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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter26)

2006-09-07 20:28

  Chapter Twenty-Sixth.

  “And faint not, heart of man! though years wane slow!

  There have been those that from the deepest caves,And cells of night and fastnesses below The stormy dashing of the ocean waves,Down, farther down than gold lies hid, have nurs'd A quenchless hope, and watch'd their time and burst On the bright day like wakeners from the grave.“——MRS. HEMANS

  Noon of a sultry July day, 1864; the scorching sun looks down upon a pine forest; in its midst a cleared space some thirty acres in extent, surrounded by a log stockade ten feet high, the timbers set three feet deep into the ground; a star fort, with one gun at each corner of the square enclosure; on top of the stockade sentinel boxes placed twenty feet apart, reached by steps from the outside; in each of these a vigilant guard with loaded musket, constantly on the watch for the slightest pretext for shooting down some one or more of the prisoners, of whom there are from twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand.

  All along the inner side of the wall, six feet from it, stretches a dead line; and any poor fellow thoughtlessly or accidentally laying a hand upon it, or allowing any part of his body to reach under or over it, will be instantly shot.

  A green, slimy, sluggish stream, bringing with it all the filth of the sewers of Andersonville, a village three miles distant, flows directly across the enclosure from east to west. Formerly, the only water fit to drink came from a spring beyond the eastern wall, which flowing under it, into the enclosure, emptied itself into the other stream, a few feet within the dead line.

  It did not suffice to satisfy the thirst of the thousands who must drink or die, and the little corner where its waters could be reached was always crowded, men pressing upon each other till often one or another would be pushed against the dead line, shot by the guard, and the body left lying till the next morning; even if it had fallen into the water beyond the line, polluting the scant supply left for the living. But the cry of these perishing ones had gone up into the ears of the merciful Father of us all, and of late a spring of clear water bubbles up in their midst.

  But powder and shot, famine, exposure (for the prisoners have no shelter, except as they burrow in the earth), and malaria from that sluggish, filthy stream, and the marshy ground on either side of it, are doing a fearful work: every morning a wagon drawn by four mules is driven in, and the corpses——scattered here and there to the number of from eighty-five to a hundred——gathered up, tossed into it like sticks of wood, taken away and thrown promiscuously into a hole dug for the purpose, and earth shoveled over them.

  There are corpses lying about now; there are men, slowly breathing out their last of life, with no dying bed, no pillow save the hard ground, no mother, wife, sister, daughter near, to weep over, or to comfort them as they enter the dark valley.

  Others there are, wasted and worn till scarce more than living skeletons, creeping about on hands and feet, lying or sitting in every attitude of despair and suffering; a dull, hopeless misery in their sunken eyes, a pathetic patience fit to touch a heart of stone; while others still have grown frantic with that terrible pain, the hunger gnawing at their very vitals, and go staggering about, wildly raving in their helpless agony.

  And on them all the scorching sun beats pitilessly down. Hard, cruel fate! scorched with heat, with the cool shelter of the pine forests on every side; perishing with hunger in a land of plenty.

  In one corner, but a yard or so within the dead line, a group of officers in the Federal uniform——evidently men of culture and refinement, spite of their hatless and shoeless condition, ragged, soiled raiment, unkempt hair, and unshaven faces——sit on the ground, like their comrades in misfortune, sweltering in the sun.

  “When will this end?” sighs one. “I'd sooner die a hundred deaths on the battle-field.”

  “Ah, who wouldn't?” exclaims another; “to starve, roast, and freeze by turns for one's country, requires more patriotism by far than to march up to the cannon's mouth, or charge up hill under a galling fire of musketry.”

  “True indeed, Jones,” returns a fair-haired, blue-eyed young man, with face so gaunt and haggard with famine that his own mother would scarcely have recognized him, and distinguished from the rest by a ball and chain attached to wrist and ankle; “and yet we bear it for her sake and for Freedom's. Who of us regrets that we did not stay at home in inglorious ease, and leave our grand old ship of state to founder and go to pieces amid the rocks of secession?”

  “None of us, Allison! No, no! the Union forever!” returned several voices in chorus.

  “Hark!”——as the sharp crack of a rifle was heard, and a prisoner who, half crazed with suffering, had, in staggering about, approached too near the fatal line and laid a hand upon it, fell dead——“another patriot soul has gone to its account, and another rebel earned a thirty days' furlough.”

  The dark eyes of the speaker flashed with indignation.

  “Poor fellows, they don't know that it is to preserve their liberties we fight, starve, and die; to save them from the despotism their ambitious and unscrupulous leaders desire to establish over them,” remarked Harold Allison; “how grossly the masses of the Southern people have been deceived by a few hot-headed politicians, bent upon obtaining power for themselves at whatever cost.”

  “True,” returned the other, drily; “but it's just a little difficult to keep these things in mind under present circumstances. By the way, Allison, have you a sister who married a Mr. Horace Dinsmore?”

  “Yes, do you know Rose?” asked Harold, in some surprise.

  “I was once a guest at the Oaks for a fortnight or so, at the time of the marriage of Miss Elsie, Mr. Dinsmore's daughter, to a Mr. Travilla.”

  Harold's face grew a shade paler, but his tones were calm and quiet. “Indeed! and may I ask your name?”

  “Harry Duncan, at your service,” returned the other, with a bow and smile. “I met your three brothers there, also your sisters, Mrs. Carrington and Miss May Allison.”

  The color deepened slightly on Harry's cheek as he pronounced the last name. The pretty face, graceful form, charming manners, and sprightly conversation of the young lady were still fresh in his memory. Having enjoyed the hospitalities of Andersonville for but a few days, he was in better condition, as to health and clothing, than the rest of the group, who had been there for months.

  “Harry Duncan!” exclaimed Harold, offering his hand, which the other took in a cordial grasp and shook heartily, “yes, I know; I have heard of you and your aunt, Miss Stanhope. I feel as if I'd found a brother.”

  “Thank you; suppose we consider ourselves such; a brother is what I've been hankering after ever since I can remember.”

  “Agreed,” said Harold. “Perhaps,” he added, with a melancholy smile, “we may find the fiction turned to fact some day, if you and one of my single sisters should happen to take a fancy to each other; that is, if we live to get out of this and to see home again.” His tone at the last was very desponding.

  “Cheer up,” said Duncan, in a low, sympathizing tone, “I think we can find a way to escape; men have done so even from the Bastile——a far more difficult task, I should say.”

  “What's your idea?”

  “To dig our way out, working at night, and covering up the traces of our work by day.”

  “Yes, it's the only way possible, so far as I can see,” said Harold. “I have already escaped twice in that way, but only to be retaken, and this is what I gained,” shaking his chain, and pointing to the heavy ball attached. “Yet, if I were rid of this, and possessed of a little more strength, I'd make a third attempt.”

  “I think I could rid you of that little attachment,” returned Duncan; “and the tunnel once ready, help you in the race for liberty.”

  The others of the group were exchanging significant nods and glances.

  “I think we may let Duncan into our secret,” said Jones. “We're digging a well; have gone down six feet; three feet below the surface is soapstone, so soft we can cut it with our jack-knives. We mean to work our way out to-night. Will you join us?”

  “With all my heart.”

  “Suppose we are caught in the attempt,” said one.

  “We can't be in much worse condition than now,” observed another; “starving in this pestiferous atmosphere filled with the malaria from that swamp, and the effluvia from half-decayed corpses; men dying every day, almost every hour, from famine, disease, or violence.”

  “No,” said Harry, “we may bring upon ourselves what Allison is enduring, or instant death; but I for one would prefer the latter to the slow torture of starvation.”

  “If we are ready,” said Harold, in low, solemn tones. “It is appointed to men once to die, and after that the judgment.”

  “And what should you say was the needful preparation?” queried another, half-mockingly. “'Repent ye and believe the gospel.' 'Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.' 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.'”

  Silence fell on the little group. Duncan's eyes wandered over the field, over the thousands of brave men herded together there like cattle, with none of the comforts, few of the necessaries of life——over the living, the dying, the dead; taking in the whole aggregate of suffering with one sweeping glance. His eyes filled; his whole soul was moved with compassion, while he half forgot that he himself was one of them.

  How much were the consolations of God needed here! how few, comparatively, possessed them. But some there were who did, and were trying to impart them to others. Should he stay and share in this good work? Perhaps he ought; he almost thought so for a moment; but he remembered his country's need; he had enlisted for the war; he must return to active service, if he could.

  Then his eye fell upon Harold. Here was a noble life to be saved; a life that would inevitably be lost to friends, relatives, country, by but a few weeks' longer sojourn in this horrible place. Duncan's determination was taken: with the help of God the morning light should find them both free and far on their way towards the Union lines.

  “We'll try it, comrades, to-night,” he said aloud.

  “So we will,” they answered with determination.

  A man came staggering towards them, gesticulating wildly and swearing horrible oaths.

  “He is crazed with hunger, poor fellow,” remarked Harold.

  Duncan was gazing steadily at the man who had now sunk panting upon the ground, exhausted by his own violence. Evidently he had once possessed more than an ordinary share of physical beauty, but vice and evil passions had set their stamp upon his features, and famine had done its ghastly work; he was but a wreck of his former self.

  “Where have I seen that face?” murmured Harry, unconsciously thinking aloud.

  “In the rogues' gallery, perhaps. Tom Jackson is his name, or one of his names; for he has several aliases, I'm told,” remarked some one standing near.

  “Yes, he's the very man!” exclaimed Harry. “I have studied his photograph and recognize him fully, in spite of famine's ravages. The wretch! he deserves all he suffers: and yet I pity him.”

  “What! the would-be assassin of Viamede?” and Harold started to his feet, the hot blood dyeing his thin cheeks.

  “The same. You feel like lynching him on the spot; and no wonder. But refrain; they would bid you, and he is already suffering a worse fate than any you could mete out to him.”

  “God forgive me!” groaned Harold, dropping down again and hiding his face in his hands, “I believe there was murder in my heart.”

  “The story? what was it?” asked Jones. “Tell it, Duncan; anything to help us to a moment's forgetfulness.”

  The others joined in the request, and Duncan gave the full particulars of the several attempts Jackson had made upon the lives of Mr. Travilla and Elsie.

  Allison never once lifted his face during the recital, but the rest listened with keen interest.

  “The fellow richly deserves lynching,” was the unanimous verdict, “but, as you say, is already suffering a far worse fate.”

  “And yet no worse than that of thousands of innocent men,” remarked Jones bitterly. “Where's the justice of it?”

  “Do you expect even-handed justice here?” inquired another.

  “Perhaps he may be no worse in the sight of God, than some of the rest of us,” said Harold, in low, grave tones; “we do not know what evil influences may have surrounded him from his very birth, or whether, exposed to the same, we would have turned out any better.”

  “I'm perishing with thirst,” said Jones, “and must try pushing through that crowd about the spring.”

  He wandered off and the group scattered, leaving Harold and Duncan alone together.

  The two had a long talk: of home, common friends and acquaintance; of the war, what this or that Federal force was probably now attempting; what future movements were likely to be made, and how the contest would end; neither doubting the final triumph of the government.

  “And that triumph can't be very far off either,” concluded Harry. “I think the struggle will be over before this time next year, and I hope you and I may have a hand in the winding up.”

  “Perhaps you may,” Allison rejoined a little sadly; “but I, I fear, have struck my last blow for my native land.”

  “You are not strong now, but good nursing may do wonders for you,” answered Harry cheerily. “Once within the Union lines, and you will feel like another man.”

  “Ah, but how to get me there? that's the tug of war,” said Harold, but with a smile and in tones more hopeful than his words. “Duncan, you are a Christian?”

  “Yes, Allison; Jesus Christ is the Captain of my salvation; in whom I trust, and in whose service I desire to live and die.”

  “Then are we brothers indeed!” and with the words their right hands joined in a more cordial grasp than before.

  The sun was nearing the western horizon when at length Harold was left alone. He bowed his head upon his knees in thought and prayer, remaining thus for many minutes, striving for a spirit of forgiveness and compassion towards the coward wretch who would have slain one dearer to him than life.

  At last, as the shadows of evening were gathering over the place, he lifted a pale, patient face; and rising, made his way slowly and with difficulty towards the spot where Jackson lay prostrate on the ground, groaning and crying like a child.

  Sitting down beside the miserable creature, he spoke to him in gentle, soothing tones. “You have been here a long time?”

  “The longest year that ever I lived! but it won't last much longer,” and he uttered a fearful oath.

  “Are you expecting to be exchanged?”

  “Exchanged! no. What do those fellows at Washington care about our lives? They'll delay and delay till we're all starved to death, like hundreds and thousands, before us;” and again he concluded with a volley of oaths and curses, bestowed indiscriminately upon the President and Congress, Jeff Davis, Wirtz, and the guard.

  Harold was shocked at his profanity. “Man,” said he solemnly, “do you know that you are on the brink of the grave? and must soon appear at the bar of Him whose holy name you are taking in vain?”

  “Curse you!” he cried, lifting his head for a moment, then dropping it again on the ground; “take your cant to some other market, I don't believe in a God, or heaven or hell: and the sooner I die the better; for I'll be out of my misery.”

  “No; that is a fatal delusion, and unless you turn and repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, death can only plunge you into deeper misery. You have only a little while! Oh, I beseech you, don't cast away your last chance to secure pardon, peace and eternal life!”

  “You're 'casting your pearls before swine,'” returned the man, sneeringly. “Not to say that I'm a hog exactly, but I've not a bit more of a soul than if I was. Your name's Allison, isn't it?”

  “It is.”

  “D'ye know anybody named Dinsmore? or Travilla?”

  “Yes; and I know who you are, Jackson, and of your crimes against them. In the sight of God you are a murderer.”

  “You tell me to repent. I've repented many a time that I didn't take better aim and blow his brains out; yes, and hers too. I hoped I had, till I saw the account in the papers.”

  Harold's teeth and hands were tightly clenched, in an almost superhuman effort to keep himself quiet; and the man went on without interruption.

  “He'd nearly made a finish of me, but I was smart enough to escape them, bloodhounds and all. I got over the border into Texas; had a pretty good time there for awhile——after I recovered from that awful blood-letting; but when secession began, I slipped off and came North. You think I'm all bad; but I had a kind of love for the old flag, and went right into the army. Besides, I thought it might give me a chance to put a bullet through some o' those that had thwarted my plans, and would have had me lynched, if they could.”

  Harold rose and went away, thinking that verily he had been casting his pearls before swine.

  Jackson had, indeed, thrown away his last chance; rejected the last offer of salvation; for, ere morning, life had fled. Starved to death and gone into eternity without God and without hope! his bitterest foe could not have desired for him a more terrible fate.

  There was no moon that night, and the evening was cloudy, making a favorable condition of affairs for the prisoners contemplating an escape. As soon as the darkness was dense enough to conceal their movements from the guard, the work of tunneling began.

  It was a tedious business, as they had none of the proper tools, and only one or two could work at a time at the digging and cutting away of the stone; but they relieved each other frequently at that, while those on the outside carried away in their coats or whatever came to hand, the earth and fragments of stone dislodged, and spread them over the marshy ground near the creek.

  Duncan, returning from one of these trips, spoke in an undertone to Harold Allison, who with a rude file made of a broken knife-blade, was patiently endeavoring to free himself from his shackles.

  “Jackson is dead. I half stumbled over a corpse in the dark, when a man close by (the same one that told us this afternoon who the fellow was——I recognized the voice) said, 'He's just breathed his last, poor wretch! died with a curse on his lips.' 'Who is he?' I asked; and he answered, 'Tom Jackson was one of his names.'”

  “Gone!” said Harold, “and with all his sins upon his head.”

  “Yes; it's awful! Here, let me work that for awhile. You're very tired.”

  The proffered assistance was thankfully accepted, and another half-hour of vigorous effort set Harold's limbs free. He stretched them out, with a low exclamation of gratitude and relief.

  At the same instant a whisper came to their ears. “The work's done at last. Jones is out. Parsons close at his heels. Cox behind him. Will you go next?”

  “Thanks, no; I will be the last,” said Duncan; “and take charge of Allison here, who is too weak to travel far alone.”

  “Then I'm off,” returned the voice. “Don't lose a minute in following me.”

  “Now, Allison,” whispered Harry, “summon all your strength and courage, old fellow.”

  “Duncan, you are a true and noble friend! God reward you. Let me be last.”

  “No, in with you, man! not an instant to spare;” and with kindly force he half lifted his friend into the well, and guided him to the mouth of the tunnel.

  Allison crept through it as fast as his feeble strength would permit, Duncan close behind him.

  They emerged in safety, as the others had done before them; at once scattering in different directions.

  These two moved on together, for several minutes, plunging deeper and deeper into the woods, but presently paused to take breath and consider their bearings.

  “Oh, the air of liberty is sweet!” exclaimed Duncan, in low, exultant tones; “but we mustn't delay here.”

  “No; we are far from safe yet,” panted Allison, “but——'prayer and provender hinder no man's journey'; Duncan, let us spend one moment in silent prayer for success in reaching the Union lines.”

  They did so, kneeling on the ground; then rose and pressed forward with confidence. God, whose servants they were and whose help they had asked, would guide them in the right direction.

  “What a providence!” exclaimed Duncan, grasping Harold's arm, as they came out upon an opening in the wood. “See!” and he pointed upward, “the clouds have broken away a little, and there shines the North Star: we can steer by that.”

  “Thank God! and, so far, we have been traveling in the right direction.”

  “Amen! and we must press on with all speed; for daylight will soon be upon us, and with it, in all probability, our escape will be discovered and pursuit begun.”

  No more breath could be spared for talk, and they pushed on in silence, now scrambling through a thicket of underbrush, tearing their clothes and not seldom lacerating their flesh also; now leaping over a fallen tree, anon climbing a hill, and again fording or swimming a stream.

  At length Harold, sinking down upon a log, said, “I am utterly exhausted! Can go no farther. Go on, and leave me to follow as I can after a little rest.”

  “Not a step without you, Allison,” returned Duncan, determinedly. “Rest a bit, and then try it again with the help of my arm. Courage, old fellow, we must have put at least six or eight miles between us and our late quarters. Ah, ha! yonder are some blackberry bushes, well laden with ripe fruit. Sit or lie still while I gather our breakfast.”

  Hastily snatching a handful of oak leaves, and forming a rude basket by pinning them together with thorns, he quickly made his way to the bushes, a few yards distant, while Harold stretched himself upon the log and closed his weary eyes.

  He thought he had hardly done so when Duncan touched his arm.

  “Sorry to wake you, Allison, but time is precious; and, like the beggars, we must eat and run.”

  The basket was heaped high with large, delicious berries, which greatly refreshed our travelers.

  “Now, then, are you equal to another effort?” asked Duncan, as the last one disappeared, and he thrust the leaves into his pocket, adding, “We mustn't leave these to tell tales to our pursuers.”

  “Yes, I dare not linger here,” returned Allison, rising but totteringly.

  Duncan threw an arm about him, and again they pressed forward, toiling on for another half-hour; when Allison again gave out, and sinking upon the ground, begged his friend to leave him and secure his own safety.

  “Never!” cried Duncan, “never! There would be more, many more, to mourn your loss than mine. Who would shed a tear for me but Aunt Wealthy? Dear old soul, it would be hard for her, I know; but she'd soon follow me.”

  “Yes, you are her all; but there's a large family of us, and I could easily be spared.”

  Duncan shook his head. “Was your brother who fell at Ball's Bluff easily spared? But hark! what was that?” He bent his ear to the ground. “The distant bay of hounds! We must push on!” he cried, starting up in haste.

  “Bloodhounds on our track? Horrible!” exclaimed Harold, also starting to his feet, weakness and fatigue forgotten for the moment, in the terror inspired by that thought.

  Duncan again gave him the support of his arm, and for the next half-hour they pressed on quite rapidly; yet their pursuers were gaining on them, for the bay of the hounds, though still distant, could now be distinctly heard, and Allison's strength again gave away.

  “I——can——go no farther, Duncan,” he said, pantingly; “let me climb up yon tall oak and conceal myself among the branches, while you hurry on.”

  “No, no, they would discover you directly, and it would be surrender or die. Ah, see! there's a little log cabin behind those bushes, and who knows but we may find help there. Courage, and hope, my boy;” and almost carrying Harold, Duncan hurried to the door of the hut.

  Pushing it open, and seeing an old negro inside, “Cato, Caesar——”

  “Uncle Scip, sah,” grinned the negro.

  “Well, no matter for the name; will you help us? We're Federal soldiers just escaped from Andersonville, and they're after us with bloodhounds. Can you tell us of anything that will put the savage brutes off the scent?”

  “Sah?”

  “Something that will stop the hounds from following us——quick, quick! if you know anything.”

  The negro sprang up, reached a bottle from a shelf, and handing it to Harry, said, “Turpentine, sah; rub um on your feet, gen'lemen, an' de hounds won't follah you no moah. But please, sahs, go little ways off into the woods fo' you use um, so de rebs not tink dis chile gib um to ye.”

  Harry clutched the bottle, throwing down a ten-dollar bill (all the money he had about him) at Uncle Scip's feet, and dragging Harold some hundred yards farther into the depths of the wood, seated him on a log, applied the turpentine plentifully to his feet, and then to his own.

  All this time the baying of the hounds came nearer and nearer, till it seemed that the next moment would bring them into sight.

  “Up!” cried Harry, flinging away the empty bottle, “one more tug for life and liberty, or we are lost!”

  Harold did not speak, but hope and fear once more inspiring him with temporary strength, he rose and hurried on by the side of his friend. Coming presently to a cleared space, they almost flew across it, and gained the shelter of the woods beyond. The cry of the hounds was no longer heard.

  “They've lost the scent, sure enough,” said Duncan, exultingly; “a little farther and I think we may venture to rest awhile, concealing ourselves in some thicket. Indeed 'twill now be safer to hide by day, and continue our journey by night.”

  They did so, spending that and the next day in hiding, living upon roots and berries, and the next two nights in traveling in the supposed direction of the nearest Union camp, coming upon the pickets about sunrise of the third day. They were of Captain Duncan's own regiment, and he was immediately recognized with a delighted, “Hurrah!”

  “Hurrah for the Union and the old flag!” returned Harry, waving a green branch above his head, in lieu of the military cap he had been robbed of by his captors.

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