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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter23)

2006-09-07 20:28

  Chapter Twenty-Third.

  “What fates impose, that men must needs abide. It boots not to resist both wind and tide.”——SHAKESPEARE'S HENRY VI.

  From the time of Mr. Lincoln's election Walter Dinsmore's home had been made very uncomfortable to him; after the fall of Sumter it was well-nigh unendurable.

  Never were two brothers more entirely unlike than he and Arthur; the latter, selfish, proud, haughty, self-willed, passionate, and reckless of consequences to himself or others; the former sweet-tempered, amiable, and affectionate, but lacking in firmness and self-reliance.

  Poor fellow! his heart was divided; on the one side were home, parents, friends, and neighbors, native State and section; on the other, pride in the great, powerful Union he had hitherto called his country, love for the old flag as the emblem of its greatness and symbol of Revolutionary glory; and——perhaps more potent than all——the wishes and entreaties of a Northern girl who had won his heart and promised him her hand.

  One April morning Walter, who had overslept himself, having been up late the night before, was roused from his slumbers by a loud hurrah coming from the veranda below. He recognized his father's voice, Arthur's, and that of one of the latter's particular friends, a hot secessionist residing in the adjacent city.

  There seemed a great tumult in the house, running to and fro, loud laughter, repeated hurrahs and voices——among which his mother's and Enna's were easily distinguished——talking in high, excited chorus.

  “So Fort Sumter has fallen, and war is fairly inaugurated,” he sighed to himself, as he rose and began to dress. “It can mean nothing else.”

  “Glorious news, Wal!” cried Arthur, catching sight of him as he descended the stairs; “Fort Sumter has fallen and Charleston is jubilant. Here, listen while I read the despatch.”

  Walter heard it in grave silence, and at the close merely inquired how the news had come so early.

  “Johnson brought it; has gone on now to Ashlands with it; says the city's in a perfect furor of delight But you, it seems, care nothing about it,” Arthur concluded with a malignant sneer.

  “Not a word of rejoicing over this glorious victory”——cried Enna angrily.

  “Of seven thousand over seventy-five?”

  “If I were papa, I'd turn you out of the house;” she exclaimed still more hotly.

  “Walter, I have no patience with you,” said his father. “To think that son of mine should turn against his own country!” he added, with a groan.

  “No, father, I could never do that,” Walter answered with emotion.

  “It looks very much like it——the utter indifference with which you receive this glorious news!” cried Mrs. Dinsmore with flashing eyes. “I'm positively ashamed of you.”

  “No, mother, not with indifference, far from it; for it inaugurates a war that will drench the land with blood.”

  “Nonsense! the North will never fight. A race of shop-keepers fighting for a sentiment, poh! But come to breakfast, there's the bell.”

  “Better,” says Solomon, “is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” The luxurious breakfast at Roselands was partaken of with very little enjoyment that morning; by Walter especially, who had to bear contempt and ridicule; threats also: he was called a Yankee, coward, poltroon, traitor; and threatened with disinheritance and denouncement unless he would declare himself for the Confederacy and enlist in its army.

  The meal was but half over when he rose with flashing eyes, pale face, and quivering lips. “I am neither a traitor nor a coward,” he said between his clenched teeth, “as perhaps time may prove to the sorrow of a father and mother, sister and brother, who can so use one who ill deserves such treatment at their hands.” And turning, he stalked proudly from the room.

  Enna was beginning a sneering remark, but her father stopped her.

  “Hush! we have been too hard on the lad; he was always slower than Art about making up his mind, and I've no doubt will turn out all right in the end.”

  Soon after breakfast the father and mother had a private talk on the subject, and agreed to try coaxing and entreaties.

  “Wal always had a warm heart,” remarked Mr. Dinsmore finally, “and I dare say can be reached more readily through that.”

  “Yes, he was your favorite always, while you have been very hard upon poor Arthur's youthful follies; but you see now which is the more worthy of the two.”

  Mr. Dinsmore shook his head. “Not yet, wife; 'tisn't always the braggart that turns out bravest in time of trial.”

  “Yes, we shall see,” she answered, with a slight toss of her haughty head. “I trust no son of mine will prove himself so cowardly as to run away from his country in her time of need, on whatever pretext.”

  And having winged this shaft, perceiving with pleasure that her husband winced slightly under it, she sailed from the room, ascending the stairway, and presently paused before the door of Walter's dressing-room. It was slightly ajar; and pushing it gently open she entered without knocking.

  He stood leaning against the mantel, his tall erect figure, the perfection of manly grace, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the carpet, and his fine, open, expressive countenance full of a noble sadness.

  There was something of motherly pride in the glance that met his as he looked up at the sound of Mrs. Dinsmore's step. Starting forward, he gallantly handed her to a seat: then stood respectfully waiting for what she had to say.

  “Walter, my dear boy,” she began; “your father and I think we were all a trifle hard on you this morning.”

  He colored slightly but made no remark, and she went on. “Of course we can't believe it possible that a son of ours will ever show himself a coward; but it is very trying to us, very mortifying, to have you holding back in this way till all our neighbors and friends begin to hint that you are disloyal to your native State, and look scornful and contemptuous at the very mention of your name.”

  Walter took a turn or two across the room, and coming back to her side, “Mother,” said he, “you know it is my nature to be slow in deciding any matter of importance, and this is the weightiest one that ever I had to consider. Men much older and wiser than I are finding it a knotty question to which their loyalty is due, State or General Government; where allegiance to the one ends, and fealty to the other begins.”

  “There is no question in my mind,” she interrupted, angrily. “Of course your allegiance is due to your State; so don't let me hear any more about that. Your father and brother never hesitated for a moment; and it would become you to be more ready to be guided by them.”

  “Mother,” he said, with a pained look, “you forget that I am no longer a boy; and you would be the first to despise a man who could not form an opinion of his own. All I ask is time to decide this question and——another.”

  “Pray what may that be? whether you will break with Miss Aller, I presume,” she retorted, sneeringly.

  “No, mother,” he answered with dignity; “there is no question in my mind in regard to that. Mary and I are pledged to each other, and nothing but death can part us.”

  “And” (fiercely) “you would marry her, though she is ready to cheer on the men who are coming to invade our homes and involve us in the horrors of a servile insurrection!”

  “I think it is hardly an hour since I heard you say the North would not fight; and since we have shown our determination in capturing Sumter, the next news would be that we were to be allowed to go in peace. You may be right; I hope you are; but the fellows I know in the North are as full of pluck as ourselves, and I fear there is a long, fierce, bloody struggle before us.” He stood before her with folded arms and grave, earnest face, his eyes meeting hers unflinchingly. “And ere I rush into it I want to know that I am ready for death and for judgment.”

  “No need to hesitate on that account,” she said, with a contemptuous smile; “you've always been a remarkably upright young man, and I'm sure are safe enough. Besides, I haven't a doubt that those who die in defense of their country go straight to heaven.”

  He shook his head. “I have been studying the Bible a good deal of late, and I know that that would never save my soul.”

  “This is some of Horace's and Elsie's work; I wish they would attend to their own affairs and let you and others alone.” And she rose and swept angrily from the room.

  Walter did not appear at dinner, nor was he seen again for several days; but as such absences were not infrequent——he having undertaken a sort of general oversight of both the Oaks and Ion——this excited no alarm.

  The first day in fact was spent at Ion; the next he rode over to the Oaks. Mrs. Murray always made him very comfortable, and was delighted to have the opportunity; for the place was lonely for her in the absence of the family. She was on the veranda as he rode up that morning attended by his servant.

  “Ah, Mr. Walter,” she cried, “but I'm glad to see you! You're a sight for sair een, sir. I hope ye've come to stay a bit.”

  He had given the reins to his servant and dismounted. “Yes,” he said, shaking hands with her, “for two or three days, Mrs. Murray.”

  “That's gude news, sir. Will ye come in and take a bite or sup o' something?”

  “Thank you, not now. I'll just sit here for a moment. The air is delightful this morning.”

  “So it is, sir. And do ye bring ony news frae our friends in Naples?”

  “No; I have heard nothing since I saw you last.”

  “But what's this, Mr. Walter, that I hear the servants saying aboot a fight wi' the United States troops?”

  “Fort Sumter has fallen, Mrs. Murray. There's an account of the whole affair,” he added, taking a newspaper from his pocket and handing it to her.

  She received it eagerly, and with a hearty thanks.

  “I am going out into the grounds,” he said, and walked away, leaving her to its perusal.

  He strolled down a green alley, inspected it, the lawns, the avenue, the flower and vegetable gardens, to see that all were in order; held a few minutes' conversation with the head gardener, making some suggestions and bestowing deserved praise of his faithful performance of his duties; then wandering on, at length seated himself in Elsie's bower, and took from his breast-pocket——where he had constantly carried it of late——a small morocco-bound, gilt-edged volume.

  He sat there a long time, reading and pondering with grave, anxious face, it may be asking for heavenly guidance too, for his eyes were now and then uplifted and his lips moved.

  The next day and the next he spent at the Oaks, passing most of his time in solitude, either in the least frequented parts of the grounds, or the lonely and deserted rooms of the mansion.

  Walter had always been a favorite with Mrs. Murray. She had a sort of motherly affection for him, and watching him furtively, felt sure that he had some heavy mental trouble. She waited and watched silently, hoping that he would confide in her and let her sympathize, if she could do nothing more.

  On the evening of the third day he came in from the grounds with a brightened countenance, his little book in his hand. She was on the veranda looking out for him to ask if he was ready for his tea. He met her with a smile.

  “Is it gude news, Mr. Walter?” she asked, thinking of the distracted state of the country.

  “Yes, Mrs. Murray, I think you will call it so. I have been searching here,” and he held up the little volume, “for the pearl of great price; and I have found it.”

  “Dear bairn, I thank God for ye!” she exclaimed with emotion. “It's gude news indeed!”

  “I cannot think how I've been so blind,” he went on in earnest tones; “it seems now so simple and easy——just to believe in Jesus Christ, receive His offered pardon, His righteousness put upon me, the cleansing of His blood shed for the remission of sins, and trust my all to Him for time and eternity. Now I am ready to meet death on the battle-field, if so it must be.”

  “But, O Mr. Walter, I hope you'll be spared that, and live to be a good soldier of Christ these many years.”

  They were startled by the furious galloping of a horse coming up the drive; and the next moment Arthur drew rein before the door.

  “Walter; so you're here, as I thought! I've come for you. Lincoln has called for seventy-five thousand troops to defend the capital; but we all know what that means——an invasion of the South. The North's a unit now, and so is the South. Davis has called for volunteers, and the war-cry is resounding all over the land. We're raising a company: I'm appointed captain, and you lieutenant. Come; if you hesitate now——you'll repent it: father says he'll disown you forever.”

  Arthur's utterance was fierce and rapid, but now he was compelled to pause for a breath, and Walter answered with excitement in his tones also.

  “Of course if it has come to that, I will not hesitate to defend my native soil, my home, my parents.”

  “All right; come on then; we leave to-night.”

  Walter's horse was ordered at once, and in a few moments the brothers were galloping away side by side. Mrs. Murray looked after them with a sigh.

  “Ah me! the poor laddies! will they die on the battle field? Ah, wae's me, but war's an awfu' thing!”

  At Roselands all was bustle and excitement, every one eager, as it seemed, to hasten the departure of the young men.

  But when everything was ready and the final adieus must be spoken, the mother embraced them with tears and sobs, and even Enna's voice faltered and her eyes grew moist.

  Mounting, they rode rapidly down the avenue, each followed by his own servant——and out at the great gate. Walter wheeled his horse. “One last look at the old home, Art,” he said; “we may never see it again.”

  “Always sentimental, Wal,” laughed Arthur, somewhat scornfully; “but have your way.” And he, too, wheeled about for a last farewell look.

  The moon had just risen, and by her silvery light the lordly mansion——with its clustering vines, the gardens, the lawn, the shrubbery, and the grand old trees——was distinctly visible. Never had the place looked more lovely. The evening breeze brought to their nostrils the delicious scent of roses in full bloom, and a nightingale poured forth a song of ravishing sweetness from a thicket hard by.

  Somehow her song seemed to go to Walter's very heart and a sad foreboding oppressed him as they gazed and listened for several moments, then turned their horses' heads and galloped down the road.

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