolishly accepted Pennington's invitation, that this contempt had grown unbearable. I had chanced to pull Pennington's horse out of a hole the day before, and so saved it a broken leg, but I saw now that I should have done better to refuse that invitation, courteously as it was given, and sincere as his gratitude had undoubtedly been.
So I walked up and down with a sore heart, as a child will when it has been punished for no fault, and prayed that we provincials might yet teach the regulars a lesson. Yet they were brave men, most of them, whom I could not but admire. A kindlier, gallanter roan than Sir Peter Halket I had never seen, no, nor ever shall see. I noted the sentries pacing their beats before the colonel's quarters, erect, automatons, their guns a-glitter in the moonlight, their uniforms immaculate. I had seen them drill the day before, whole companies moving like one man, their ranks straight as a ramrod,—tramp, tramp,—turning as on a pivot moved by a single will. It was a wonderful sight to me who had never seen the like before, they were so strong, so confident, so seemingly invincible.
I turned and glanced again at the sentries, almost envying them their perfect carriage. Had they been men of iron, worked by a spring, they could not have moved with more clock-like regularity. And yet, no doubt, they had one time been country louts like any others. Truly there was much virtue in discipline. Yet still, and here I shook my head, the Virginia troops were brave as any in the world, and would prove it. From the officers' quarters came the sound of singing and much laughter, and I flushed as I thought perchance it was at me they laughed. I have learned long since that no man's laughter need disturb rue, so my heart be clear, but this was wisdom far beyond my years and yet undreamed of, and I shook my fist at the row of lighted windows.
"What, still fuming, Tom?" cried a voice at my elbow, and I turned to find Colonel Washington there; "and staring over toward the barracks as though you would like to gobble up every one within! Well, I admit you have cause," he added, and I saw that his face grew stern. "You may have to bear many such insults before the campaign is ended, but I hope and believe that the conduct of the Virginia troops will yet win them the respect of the regulars. You seem to have lost no time in getting to camp," he added, in a lighter tone.
"There was nothing to keep me at Riverview," I answered bitterly. "My absence is much preferred to my presence there. Had I not come to Winchester, I must have gone somewhere else. Your letter came most opportunely."
"You are out of humor to-night, Tom," said Washington, but his tone was kindly, and he placed one hand upon my arm as we turned back toward the cabin where my quarters were. He was scarce three years my senior, yet to me he seemed immeasurably the elder. I had always thought of him as of a man, and I verily believe he was a man in mind and temper while yet a boy in body. I had ridden beside him many times over his mother's estate, and I had noticed—and chafed somewhat at the knowledge—that women much older than he always called him Mr. Washington, while even that little chit of a Polly Johnston called me Tom to my face, and laughed at me when I assumed an air of injured dignity. I think it was the fact that my temper was so the opposite of his own which drew him to me, and as for myself, I was proud to have such a friend, and of the chance to march with him again over the mountains against the French.
He knew well how to humor me, and walked beside me, saying nothing. I glanced at his face, half shamed of my petulance, and I saw that he was no longer smiling. His lips were closed in that firm straight line which I had already seen once or twice, and which during years of trial became habitual to him. My own petty anger vanished at the sight.
"I have not yet thanked you, Colonel Washington," I said at last, "for securing me my appointment. I was eating my heart out to make the campaign, but saw no way of doing so until your message reached me."
"Why, Tom," he laughed, "you were the first of whom I thought when General Braddock gave me leave to fill some of the vacancies. Did you think I had so soon forgot the one who saved my life at Fort Necessity?"
I opened my mouth to protest, but he silenced me with a gesture.
"I can see it as though it were here before us," he continued. "The French and Indians on the knoll yonder, my own men kneeling in the trenches, almost waist-deep in water, trying in vain to keep their powder dry; here and there a wounded man lying in the mud and cursing, the rain and mist over it all, and the night coming on. And then, suddenly, the rush of Indians at our back, and over the breastwork. I had my pistol in my hand, you remember, Tom, but the powder flashed in the pan, and the foremost of the savages was upon me. I saw his tomahawk in the air, and I remember wondering who would best command when I was dead. But your aim was true and your powder dry, and when the tomahawk fell, it fell harmless, with its owner upon it."
For a moment neither of us spoke. My eyes were wet at thought of the scene which I so well remembered, and when I turned to him, I saw that he was still brooding over this defeat, which had rankled as a poisoned arrow in his breast ever since that melancholy morning we had marched away from the Great Meadows with the French on either side and the Indians looting the baggage in the rear. As we reached my quarters, we turned by a common impulse and continued onward through the darkness.
"This expedition must be more fortunate," he said at last, as though in answer to his own thought. "A thousand regulars, as many more provincials, guns, and every equipage,—yes, it is large enough and strong enough, unless"—
"Unless?" I questioned, as he paused.
"Unless we walk headlong to our own destruction," he said. "But no, I won't believe it. The general has been bred in the Coldstreams and knows nothing of frontier fighting. But he is a brave man, an honest man, and he will learn. Small wonder he believes in discipline after serving half a century in such a regiment. Have you ever heard the story of their fight at Fontenoy, ten years since, when they lost two hundred and forty men? I heard it three nights ago at the general's table, and 't was enough to make a man weep for very pity that such valor should count for naught."
"Tell it me," I cried, for if there is one thing I love above all others,—yea, even yet, when I must sit useless by,—it is the tale of brave deeds nobly done.
"'T was on the eleventh day of May, seventeen forty-five," he said, "that the English and the Dutch met the French, who were under Marshal Saxe. Louis the Fifteenth himself was on the field, with the Grand Dauphin by his side and a throng of courtiers about him, for he knew how much depended on the issue of this battle. A redoubt, held by the famous Guards, bristling with cannon, covered the French position. The Dutch, appalled at the task before them, refused to advance, but his Grace of Cumberland, who commanded the English, rose equal to the moment. He formed his troops in column, the Coldstreams at its head, and gave the word for the assault. The batteries thundered, the redoubt was crowned with flame, but the Coldstreams turned neither to the right nor left. Straight on they marched,—to annihilation, as it seemed,—reforming as they went, over hill and gully, as steadily as on parade. At last they reached their goal, and an instant's silence fell upon the field as they faced the French. The English officers raised their hats to their adversaries, who returned the salute as though they were at Versailles, not looking in the eyes of death.
"'Gentlemen of the French Guard,' cried Lord Charles Hay, 'fire, if you please.'
"'Impossible, monsieur,' cried the Count of Hauteroche; 'the French Guards never fire first. Pray, fire yourselves.'
"The order was given, and the French ranks fell as grain before the sickle. They gave way, the Coldstreams advancing in perfect order, firing volley after volley. The officers, with their rattans, turned the men's muskets to the right or left, as need demanded. Nothing could stop that terrible approach, resistless as a whirlwind, and French and Swiss broke themselves against it, only to be dashed back as spray from a rocky coast. Regiment after regiment was repulsed, and the Coldstreams still advanced. Saxe thought the battle lost, and begged the king and the dauphin to flee while time permitted. At the last desperate moment, he rallied the artillery and all the forces of his army for a final effort. The artillery was massed before the English, and they had none to answer it. The king himself led the charge against their flanks, which the Dutch should have protected. But the Dutch preferred to remain safely in the rear. The Coldstreams stood their ground, reforming their ranks with perfect coolness, until Cumberland saw it were madness to remain, and ordered the retreat. And it was more glorious than the advance. With only half their number on their feet, they faced about, without disorder, their ranks steady and unwavering, and moved off sullenly and slowly, as though ready at any moment to turn again and rend the ranks of the victors. It was a deed to match Thermopylae."
I lifted my hat from my head, and my lips were trembling.
"I salute them," I said. "'T was well done. And was General Braddock present on that day?"
"He commanded one battalion of the regiment. It was for his gallantry there that he was promoted to the senior majorship."
"I shall not forget it." And then I added, "Perhaps the story you have told me will give me greater patience with our drill-master."
"I trust so, at least," said Washington, with a smile; "else I fear there will be little peace for you in the army. I was affected by the story, Tom, no less than you have been, but after I had left the hall, with its glamour of lights and gold lace and brilliant uniforms, I wondered if this discipline would count amid the forests of the Ohio as it did on the plains of Europe. I fancy, in the battle that is to come, there will be no question of who shall fire first, and a regiment which keeps its formation will be a fair mark for the enemy. Do you know, Tom, my great hope is that the French will send a scouting party of their Indian allies to ambush us, and that in defeating them, our commander may learn something of the tactics which he must follow to defeat the French."
As for myself, I confess I shared none of these forebodings, and welcomed the chance to turn our talk to a more cheerful subject.
"But about yourself?" I questioned. "There is much I wish to know. Until your note reached me, I had not heard a word from you since you rode away from Mount Vernon with Dinwiddie's messenger."
His face cleared, and he looked at me with a little smile.
"We went direct to Williamsburg," he said, "where I first met the general, and told him what I know about the country which he has to cross. He treated me most civilly, despite some whisperings which went on behind my back, and shortly after sent me a courteous invitation to serve on his staff. Of course I accepted,—you know how it irked me to remain at home,—but I gave him at the same time a statement of my reason for quitting the Virginia service,—that I could not consent to be outranked by every subaltern who held a commission from the king."
I nodded, for the question was not new to me, and had already caused me much heart-burning. It was not until long afterwards that I saw the general's letter among Mrs. Washington's treasures at Mount Vernon, but it seems to me worthy of reproduction here. Thus it ran:—
WILLIAMSBURG, 2 March, 1755.
Sir,—The General having been informed that you expressed some desire to make the campaign, but that you declined it upon some disagreeableness that you thought might arise from the regulations of command, has ordered me to acquaint you that he will be very glad of your company in his family, by which all inconveniences of that kind will be obviated.
I shall think myself very happy to form an acquaintance with a person so universally esteemed, and shall use every opportunity of assuring you how much I am, Sir, your most obedient servant,
ROBERT ORME, Aide-de-Camp.
Had Braddock heeded the advice of the man whom he asked to join his family, the event might have been different. But I must not anticipate, and I find my hardest task in writing what is before me is to escape the shadow of the disaster which was to come. At that time, and, indeed, until the storm burst, few of us had penetration to discern the cloud on the horizon,—Colonel Washington, Mr. Franklin, and a few others, perhaps, but certainly not I. It is easy to detect mistakes after the event, and to conduct a campaign on paper, yet few who saw that martial array of troops, with its flying banners and bright uniforms, would have ordered the advance differently.
But to return.
"It was not until three days ago," continued Washington, "that I was able to rejoin the general, and he intrusted me with a message to Colonel Halket, which I delivered this evening. I must start back to Mount Vernon to-morrow and place my affairs in order, and will then join the army at Cumberland, whence the start is to be made."
"And what make of man is the general?" I asked.
A cloud settled on Washington's face.
"Why, Tom," he said at last, "I have seen so little of him that I may misjudge him. He is at least brave and honest, two great things in a commander. As for the rest, it is yet too soon to judge. But you have told me nothing about your affairs. How did you leave them all at Riverview?"
"I left them well enough," I answered shortly.
Washington glanced keenly at my downcast face, for indeed the memory of what had occurred at Riverview was not pleasant to me.
"Did you quarrel with your aunt before you came away?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," I said, and stopped. How could I say more?
"I feared it might come to that," he said gravely. "Your position there has been a false one from the start. And yet I see no way to amend it."
We walked on in silence for some time, each busy with his own thoughts, and mine at least were not pleasant ones.
"Tom," said Washington suddenly, "what was the quarrel about? Was it about the estate?"
"Oh, no," I answered. "We shall never quarrel about the estate. We have already settled all that. It was something quite different."
I could not tell him what it was; the secret was not my own.
He looked at me again for a moment, and then, stopping suddenly, wheeled me around to face him, and caught my hand.
"I think I can guess," he said warmly, "and I wish you every happiness, Tom."
My lips were trembling so I could not thank him, but I think he knew what was in my heart.
IN WHICH I INTRODUCE MYSELF
I doubt not that by this time the reader is beginning to wonder who this fellow is that has claimed his attention, and so, since there is no one else to introduce me, I must needs present myself.
It so happened that when that stern old lion, Oliver Cromwell, crushed the butterfly named Charles Stuart at Worcester in the dim dawn of the third day of September, 1651, and utterly routed the army of that unhappy prince, one Thomas Stewart fell into the hands of the Roundheads, as, indeed, did near seven thousand others of the Royalist army. Now this Thomas Stewart had very foolishly left a pretty estate in Kincardine, together with a wife and two sturdy boys, to march under the banner of the Princeling, as he conceived to be his duty, and after giving and taking many hard knocks, here he was in the enemy's hands, and Charles Stuart a fugitive. They had one and all been declared by Parliament rebels and traitors to the Commonwealth, so the most distinguished of the captives were chosen for examples to the rest, and three of them, the Earl of Derby among the number, were sent forthwith to the block, where they comported themselves as brave men should, and laid down their heads right cheerfully.
The others were sent to prison, since it was manifestly impossible to execute them all,—nor was Cromwell so bloodthirsty, now the rebellion was broken utterly,—and some sixteen hundred of them were sentenced to be transported to the colony of Virginia, which had long been a dumping ground for convicts and felons and political scapegoats. Hither, then, they came, in ships crowded to suffocation, and many dead upon the way and thrown to the sharks for burial, but for some reason only one of the ships stopped here, while the others went on to Barbados to discharge their living freight. I more than suspect that Cromwell's agents soon discovered the Commonwealth had few friends in Virginia, and feared the effect of letting loose here so many of the Royalist soldiers. At any rate, this one ship dropped anchor at Hampton, and its passengers, to the number of about three hundred, were sold very cheaply to the neighboring planters. I may as well say here that all of them were well treated by their Cavalier masters, and many of them afterwards became the founders of what are now the most prominent families in the colony.
Now one of those who had been sold in Virginia was the Thomas Stewart whom I have already mentioned, and whom neither stinking jail nor crowded transport had much affected. Doubtless, no matter what the surroundings, he had only to close his eyes to see again before him the green hills and plashing brooks of Kincardine, with his own home in the midst, and the bonny wife waiting at the door, a boy on either side. Alas, it was only thus he was ever to see them this side heaven. He was bought by a man named Nicholas Spenser, who owned a plantation on the Potomac in Westmoreland County, and there he worked, first as laborer and then as overseer, for nigh upon ten years. His master treated him with great kindness, and at the Restoration, having made tenfold his purchase money by him, gave him back his freedom.
Despite the years and the hard work in the tobacco-fields, Stewart's thoughts had often been with the wife and children he had left behind in Scotland, and he prevailed upon Spenser to secure him passage in one of his ships for London, where he arrived early in 1662. He made his way back to Kincardine, where he found his estate sequestered, his wife and one child dead in poverty, the other disappeared. From a neighbor he learned that the boy had run away to sea after his mother's death, but what his fate had been he never knew. Weary and disheartened, Stewart retraced his steps to London, and after overcoming obstacles innumerable, occasioned mostly by his want of money, laid his case before the king. Charles listened to him kindly enough, for his office had not yet grown a burden to him, and finally granted him a patent for two thousand acres of land along the upper Potomac. It was a gift which cost the king nothing, and one of a hundred such he bestowed upon his favorites as another man would give a crust of bread for which he had no use. Stewart returned to Virginia with his patent in his pocket, and built himself a home in what was then a wilderness.
In five or six years he had cleared near three hundred acres of land, had it planted in sweet-scented tobacco, for which the Northern Neck was always famous, bought two-score negroes to tend it, and began to see light ahead. It was at this time that he met Marjorie Usner, while on a visit to Williamsburg, and he married her in 1670, having in the mean time erected a more spacious residence than the rude log-hut which had previously been his home. He was at that time a man nigh fifty years of age, but handsome enough, I dare say, and well preserved by his life of outdoor toil. Certainly Mistress Marjorie, who must have been much younger, made him a good wife, and when he died, in 1685, he left a son and a daughter, besides an estate valued at several thousands of pounds, accumulated with true Scottish thrift. It was this daughter who named the estate Riverview, and though the house was afterwards remodeled, the name was never changed. The Stewarts continued to live there, marrying and giving in marriage, and growing ever wealthier, for the next half century, at the end of which time occurred the events that brought me into being.
In 1733, Thomas Stewart, great-grandson of the Scotsman, was master of Riverview. His portrait, which hangs to-day to the left of the fireplace in the great hall, shows him a white-haired, red-faced, choleric gentleman, with gray eyes and proudly smiling mouth. He had been chosen a member of the House of Burgesses, as had his father before him, and was one of the most considerable men in the county. His son, Tom, was just twenty-one, and had inherited from his father the hasty temper and invincible stubbornness which belong to all the Stewarts.
It was in the fall of 1733 that they made the trip to Williamsburg which was to have such momentous consequences. The House of Burgesses was in session, and Mr. Stewart, as the custom was, took his whole family with him to the capital. I fancy I can see them as they looked that day. The great coach, brought from London at a cost of so many thousand pounds of tobacco, is polished until it shines again. The four horses are harnessed to it, and Sambo, mouth stretched from ear to ear, drives it around to the front of the mansion, where a broad flight of stone steps leads downward from the wide veranda. The footmen and outriders spring to their places, their liveries agleam with buckles, the planter and his lady and their younger son enter the coach, while young Tom mounts his horse and prepares to ride by the window. The odorous cedar chests containing my lady's wardrobe are strapped behind or piled on top, the negroes form a grinning avenue, the whip cracks, and they are off, half a dozen servants following in an open cart. It is a four days' journey to Williamsburg, over roads whose roughness tests the coach's strength to the uttermost but it is the one event of all the year to this isolated family, and small wonder that they look forward to it with eager anticipation.
Once arrived at Williamsburg, what craning of necks and waving of handkerchiefs and kissing of hands to acquaintances, as the coach rolls along the wide, white, sandy street, scorching in the sun, with the governor's house, called by courtesy a palace, at one end, and the College of William and Mary at the other, and perhaps two hundred straggling wooden houses in between. The coaches and chariots which line the street give earnest of the families already assembled from Princess Ann to Fairfax and the Northern Neck. My lady notes that the Burkes have at last got them a new chariot from London, and her husband looks with appreciative eyes at the handsome team of matched grays which draw it. As for young Tom, his eyes, I warrant, are on none of these, but on the bevy of blooming girls who promenade the side-path, arrayed in silks and satins and brocades, their eyes alight, their cheeks aglow with the joy of youth and health. Small blame to him, say I, for that is just where my own eyes would have been.
That very night Governor Gooch gave a ball at his palace, and be sure the Stewart family was there, my lady in her new London gown of flowered damask in the very latest mode, and Tom in his best suit of peach-blossom velvet, and in great hopes of attracting to himself some of the bright eyes he had seen that afternoon. Nor was he wholly unsuccessful, for one pair of black eyes rested on his for a moment,—they were those of Mistress Patricia Wyeth,—and he straightway fell a victim to their charms, as what young man with warm heart and proper spirit would not? Young Tom must himself have possessed unusual attractions, or a boldness in wooing which his son does not inherit, for at the end of a week he disturbed his father at his morning dram to inform him that he and Mistress Patricia had decided to get married.
"Married!" cried the elder Stewart. "Why, damme, sir, do you know who the Wyeths are?"
"I know who Patricia is," answered young Tom very proudly, his head well up at this first sign of opposition. "I care naught about the rest of them."
"But I care, sir!" shouted his father. "Why, the girl won't have a shilling to bless herself with. Old Wyeth has gambled away every penny he possesses, and a good many more than he possesses, too, so they tell me, at his infernal horse-racing and cock-fighting, and God knows what else. A gentleman may play, sir,—I throw the dice occasionally, myself, and love to see a well-matched, race as well as any man,—but he ceases to be a gentleman the moment he plays beyond his means,—a fact which you will do well to remember. A pretty match for a Stewart 'pon my word!"
During this harangue young Tom would have interrupted more than once, but his father silenced him with a passionate waving of his arm. At last he was compelled to pause for want of breath to say more, and the boy got in a word.
"All this is beside the point, father," he said hotly. "My word is given, and I intend to keep it. Even if it were not given, I should still do my best to win Patricia, because I love her."
"Love her, and welcome!" cried his father. "Marry her, if you want to. But you'll never bring a pauper like that inside my house while I am alive."
"Nor after you are dead, if you do not wish it," answered Tom, with his head higher in the air than ever.
"No, nor after I am dead!" thundered the old man, his anger no doubt carrying him farther than he intended going. "You are acting like a scoundrel, sir. You know well enough I can't cut you out of the estate, since you are the eldest, so you think to take advantage of me."
"Never fear, sir," cried Tom, his lips white with anger and his eyes ablaze. "You shall ask me back to Riverview yourself ere I return there; yes, and beg my wife's pardon for insulting her."
"Then, by God, you'll never return!" snorted his father, and without waiting to hear more, Tom stalked from the room and from the house. I think even then his father would have called him back, had the boy given him the chance, and his face was less red than usual when he heard the street door slam.
Of course there was a great to-do immediately. Tom's mother interceded for him, and I doubt not a single word on his part would have won full pardon from his father, but one was no less stubborn than the other, and the word was never spoken. When Mistress Patricia heard of the quarrel, she straightway informed her lover that she would never marry him and ruin his inheritance, and returned to her home above Charles City, taking her old reprobate of a father with her, where he died not long afterwards, perhaps finding life not worth living when there remained no one who would take his wagers.
At the close of the session, the Stewart coach rolled back to Riverview, but young Tom did not ride beside it. He remained at Williamsburg, and managed to pick up a scanty practice as an attorney, for he had read a little law in want of something better to do, and to fit himself for his coming honors as a member of the House of Burgesses. And at Riverview his father moped in his office and about his fields, growing ever more crabbed and more obstinate, and falling into a rage whenever any one dared mention Tom's name before him.
It was in the spring of 1734 that Tom Stewart mounted his horse and rode out of Williamsburg across the Chickahominy, to try his fortune once more with Patricia Wyeth. The winter had been a hard one for a man brought up as Tom had been, and that suit of peach-bloom velvet had long since been converted into bread. Yet still he made a gallant figure when, on the evening of an April day, he cantered up the road to Patricia's home, and I dare say the heart of the owner of those bright eyes which peeped out upon him from an upper window beat faster when they saw him coming. But it was a very demure little maiden who met him at the great door as he entered, and gave him her hand to kiss. She was all in white, with a sprig of blossoms in her hair, and she must have made a pretty picture standing there, and one to warm the heart of any man.
Of the week that followed, neither my father nor my mother ever told me much,—its memories were too sweet to trust to words, perhaps,—but the event was, that on the first day of May, 1734, Thomas Stewart, attorney, and Patricia Wyeth, spinster, were made man and wife in Westover church by the Reverend Peter Fontaine, of sainted memory. How well I recall his benign face, and what tears of affectionate remembrance brimmed my eyes when I heard, not long ago, that he was dead! The closing sentences of his will show how he ever thought of others and not of himself, for he wrote: "My will and desire is, that I may have no public funeral, but that my corpse may be accompanied by a few of my nearest neighbors; that no liquors be given to make any of the company drunk,—many instances of which I have seen, to the great scandal of the Christian religion and abuse of so solemn an ordinance. I desire none of my family to go in mourning for me." His sister sent me a copy of the will, and a very pretty letter, in which she told me how her brother often spoke of me, and wished me to have his Bible. It is there on the shelf at my bedside, and while God gives me life I will read in no other.
It was in the modest Wyeth homestead, on the bank of the James, that my father and mother entered upon their honeymoon. Of the depth of their love for each other I know best of all, and the summer slipped away on golden wings. My father thought no more of returning to Williamsburg, nor did he greatly regret Riverview. He wrote a formal letter to his mother announcing his marriage, but no answer came to it, and I doubt not that worthy woman sobbed herself to sleep more than once in grieving over the obstinacy of her husband and her son. Dear lady, it was this trouble which did much to shorten her days, and the end came soon afterwards. 'T is said that on her deathbed she tried to soften her husband's heart against their boy, but with such ill success that she fell sobbing into the sleep from which she was never to awaken. To such a degree can a fault persisted in change the natural humor of a man.
My father, perhaps, hoped for a reply to his letter, but he showed no sign of disappointment when none came, and never spoke upon the subject to my mother. He soon found enough in his affairs at home to occupy his mind, for old Samuel Wyeth had left the estate sadly incumbered with his debts, and more than half of it was sacrificed to save the rest. With care and frugality, there yet remained enough to live on, and for the first year, at least, there came no cloud to dim their happiness. Their cup of joy was full to overflowing, so my mother often told me, when, on the night of April 15,1735, a child was born to them. It was a boy, and a week later, before the altar of the little Westover church, its worthy rector christened the child "Thomas Stewart," the fifth of his line in the New World.
THE ENDING OF THE HONEYMOON
Besides my father and my mother, the figure which stands out most clearly in my memory of my childhood is that of the man who christened me. I cannot remember the time when I did not know and love him. He was a tall, well-built man, with kindly face and clear blue eyes which darkened when any emotion stirred him, and rode—how well I remember it!—a big, bony, gray horse. It was on this horse's back that I took my first ride, when I was scarce out of petticoats, and often after that, held carefully before him on the saddle, or, as I grew older, bumping joyously behind, my arms about his waist. My place was always on his knee when he was within our doors, and he held me there with unfailing good humor during his long talks with my mother, of which I, for the most part, comprehended nothing, except that oftentimes they spoke of me, and then he would smooth my hair with great tenderness. But I sat there quite content, and sometimes dozed off with my head against his flowered waistcoat,—it was his one vanity,—and wakened only when he set me gently down.
It was not until I grew older that I learned something of his history. One day, he had seized time from his parish work to take me for a ramble along the river, and as we reached the limit of our walk and sat down for a moment's rest before starting homeward, and looked across the wide water, I asked him, with a childish disregard for his feelings, if it were true that his father was a Frenchman, adding that I hoped it were not true, because I did not like the French.
"Yes, it is true," he answered, and looked down at me, smiling sadly. "Shall I tell you the story, Thomas?"
I nodded eagerly, for I loved to listen to stories, especially true ones.
"When Louis Fourteenth was King of France," he began, and I think he took a melancholy pleasure in telling it, "he issued a decree commanding all the Protestants, who in France are called Huguenots, to abjure their faith and become Catholics, or leave the kingdom. He had oftentimes before promised them protection, but he was growing old and weak, and thought that this might help to save his soul, which was in great need of saving, for he had been a wicked king. My father and my mother were Huguenots, and they chose to leave their home rather than give up their faith, as did many thousand others, and after suffering many hardships, escaped to England, with no worldly possession save the clothes upon their backs, but with a great treasure in heaven and an abiding trust in the Lord. They had six children, and after giving us a good education, especially as to our religion, committed us to the providence of a covenant God to seek our fortunes in the wide world. All of us came to America, although Moses and John have since returned to England. James is a farmer in King William County, Francis is minister of York-Hampton parish, and sister Ruth lives with me, as you know."
A great deal more he told me, which slipped from my memory, for I was thinking over what he had already said.
"And your mother and father," I asked, as we started back together, "fled from France rather than give up their faith?"
"Yes," he answered, and smiled down into my eyes, raised anxiously to his.
"And were persecuted just as the early martyrs were?"
"Yes, very much the same. All of their goods were taken from them, and they were long in prison."
"But they were never sorry?"
"No, they were never sorry. No one is ever sorry for doing a thing like that."
I trotted on in silence for a moment, holding tight to his kindly hand, and revolving this new idea in my mind. At last I looked up at him, big with purpose.
"I am going to do something like that some day," I said.
He gazed down at me, his eyes shining queerly.
"God grant that you may have the strength, my boy," he said. He bent and kissed me, and we returned to the house together without saying another word.
It was the custom of the Fontaine family to hold a meeting every year to give thanks for the deliverance from persecution of their parents in France, and I remember being present with my father and mother at one of these meetings when I was seven or eight years old. One passage of the sermon he preached on that occasion remained fixed indelibly in my mind. He took his text from Romans, "That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." He applied the duty thus enjoined to the Fontaine family, saying,—
"For many weary months was our father forced to shift among forests and deserts for his safety, because he had dared to preach the word of God to the innocent and sincere people among whom he lived, and who desired to be instructed in their duty and to be confirmed in their faith. The forest afforded him a shelter and the rocks a resting-place, but his enemies gave him no quiet, and pursued him even to these fastnesses, until finally, of his own accord, he delivered himself to them. They loaded his hands with chains, a dungeon was his abode, and his feet stuck fast in the mire. Murderers and thieves were his companions, yet even among them did he pursue his labors, until God, by means of a pious gentlewoman, who had seen and pitied his sufferings, relieved him."
To my childish imagination, the picture thus painted was a real and living one, and filled me with a singular exaltation. I think each of us at some time of his life has felt, as I did then, a desire to suffer for conscience' sake.
The preachers of Virginia were, as a whole, anything but admirable, a condition due no doubt to the worldly spirit which pervaded the church on both sides of the ocean. The average parson was then—and many of them still are—coarse and rough, as contact with the forests and waste places of the world will often make men, even godly ones. But many of them were worse than that, gamblers and drunkards. They hunted the fox across country with great halloo, mounted on fast horses of their own. They attended horse-races and cock-fights, almost always with some money on the outcome, and frequently with a horse or cock entered in the races or the pittings. And when the sport was over, they would accompany the planters home to dinner, which ended in a drinking-bout, and it was seldom the parson who went under the table first. One fought a duel in the graveyard behind his church,—our own little Westover church, it was,—and succeeded in pinking his opponent through the breast, for which he had incontinently to return to England; another stopped the communion which he was celebrating, and bawled out to his warden, "Here, George, this bread's not fit for a dog," nor would he go on with the service until bread more to his liking had been brought; another married a wealthy widow, though he had already a wife living in England. His bishop was compelled to recall him, but I never heard that he was discharged from holy orders. Another on a certain Saturday called a meeting of his vestry, and when they refused to take some action which he desired, thrashed them all soundly, and on the next day added insult to injury by preaching to them from the text, "And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair." I should like to have seen the faces of the vestrymen while the sermon was in progress! It was not an unusual sight to see the parson riding home from some great dinner tied fast in his chaise to keep him from falling out, as the result of over-indulgence in the planter's red wine. But our worthy pastor, during his forty years' ministry in Charles City parish, was concerned in no such escapades, and I count it one of the great happinesses of my life that I had the good fortune to fall under the influence of such a man. A passage of a letter written by him to one of his brothers in England on the subject of preserving health gives an outline of the rules of his life. After commending active exercise in the open air on foot and on horseback, he says, "I drink no spirituous liquors at all; but when I am obliged to take more than ordinary fatigue, either in serving my churches or other branches of duty, I take one glass of good old Madeira wine, which revives me, and contributes to my going through without much fatigue."
One other figure do I recall distinctly. We had driven to church as usual one Sunday morning in early fall, and when we came in sight of the little brick building, peeping through its veil of ivy, I was surprised to see the parishioners in line on either side the path which led to the broad, low doorway. Mr. Fontaine stood there as though awaiting some one, and when he saw us, came down the steps and spoke a word to father. In a moment, from down the road came the rumble of heavy wheels, and then a great, gorgeous, yellow chariot, with four outriders, swung into view and drew up with a flourish before the church. The footmen sprang to the door, opened it, and let down the steps. I, who was staring with all my eyes, as you may well believe, saw descend a little old man, very weak and very tremulous, yet holding his head proudly, and after him a younger. They came slowly up the walk, the old man leaning heavily upon the other's shoulder and nodding recognition to right and left. As they drew near, I caught the gleam of a great jewel on his sword-hilt, and then of others on finger, knee, and instep. The younger bore himself very erect and haughty, yet I saw the two were fashioned in one mould. On up the steps and into the church they went, Mr. Fontaine before and we after them. They took their seats in the great pew with the curious carving on the back, which I had never before seen occupied.
"Who are the gentlemen, mother?" I whispered, so soon as I could get her ear.
"It is Colonel Byrd and his son come back from London," she answered. "Now take your eyes off them and attend the service."
Take my eyes off them I did, by a great effort of will, but I fear I heard little of the service, for my mind was full of the great house on the river-bank, which it had once been my fortune to visit. Mr. Fontaine had taken me with him in his chaise for a pastoral call at quite the other end of his parish, and as we returned, we were caught in a sudden storm of rain. My companion had hesitated for a moment, and then turned his horse's head through a gateway with a curious monogram in iron at the top, along an avenue of stately tulip-trees, and so to the door of a massive square mansion of red brick, which stood on a little knoll overlooking the James. The door was closed and the windows shuttered, but half a dozen negroes came running from the back at the sound of our wheels and took us in out of the storm. A mighty fire was started in the deep fireplace, and as I stood steaming before it, I looked with dazzled eyes at the great carved staircase, at the paintings and at the books, of which there were many hundreds.
Presently the old overseer, whom Mr. Fontaine addressed as Murray, and who had grown from youth to trembling age in the Byrd service, came in to offer us refreshment, and over the table they fell to gossiping.
"Westover's not the place it was," said Murray, sipping his flip disconsolately,—"not the place it was while Miss Evelyn was alive. There was no other like it in Virginia then. Why, it was always full of gay company, and the colonel kept a nigger down there at the gate to invite in every traveler who passed. But all that's changed, and has been these six year."
Mr. Fontaine nodded over his tea.
"Yes," he said, "Evelyn's death was a great blow to her father."
"You may well say that, sir," assented Murray, with a sigh. "He was never the same man after. He used to sit there at that window and watch her in the garden, after they came back from London, and every day he saw her whiter and thinner. At night, after she was safe abed, I have seen him walking up and down over there along the river, sobbing like a baby. And when she died, he was like a man dazed, thinking, perhaps, it was he who had killed her."
"I know," nodded Mr. Fontaine. "I was here." There was a moment's silence. I was bursting with questions, but I did not dare to speak.
"The young master took him back to London after that," went on Murray, "hoping that a change would do him good and take his mind off Miss Evelyn, but I doubt he'll ever get over it. While they were in London, Sir Godfrey Kneller painted him and Miss Evelyn. Would you like to see the pictures, sir?"
"Yes, I should like to see them," said Mr. Fontaine softly. "Evelyn was very dear to me."
They were hanging side by side in the great hall, and even my childish eyes saw their strength and beauty. His was a narrow, patrician face, beautiful as a woman's, looking from a wealth of brown curls, soft and flowing. The little pucker at the corners of his mouth bespoke his relish of a jest, and the high nose and well-placed eyes his courage and spirit. But it was at the other I looked the longest. She was seated upon a grassy bank, with the shadows of the evening gathering about her. In the branches above her head gleamed a red-bird's brilliant plumage. On her lap lay a heap of roses, and in her hand she held a shepherd's crook. Her gown, of pale blue satin, was open at the throat, and showed its fair sweet fullness and the bosom's promise. Her face was pensive,—sad, almost,—the lips just touching, a soft light in the great dark eyes. I had never seen such a picture,—nor have I ever looked upon another such. I can close my eyes and see it even now. But the storm had passed, and it was time to go.
"Why did Miss Evelyn die?" I questioned, as soon as we were out of the avenue of tulips and in the highway.
He looked down at me a moment, and seemed hesitating for an answer.
"She loved a man in London," he said. "Her father would not let her marry him, and brought her home. She was not strong, and gossips say her heart was broken."
"But why would he not let her marry him?" I asked.
"He was not of her religion. Her father thought he was acting for her good."
I pondered on this for a time in silence, and found here a question too great for my small brain.
"But was he right?" I asked at last, falling back upon my companion's greater knowledge.
"It is hard to say," he answered softly. "Perhaps he was, and yet I have come to think there is little to choose between one sect and another, so Christ be in them and the man honest."
He looked out across the fields with tender eyes and I slipped my hand in his. A vision of her sad face danced before me and I fell asleep, my head within his arm, to waken only when he lifted me down at our journey's end.
All this came back to me with the vividness which childish recollections sometimes have, as I sat there in the pew at my mother's side. Only I could not quite believe that this little wrinkled old man was the same who looked so proudly from Kneller's canvas. But when the service ended and he stopped to exchange a word with father, I saw the face was indeed the same, though now writ over sadly by the hand of time weighted down with sorrow. It was the only time I ever saw him in the flesh, for he was near the end and died soon after. He was buried beside his daughter in the little graveyard near his home. It was Mr. Fontaine who closed his eyes in hope of resurrection and spoke the last words above his grave,— beloved in this great mansion as in the lowliest cabin at Charles City.
My pen would fain linger over the portrait of this sainted man, which is the fairest and most benign in the whole gallery of my youth, but I must turn to another subject,—to the cloud which began to shadow my life at my tenth year, and which still shadows it to-day. For the first six or seven years of their married life my father and mother were, I believe, wholly and unaffectedly happy. When I think of them now, I think of them only as they were during that time, and wonder how many of the married people about me could say as much. Their means were small, and they lived a quiet life, which had few luxuries. But as time went on, my father began to chafe at the petty economies which the smallness of their income rendered necessary. He had been bred amid the luxuries of a great estate, where the house was open to every passer-by, and it vexed him that he could not now show the same wide hospitality. I think he yet had hopes of succeeding to his father's estate, out of which, indeed, there was no law in Virginia to keep him should he choose to claim it. Whatever his thoughts may have been, he grew gradually to live beyond his means, and as the years passed, he had recourse to the cards and dice in the hope, no doubt, of recouping his vanishing fortune. It was true then, as it is true now and always will be true, that the man who gambles because he needs the money is sure to lose, and affairs went from bad to worse until the final disaster came.
It was just after my tenth birthday. My mother and I were sitting together on the broad porch which overlooked the river. She had been reading to me from the Bible,—the parable of the talents,—in which and in the kind advice of Parson Fontaine she found her only comfort in the anxious days which had gone before, and which I knew nothing of. But the lengthening shadows finally fell across the page, and she closed the book and held it on her knee, while she talked to me about my lessons and a ramble we had planned for the morrow. The red of the sunset still lingered in the west, and a single crimson cloud hung poised high up against the sky. I remember watching it as it turned to purple and then to gray. A burst of singing came from the negro quarters behind the house, and in the strip of woodland by the river the noises of the night began to sound.
As the twilight deepened to darkness, my mother's voice faltered and ceased, and when I glanced at her, I saw she had fallen into a reverie, and that there was a shadow on her face. I have only to shut my eyes, and the years roll back and she is sitting there again beside me, in her white gown, simply made, and gathered at the waist with a broad blue ribbon, her slim white hands playing with the book upon her knee, her eyes gazing afar off across the water, her mouth drooping in the curve which it had never known till recently, her wealth of blue-black hair forming a halo round her head. Ah, that she were there when I open my eyes again, that I might speak to her! For the bitterest thought that ever came to me is one which troubles my rest from time to time even now: Did I love her as she deserved; was I a staff for her to lean upon in her trouble; was I not, rather, a careless, unseeing boy, who recked nothing of the impending storm until it burst about him? I trust the tears which have wet my pillow since have gladdened her heart in heaven.
I was awakened from the doze into which I had fallen by the sound of rapid hoof-beats down the road. We listened to them in silence, as they drew near and nearer. I did not doubt it was my father, for few others ever rode our way. He had been from home all day, as he frequently was of late, only he did not usually return so early in the evening. Something in my mother's face as she strained her eyes into the shadows to catch a glimpse of the advancing horseman drew me from my chair and to her side.
"It is your father," she said, in a voice almost inaudible, and as she spoke, the rider leaped from the shadow of the trees. He drew his horse up before the porch with a jerk and threw himself from the saddle. As he came up the steps, I saw that his face was strangely flushed and his eyes gleaming in a way that made me shiver. I felt my mother's arm about me trembling as she drew me closer to her.
"Well, it's over," he said, flinging himself down upon the upper step, "and damme if I'm sorry. Anything's better than living here in the woods like a lump on a log."
"What do you mean is over, Tom?" asked my mother very quietly.
"I mean our possession of this place is over. Since an hour ago, it has belonged to Squire Blakesley, across the river."
"You mean you have gambled it away?"
"If you choose to call it that," said my father ungraciously, and he turned his back to us and gazed gloomily out over the water.
For a moment there was silence.
"Since we no longer possess this place," said my mother at last, "I suppose you intend to forget your foolish anger against your father, and claim your patrimony?"
"Foolish or not," he cried, "I have sworn never to take it until it is offered to me, and I mean to keep my word!"
"You would make your boy a beggar to gratify a foolish whim!" retorted my mother, her voice trembling with passion. I had never seen her so, and even my father glanced at her furtively in some astonishment. "Very well. In that it is for you to do as you may choose, but his estate here, or what is left of it, shall be kept intact for him."
"What do you mean?" cried my father, and he sprang to his feet and slashed his boot savagely with his riding-whip.
"I mean," said my mother very quietly, "that since a gambling debt is not recoverable by law, we have only to live on quietly here and no one will dare disturb us."
"And my honor?" cried my father with an oath, the first I had ever heard him use. "It seems to me that you forget my honor, madam."
"You have been the first to forget your honor, sir," said my mother, rising to face him, but still keeping me within her arm, "in staking your son's inheritance upon a throw of the dice."
My father started as though he had been struck across the face, but he was too far gone in anger to listen to the voice of reason. Indeed, I have always found that the more a man deserves rebuke, the less likely is he to take it quietly.
"Come here, Tom," he said to me, and when I hesitated, added in a sterner tone, "come here, sir, I say."
I had no choice but to go to him, nor did my mother seek to hold me back. He caught me by the arms and bent until his face was close to mine.
"You are to promise me two things, Tom," he said, and I perceived that his breath was heavy with the fumes of wine. "One is that you are never to claim your inheritance of Riverview until it is offered to you freely by them that now possess it. Do you promise me that?"
"Yes," I faltered. "I promise you, sir."
"Good!" he said. "And the other is that you will pay my debts of honor after I am dead, if they be not paid before. Promise me that also, Tom."
His eyes were on mine, and I could do nothing but obey, even had I thought of resisting.
"I promise that also, sir," I said.
"Very well," and he retained his grasp on my arms yet a moment. "Remember, Tom, that a gentleman never breaks his word. It is his most priceless possession, the thing which above all others makes him a gentleman."
He dropped his hands and turned away into the house. A moment later, from the refuge of my mother's arms, I heard him heavily mounting the stairs to his room on the floor above. My mother said never a word, but she covered my face with kisses, and I felt that she was crying. She held me for a time upon her lap, gazing out across the river as before, and when I raised my hand and caressed her cheek, smiled down upon me sadly. She kissed me again as she put me to bed, and the last thing I saw before drifting away into the land of dreams was her sweet face bending over me. Had I known that it was the last time I was to see it so,—the last time those tender hands were to draw the covers close about me,—I should not have closed my eyes in such content.
THE SECRET OF A HEART
Late that night I was awakened by the slamming of doors and hurried footsteps in the hall and up and down the stairs. I sat up in bed, and as I listened intently, heard frightened whispering without my door. It rose and died away and rose again, broken by stifled sobbing, and I knew that some great disaster had befallen. It seemed, somehow, natural that this should happen, after my father's recent conduct. With a cold fear at my heart, I threw the covers back, slid from the bed, and groped my way across the room. As I fumbled at the latch, the whispering and sobbing came suddenly to an end, as though those without had stopped with bated breath. At last I got the door open, and looking out, saw half a dozen negro servants grouped upon the landing. One of them held a lantern, which threw slender rays of light across the floor and queer shadows up against their faces. They stared at me an instant, and then, finding their breath again, burst forth in lamentation.
"What is it?" I cried. "What has happened?"
My old mammy had her arms around me and caught me up to her face, down which the tears were streaming.
"Oh, Lawd, keep dis chile!" she sobbed, looking down at me with infinite tenderness. "Oh, Lawd, bless an' keep dis chile!"
"But, mammy," I repeated impatiently, "what has happened?"
Her trembling lips would not permit her answering, but she pointed to the door of my father's room and her tears broke forth afresh.
"Is my mother there?" I asked.
"Then I will go to her," I said, and I had squirmed out of her arms and was running along the passage before she could detain me. In a moment I had reached the door, but all my courage seemed to fail me in face of the mystery within, and the knock I gave was a very feeble and timid one. I heard a quick step on the floor, and the door opened ever so little.
"Is it you, doctor?" asked my mother's voice.
"No, mother, it is only I," I said.
"You!" she cried, in a terrible voice, and I caught a glimpse of her face rigid with horror before she slammed the door. The sight seemed to freeze me there on the threshold, powerless to move. I have tried—ah, how often!—to put behind me the memory of her face as I saw it then, but it is before me now and again, even yet. And I began to cry, for it was the first time my mother had ever shut me from her presence.
"Are you there, Tom?" I heard her voice ask in a moment. Her voice, did I say? Nay, not hers, but a voice I had never heard before,—the voice of a woman suffocating with anguish.
"Yes, mother," I answered, "I am here."
"And you love me, do you not, Tom?"
"Oh, yes, mother!" I cried; and I thank God to this day that there was so much of genuine feeling in my voice.
"Then if you love me, Tom," she said, "you will go back to your room and not come near this door again. Promise me, Tom, that you will do as I ask you."
"I promise, mother," I answered. "But what has happened? Is father dead?"
"Mr. Fontaine will be here soon," she said, "and will explain it all to you. Now run back to your room, dearest, and go to bed."
"Yes, mother," I said again, but as I turned to go, I heard a sound which struck me motionless. No, my father was not dead, for that was his voice I heard, pitched far above its usual key.
"I shall never go back," he cried. "I shall never go back till he asks me."
I felt the perspiration start from my forehead.
"Have you gone, Tom?" asked my mother's voice.
"I am just going, mother," I sobbed, and tore myself away from the door. My mammy's arms were about me again as I turned, and carried me back to my room. This time I did not resist, but as she sat down, still holding me, I laid my head upon her breast and sobbed myself to sleep. When I awoke, I found that I was in bed with the covers tucked close around me, and through my window I could see the gray dawn breaking. I lay and watched the light grow along the horizon and up into the heavens. And while I lay thus, with heart aching dully, the door of my room opened softly, and with joy inexpressible I saw that it was my beloved friend who entered.
"Oh, Mr. Fontaine!" I cried, and stretched out my arms to him. He took me up as a mother might, and held me close against his heart.
"Do you remember, dear," he said, and his voice was trembling, "what you told me one day by the river—that you meant to be brave under trial?"
I sobbed assent.
"Well, the trial has come, Tom, and I want you to be brave and strong. You are not going to disappoint me, are you?"
Oh, it was hard, and I was only a child, but I sat upright on his knee and tried to dry my tears.
"I will try," I said, but the sobs would come in spite of me.
"That is right," and he was stroking my hair in that old familiar, tender way. "Your father is very ill, Tom."
Well, if that was all, I could bear it, certainly.
"But he will get well," I said.
He was looking far out at the purple sky, and his face seemed old and gray.
"I hope and pray so," he said at last. "He has the smallpox, Tom. There are some cases along the river near Charles City, and he must have caught it there. Doctor Brayle has done everything for him that can be done."
But I was not listening. There was room for only one thought in my brain.
"And my mother is with him!" I cried, and my heart seemed bursting.
He held me tight against him, and I felt a tear fall upon my head. This was the trial, then—for him no less than me.
"Yes, she is with him, Tom. She believes it her duty, and will allow no one else to enter. Ah, she has not been found wanting. Dear heart, I knew she would never be."
Of what came after, I have no distinct remembrance. Mr. Fontaine told me that my mother wished me to go home with him, so that I might be quite beyond reach of the infection. He had agreed that this would be the wisest course, and so, too stricken at heart to resist, I was bundled into his chaise with a chest of my clothes, and driven away through the crowd of sobbing negroes to the little house at Charles City where he and his sister lived.
The week that followed dwells in my memory as some tremendous nightmare, lightened here and there by the unvarying kindness of my friend and of his sister. I wandered along the river and gazed out across the changing water for hours at a time, with eyes that saw nothing of what was before them. Often I remained thus until some one came for me and led me gently back into the house. My brain seemed numbed, and no longer capable of thought. Mr. Fontaine took charge of our affairs, doing everything that could be done, keeping the frightened negroes to their work, and praying with my mother through the tight-closed door. He had no fear, and would have entered and prayed with her beside the bed, had she permitted.
I was sitting by the river-bank one evening, watching the shadows lengthen across the water, when I heard a step behind me, and turned to see my friend approaching. A glance at his face brought me to my feet.
"What is it?" I cried, and ran to him.
He took my hands in his.
"Your father died an hour ago, Tom," he said, and smoothed my hair in the familiar way which seemed to comfort him as well as me.
"And my mother?" I asked, for it was of her I was thinking.
"Your mother is ill, too," he said, and placed his arms about me and held me close, "but with God's grace we will save her life."
But I had started from him.
"If she is ill," I cried, "I must go to her. She will want me."
He shook his head, still holding to my hands.
"No, she does not want you, Tom," he said. "The one thing that will make her happy is the thought that you are quite removed from danger. I believed my place was at her bedside, but she would not permit it."
And then he told me, with glistening eyes, that my old mammy, who had been my mother's thirty years before, was nursing her and would not be sent away. She had burst in the door of the plague chamber the moment she had heard that her mistress was ill, and dared any one disturb her. Old Doctor Brayle had commanded that she be given her will, and declared that in this old negro woman's careful nursing lay my mother's great chance of life.
The scalding tears poured down my cheeks as Mr. Fontaine told me this,—the first, I think, that I had shed that week, for after that dreadful night, my sorrow had been of a dry and bitter kind,—and a stinging remorse seized me as I thought of the times I had been cross and disobedient to mammy. Ah, how I loved her now! It was the accustomed irony of my life that I was never to tell her so.
Ere daylight the next morning I was seated beside my friend as he drove me home. The river was cloaked in mist, and the dawn seemed inexpressibly dreary. As we approached the house, I wondered to see how forlorn and neglected it appeared. A crowd of wailing negroes surrounded the chaise when we stopped, and I would have got out, but Mr. Fontaine held me firmly in my seat.
"We must remain here," he said, and I dropped back beside him, and waited in a kind of stupor.
Presently they brought the coffin down, the negroes who carried it wreathing themselves in tobacco smoke, and placed it in a cart. We followed at a distance as it rolled slowly toward the Wyeth burying-ground in the grove of willows near the road. The thought came to me that my father should lie with the Stewarts, not with the Wyeths, and then suddenly a great sickness and faintness came upon me, and I remember nothing of what followed until I found Miss Fontaine lifting me from the chaise at the door. I was put to bed, and not until the next day was I able to crawl forth again.
Then came days of anguish and suspense, days spent by me roaming the woods, or lying face downward beneath the trees, and praying that God would spare my mother's life. Bulletins were brought me from her bedside,—she was better, she was worse, she was better,—how shall I tell the rest?—until at last one day came my dear friend, his lips quivering, the tears streaming down his face unrestrained, and told me that she was dead. I think the sight of his great sorrow frightened me, and I bore the blow with greater composure than I had thought possible. Had she sent me no message? Yes, she had sent me a message,—her last thought had been of me. She asked me to be a good boy and an honest man, to follow the counsel of Mr. Fontaine in all things, and to keep my promise to my father. So, even in death her love for him and for the honor of his memory triumphed, as I would have had it do.
Again there was a dismal procession through the gray morning to the willow grove, where we stood beneath the dripping branches, while afar off the rude coffin was lowered to its last resting-place. The negroes grouped themselves about, and my friend stood at my side, his head bare, his face raised to heaven, as though he saw her there.
"'I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.'"
I felt the threads of my life slipping from me one by one, even as the trees faded from before my eyes. Only that strong, exultant voice at my side went on and on.
"'Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.'" On and on went the voice; there was nothing else in the whole wide world but that voice crying out over my mother's grave. "'I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me. Write. From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.'" And then the voice faltered and broke. "She was the light of my life and the joy of my heart," it was no longer the ritual of the church; "and yet had I to walk beside her and tell her naught. And now is she taken from me, for the Lord hath received her to His bosom to live in the light of His love forevermore."
I looked up into his face and saw the secret of his heart revealed,—the secret he had kept so well, but which his anguish had wrung from him. It was only for an instant, yet I think he knew I had read his heart—I, alone of all the world, understood. Had my mother known, I wonder? Yes, I think she had, and in the greatness of his love found help and comfort. Good man and lovely woman, God rest and keep you both.
I went home with him, remembering with a pang that the place I had called home was mine no longer. Those among my friends who know the history of my boyhood understand to some extent my loathing for the cards and dice. It is perhaps unreasonable,—I might be the first to deem it so in any other man,—but when I count up the woe they brought my mother,—father and husband slaves to the same frenzy,—how they wrecked her life and embittered it, my passion rises in my throat to choke me. Never did I hate them more than in the days which followed; for they had made me outcast, and what the future held for me, I could not guess. The question was answered of a sudden a week later, when there came from my grandfather a curt note bidding me be sent to Riverview. It was decided at once that I must go. I myself looked forward to the change with a boy's blind longing for adventure, and said farewell to the man who had been so much to me with a willingness I wince to think upon.
I AM TREATED TO A SURPRISE
The rain was falling dismally as the coach in which I had made the journey rolled up the drive to Riverview, and I caught but a glimpse of the house as I was rushed up the steps and into the wide hall. A lady dressed in a loose green gown was seated in an easy-chair before the open fire, and she did not rise as I entered, doubtless because her lap was full of knitting.
"Gracious, how wet the child is!" she cried, looking me over critically. "Take him to his room, Sally, and see that he has a bath and change of clothing. I'm sure he needs both."
I turned away without a word and followed the negro maid. Of course the lady thought me a surly boor, but my heart was burning, for I had hoped for a different welcome. As I passed along the hall and up the broad staircase, the thought came to me that all of this would one day be mine, should I choose to claim it, and then, with crimson cheeks, I put the thought from me, as unworthy of my mother's son.