by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse

"I expected nothing less from you, my brother. You were dear to me before; but, ah, Harvey! how much dearer now in these dark days of trial, which you have voluntarily chosen to share, with a young, brave, struggling Nation!"

His eyes dwelt upon her face as she looked gladly at him, and over her waving hair his hands passed tenderly, as they had done long years before, when she was an invalid in his father's house.

"You have found your work, and learned contentment in usefulness. Irene, the peaceful look of your childhood has come back to your face. With my face pressed against the window-pane, I have been watching you for more than an hour—ever since Colonel Aubrey came out—and I know all the sadness of the circumstances that surround you; how painful it is for you to see those men die."

"Colonel Aubrey? He has not been here."

"Yes; I passed him on the steps; we rode up together from camp. He came on special business, and returns at daylight; but I shall remain several days, and hope to be with you as much as the nature of your engagements will permit. Aubrey is from W——; you know him, of course?"

"Yes, I know him."

He saw a shade of regret drift over her countenance, and added—

"I have many things to say to you, and much to learn concerning your past; but this is not the time or place for such interchange of thought and feeling. To-morrow we will talk; to-night I could not repress my impatience to see you, though but for a few moments."

She drew a chair near young Walton, the wounded boy, and seating herself, continued—

"When independence is obtained, and white-robed Peace spreads her stainless hands in blessing over us, let history proclaim, and let our people reverently remember, that to the uncomplaining fortitude and sublime devotion of the private soldiers of the Confederacy, not less than to the genius of our generals and the heroism of our subordinate officers, we are indebted for Freedom."

She laid her head close to the boy's mouth to listen to his low breathing, and the minister saw her tears fall on his pillow and gleam on his auburn locks. The delirium seemed to have given place to the dreamless sleep of exhaustion, and folding one of her hands around his fingers, with the other she softly stroked the silky hair from his fair, smooth forehead.

"Irene, will my presence here aid or comfort you? If so I will remain till morning."

"No; you can do no good. It is midnight now, and you must be wearied with your long ride. You cannot help me here, but to-morrow I shall want you to go with me to the cemetery. I wish his family to have the sad consolation of knowing that a minister knelt at his grave, when we laid the young patriot in his last resting-place. Good-bye, my brother, till then. Electra is in the next room; will you go in and speak to her?"

"No; I will see her early in the morning."

He left her to keep alone her solemn vigil; and through the remaining hours of that starry June night she stirred not from the narrow cot—kept her fingers on the sufferer's fleeting pulse, her eyes on his whitening face. About three o'clock he moaned, struggled slightly, and looked intently at her. She gave him some brandy, and found that he swallowed with great difficulty.

Slowly a half-hour rolled away; Irene could barely feel the faint pulsation at Willie Walton's wrist, and as she put her ear to his lips, a long, last shuddering sigh escaped him—the battle of life was ended. Willie's Relief had come. The young sentinel passed to his Eternal Rest.

"The picket's off duty for ever."

Tears dropped on the still face as the nurse cut several locks of curling hair that clustered round the boyish temples, and took from the motionless heart the loved picture which had been so often and so tenderly kissed in the fitful light of camp-fires. Irene covered the noble head, the fair, handsome features, with her handkerchief, and, waking Andrew, pointed to the body—left her own ward, and entered one beyond the passage.

It was smaller, but similar in arrangement to the room where she had passed the night. A candle was sputtering in its socket, and the cold, misty, white dawn stared in at the eastern window upon rows of cots and unquiet, muttering sleepers. There, in the centre of the room, with her head bowed on the table, sat, or rather leaned, Electra, slumbering soundly, with her scarlet shawl gathered about her shoulders—her watch grasped in one hand, and the other holding a volume open at "Hesperid-AEgle."

Irene lifted the black curls that partially veiled the flushed neck, and whispered—

"Electra, wake up! I am going home."

"Is it light yet, out of doors? Ah, yes—I see! I have been asleep exactly fifteen minutes—gave the last dose of medicine at four o'clock. How is the boy? I am almost afraid to ask."

"Dead. Willie lived till daylight."

"Oh! how sad! how discouraging! I went to your door twice and looked in, but once you were praying, and the last time you had your face down on Willie's pillow, and as I could do nothing, I came back. Dr. Whitmore told me he would die, and it only made me suffer to look at what I could not relieve. I am thankful my cases are all doing well; that new prescription has acted magically on Mr. Hadley yonder, who has pneumonia. Just feel his skin—soft and pleasant as a child's."

"I have some directions to leave with Martha, about giving quinine before the doctor comes down, and then I shall go home. Are you ready?"

"Yes. I have a singular feeling about my temples, and an oppression when I talk—shouldn't wonder if I have caught cold."

"Electra, did you see Harvey last night?"

"No. Where did he come from?"

"He is chaplain in a regiment near Richmond, and said he would see us both this morning. Was Russell here last night?"

"Russell? No. Why do you ask? Is he in the city? Have you seen him?"

She rose quickly, laid her hand on Irene's, and looked searchingly at her.

"I have not seen him, but your cousin Harvey mentioned that Colonel Aubrey came up with him, on some very important errand, and had but a few hours to remain. I will get my shawl and join you in five minutes. Electra, you must stay at home and rest for a day or two; you are feverish, and worn out with constant watching."



"It is a mercy that she is delirious; otherwise her unavoidable excitement and anxiety would probably prove fatal. She is very ill, of course; but, with careful nursing, I think you have little to apprehend. Above all things, Irene, suffer nobody to bolt into that room with the news—keep her as quiet as possible. I have perfect confidence in Whitmore's skill; he will do all that I could, though I would not leave her if I did not feel it my duty to hurry to the battlefield. Queen, you look weary; but it is not strange, after all that you have passed through."

"Doctor, when will you start?"

"In twenty minutes."

"Has any intelligence been received this morning?"

"Nothing but confirmation of last night's news. Hill holds Mechanicsville, and the enemy have fallen back in the direction of Powhite Swamp. A general advance will be made all along our lines to-day, and I must be off. What is the matter? Surely you are not getting frightened."

"Frightened—Dr. Arnold? No. I have no fears about the safety of Richmond; defeat is not written in Lee's lexicon; but I shudder in view of the precious human hecatombs to be immolated on yonder hills before McClellan is driven back. No doubt of victory disquiets me, but the thought of its awful price."

She paused, and her whole face quivered as she laid her clasped hands on his arm.

"Well—what is it? Dear child, what moves you so?"

"Doctor, promise me that if Colonel Aubrey is mortally wounded you will send instantly for me. I must see him once more."

Her head went down on her hands, and she trembled as white asters do in an early autumn gale. Compassionately the old man drew one arm around her.

"After all, then, you do care for him—despite your life-long reserve and apparent indifference? I have suspected as much, several times, but that imperturbable sphinx-face of yours always baffled me. My child, you need not droop your head; he is worthy of your love; he is the only man I know whom I would gladly see you marry. Irene, look up—tell me—did Leonard know this? Conscious of your affection for Aubrey, did he doom you to your lonely lot?"

"No. My father died in ignorance of what would have pained and mortified him beyond measure. Knowing him as well as you do, can you suppose that I would ever have allowed him to suspect the truth? I realized my duty and fulfilled it; that is the only consolation I have left. It never caused him one throb of regret, or furnished food for bitter reflection; and the debt of respect I owe to his memory shall be as faithfully discharged. If Colonel Aubrey lives to enjoy the independence for which he is fighting—if he should be spared to become a useful, valued member of society—one of the pure and able statesmen whom his country will require when these dark days of strife are ended, I can be content, though separated from him, and watching his brilliant career afar off. But if he must give his life for that which he holds dearer still, I ask the privilege of seeing him again, of being with him in his last moments. This consolation the brave spirit of my father would not withhold from me, were communion allowed between living and dead; this none can have the right to deny me."

"I promise that you shall know all as early as possible. If you receive no tidings, believe that he is uninjured. As yet, his regiment has not moved forward, but I know not how soon it may. Heaven preserve you! my precious child."

He pressed a kiss on the drooped head, and left her to resume her watch in the darkened room where Electra had been ill with typhoid-fever for nearly three weeks. It was thought that she contracted the disease in the crowded hospital; and when delirium ensued, Irene temporarily relinquished her ward to other nurses, and remained at the boarding-house, in attendance on her friend. It was a season of unexampled anxiety, yet all was singularly quiet in the beleaguered city. Throughout the Confederacy hushed expectancy reigned. Gallant Vicksburg's batteries barred the Mississippi; Beauregard and Price, lion-hearted idols of the West, held the Federal army in Corinth at bay; Stonewall Jackson—synonym of victory—after sweeping like a whirlwind through the Valley, and scattering the columns that stealthily crept southward, had arrived at Richmond at the appointed time. A greater than Serrurier, at a grander than Castiglone, he gave the signal to begin; and as a sheet of flame flashed along the sombre forests of Chickahominy, the nation held its breath, and watched the brilliant Seven Days' conflict, which converted twenty-six miles of swamp and forest into a vast necropolis.

During Friday the wounded came slowly in, and at four in the afternoon the roar of artillery told that the Battle of Gaines Mill was raging: that the enemy were fighting desperately, behind entrenchments which none but Confederate soldiers could successfully have assaulted. Until eight at night the houses trembled at every report of cannon, and then McClellan's grand army, crippled and bleeding, dragged itself away, under cover of darkness, to the south bank of the Chickahominy. Saturday saw a temporary lull in the iron storm; but the wounded continued to arrive, and the devoted women of the city rose from their knees to minister to the needs of these numerous sufferers. Sunday found our troops feeling about the swamps for the retreating foe; and once more, late in the afternoon, distant thunder resounded from the severely contested field of Savage's Station, whence the enemy again retreated.

On Sabbath morning Irene learned that Russell's command had joined in the pursuit; and during that day and night, as the conflict drifted farther southward, and details became necessarily more meagre, her anxiety increased. Continually her lips moved in prayer, as she glided from Electra's silent room to aid in dressing the wounds of those who had been disabled for further participation in the strife; and, as Monday passed without the receipt of tidings from Dr. Arnold, she indulged in the hope that Russell would escape uninjured. During Tuesday morning Electra seemed to have recovered her consciousness, but in the afternoon she relapsed into incoherent muttering of "Cuyp," "Correggio," "Titian's Bella," and "my best great picture left in Florence."

Irene was sitting at her bedside, rolling bandages, when the sudden, far-distant, dull boom of cannon, followed by the quick rattling of the window-panes, gave intimation that the long contest was fiercely renewed. A courier had arrived from Malvern Mill with intelligence that here the enemy's forces were very strongly posted, were making desperate resistance; and though no doubt of the result was entertained, human nature groaned over the carnage.

At ten o'clock, having given a potion, and renewed the folds of wet linen on Electra's head, Irene stole back to the window, and, turning the shutters, looked down the street. Here and there an anxious group huddled on the corners, with ears strained to catch every sound, and, while she watched, a horseman clattered at a hard gallop over the paving-stones, reined up at the door of the boarding-house, swung himself to the sidewalk, and an instant after the sharp clang of the bell rang startlingly through the still mansion.

"Oh, my God! it has come at last!"

Irene groaned, and leaned heavily against the window-facing, and quick steps came up the stairway. Martha entered, and held out a slip of paper.

"Miss Irene, Cyrus has just brought this."

Her mistress' icy fingers clutched it, and she read—

"Come at once. Aubrey is badly wounded. Cyrus will show the way.


"You are going to faint, Miss Irene! Drink some of this cordial."

"No. Tell Andrew to go after the carriage as quick as possible, and have it brought here immediately; and ask Uncle Eric to come to my room at once."

Irene went to her own apartment, which adjoined Electra's, put on her bonnet and veil, and, though the night was warm, wrapped a shawl about her.

Mr. Mitchell entered soon after, and started at sight of his niece's face.

"Irene, what does this mean? Where are you going at this hour?"

"To the battlefield!—to Malvern Hill. Colonel Aubrey is mortally wounded, and I must see him. Will you go with me? Oh, Uncle Eric! if you have any mercy in your soul ask me no questions now! only go with me."

"Of course, my dear child, I will go with you, if it is possible to procure a carriage of any kind. I will see——"

"I have had one engaged for three days. Martha, stay with Electra till I come back; leave her on no account. If you notice any change, send for Dr. Whitmore. Here is my watch; count her pulse carefully, and as long as it is over one hundred, give her, every two hours, a spoonful of the medicine in that square vial on the table. I trust to you, Martha, to take care of her. If she should be rational, and ask for me, tell her nothing about the battles, and say I have gone to see a sick man, and will be back soon. Come, Uncle Eric."

They entered the close carriage which she had ordered reserved for her, and she called Cyrus to the door.

"Did you see Colonel Aubrey after he was wounded?"

"I only had a glimpse of him, as they brought him in. Miss Irene, he was shot in the breast."

"You know the way; ride outside; and, Cyrus, drive as fast as possible."

By the glimmer of the carriage lamps she could see the wagons going to and fro, some filled with empty coffins, some with mangled sufferers. Now and then weary, spent soldiers sat on the roadside, or struggled on toward the city which they had saved, with their arms in slings, or hands bound up, or bloody bandages across their stern faces. After another hour, when the increasing number of men showed proximity to the scene of danger, Cyrus turned away from the beaten track, and soon the flash of lights and the hum of voices told that they were near the place of destination. The carriage stopped, and Cyrus came to the door.

"We are at the lines, and I can't drive any nearer. If you will wait, I will go and find master."

The delay seemed intolerably long, and for the first time an audible moan escaped Irene just as Cyrus came back accompanied by a muffled figure.

"Irene, my child."

She leaned out till her face nearly touched Dr. Arnold's.

"Only tell me that he is alive, and I can bear all else."

"He is alive, and sleeping just now. Can you control yourself if I take you to him?"

"Yes; you need not fear that I will disturb him. Let me go to him."

He gave her his arm, and led her through the drizzling rain for some distance—avoiding, as much as possible, the groups of wounded, where surgeons were at their sad work. Finally, before a small tent, he paused, and whispered—

"Nerve yourself, dear child."

"Is there no hope?"

She swept aside her long mourning veil, and gazed imploringly into his face.

Tears filled his eyes, and hastily averting his head, he raised the curtain of the tent and drew her inside.

A candle burned dimly in one corner, and there, on a pallet of straw, over which a blanket had been thrown, lay the powerful form of the dauntless leader, whose deeds of desperate daring had so electrified his worshipping command but a few hours before. The noble head was pillowed on a knapsack; one hand pressed his heart, while the other drooped nerveless at his side, and the breast of his coat was saturated with blood, which at intervals oozed through the bandages and dripped upon the straw. The tent was silent as a cemetery, and not a sound passed Irene's white, fixed lips as she bent down and looked upon the loved face, strangely beautiful in its pallid repose. The shadowy wings of the bitter bygone hovered no longer over the features, darkening their chiselled perfection; a tranquil half-smile parted the lips, and unbent the lines between the finely-arched black brows.

Sinking softly on the floor of the tent, Irene rested her chin on her folded hands, and calmly watched the deep sleep. So passed three-quarters of an hour; then, as Dr. Arnold cautiously put his fingers on the pulse, the sufferer opened his eyes.

Irene was partially in the shade, but as she leaned forward, a sudden, bewildered smile lighted his countenance; he started up, and extended one arm.

"Irene! My darling! Do I dream, or are you indeed with me?"

"I have come to nurse you, Russell; but if you do not calm yourself, the doctor will send me away."

She took the outstretched hand in both of hers, and pressed her lips repeatedly upon it.

"Come close to me. I am helpless now, and cannot go to you."

She seated herself on the edge of the straw, laid her shawl in her lap, and lifting his head, rested it on the soft woollen folds. Dr. Arnold removed the warm cloth soaked with blood, placed a cold, dripping towel on the gaping wound, and after tightening the bandages to check the haemorrhage, passed out of the tent, leaving the two alone.

"Oh, Irene! this is a joy I never hoped for. I went at night to the hospital in Richmond just to get a glimpse of you—to feast my eyes with another sight of your dear, dear face! I watched you ministering like an angel to sick and wounded soldiers, and I envied them the touch of your hand—the sound of your voice. I little expected to die in your arms. This reconciles me to my fate; this compensates for all."

Her fingers tenderly smoothed the black locks that clung to his temples, and bending down she kissed his forehead. His uninjured arm stole up around her neck, drew her face to his, and his lips pressed hers again and again.

"Dear Russell, you must be quiet, or you will exhaust yourself. Try to sleep—it will refresh, strengthen you."

"Nothing will strengthen me. I have but a short time to live; shall I sleep away the opportunity of my last earthly communion with you, my life-long idol! Oh, Irene! my beautiful treasure! This proof of your love sweetens death itself. There have been hours (ever since we parted a year ago) when I reproached you for the sorrow and pain you sternly meted out to me, and to yourself. When I said bitterly, if she loved as she should, she would level all barriers—she would lay her hands in mine—glorify my name by taking it as my wife, and thus defy and cancel the past. I was selfish in my love; I wanted you in my home; I longed for the soft touch of your fingers, for your proud, dazzling smile of welcome when the day's work was ended; for the privilege of drawing you to my heart, and listening to your whispered words of encouragement and fond congratulation in my successes. I knew that this could never be; that your veneration for your father's memory would separate us in future, as in the past; that my pleadings would not shake your unfortunate and erroneous resolution; and it was hard to give up the dearest hope that ever brightened a lonely man's life. Now I know, I feel that your love is strong, deathless as my own, though long locked deep in your heart. I know it by the anguish in your face, by the quiver of your mouth, by your presence in this place of horrors. God comfort and bless you, my own darling!—my brave, patient, faithful Irene!"

He smiled triumphantly, and drew her hand caressingly across his cheek.

"Russell, it is useless now to dwell upon our sorrowful past; what suffering our separation has cost me, none but my God can ever know. To His hands I commit my destiny, and 'He doeth all things well.' In a little while you will leave me, and then—oh! then, I shall be utterly desolate indeed! But I can bear loneliness—I can walk my dreary earthly path uncomplainingly, I can give you up for the sake of my country, if I have the blessed assurance that you have only hastened home before me, waiting for me there—that, saved through Christ, we shall soon meet in Heaven, and spend Eternity together. Oh, Russell! can you give me this consolation, without which my future will be dark indeed? Have you kept your promise, to live so that you could at last meet the eyes of your God in peace?"

"I have. I have struggled against the faults of my character; I have earnestly endeavoured to crush the vindictive feelings of my heart; and I have conscientiously tried to do my duty to my fellow-creatures, to my command, and my country. I have read the Bible you gave me; and, dearest, in praying for you, I have learned to pray for myself. Through Jesus, I have a sure hope of happiness beyond the grave. There, though separated in life, you and I shall be united by death. Oh, Irene! but for your earnest piety this precious anticipation might never have been mine. But for you I would have forgotten my mother's precepts and my mother's prayers. Through your influence I shall soon join her, where the fierce waves of earthly trial can lash my proud soul no more."

"Thank God! Oh, Russell! this takes away the intolerable bitterness of parting; this will support me in coming years. I can brave all things in future."

She saw that a paroxysm of pain had seized him. His brow wrinkled, and he bit his lips hard, to suppress a groan. Just at this moment Dr. Arnold re-entered, and immediately after gave him another potion of morphine.

"Aubrey, you must be quiet, if you would not shorten your life."

He silently endured his sufferings for some moments, and raising his eyes again to Irene's said, in a tone of exhaustion—

"It is selfish for me to make you witness my torture; but I could not bear to have you leave me. There is something I want to say while I have strength left. How is Electra?"

"Partially delirious still, but the doctor thinks she will recover. What shall I tell her for you?"

"That I loved and remembered her in my dying hour. Kiss her for me, and tell her I fell where the dead lay thickest, in a desperate charge on the enemy's batteries—that none can claim a nobler, prouder death than mine—that the name of Aubrey is once more glorified—baptized with my blood upon the battlefield. Irene, she is alone in the world; watch over her and love her, for my sake. Doctor, give me some water."

As the haemorrhage increased despite their efforts to stanch it, he became rapidly weaker, and soon after, with one hand locked in Irene's, he fell asleep.

She sat motionless, supporting his head, uttering no sound, keeping her eyes fixed on his upturned countenance. Dr. Arnold went noiselessly in and out, on various errands of mercy; occasionally anxious, weather-beaten soldiers softly lifted the curtain of the tent, gazed sadly, fondly, on the prostrate figure of the beloved commander, and turned away silently, with tears trickling down their bronzed faces. Slowly the night waned, and the shrill tones of reveille told that another day had risen before the murky sky brightened. Hundreds, who had sprung up at that call twenty-four hours ago, now lay stiffening in their gore, sleeping their last sleep, where neither the sound of fife and drum, nor the battle-cry of comrades, would ever rouse them from their final rest before Malvern Hill—over which winds wailed a requiem, and trailing, dripping clouds settled like a pall.

The bustle and stir of camp increased as preparations were made to follow the foe, who had again taken up the line of retreat; but within the tent unbroken silence reigned. It was apparent that Russell was sinking fast, and at eight o'clock he awoke, looked uneasily around him, and said feebly—

"What is going on in front?"

"McClellan has evacuated Malvern Hill, and is in full retreat toward his gunboats," answered the doctor.

"Then there will be no more fighting. My shattered regiment will rest for a season. Poor fellows! they did their duty nobly yesterday."

He lifted his eyes toward heaven, and for some moments his lips moved inaudibly in prayer. Gradually a tranquil expression settled on his features, and as his eyes closed again he murmured faintly—

"Irene—darling—raise me a little."

They lifted him, and rested his head against her shoulder.


"I am here, Russell; my arms are around you."

She laid her cheek on his, and listened to catch the words, but none came. The lips parted once, and a soft, fluttering breath swept across them. Dr. Arnold put his hand over the heart—no pulsation greeted him; and, turning away, the old man covered his face with his handkerchief.

"Russell, speak to me once more."

There was no sound, no motion. She knew that the soldier's spirit had soared to the shores of Everlasting Peace, and that not until she joined him there would the loved tones again make music in her heart. She tightened her arms around the still form, and nestled her cheek closer to his, now growing cold. No burst of grief escaped her, to tell of agony and despair.

* * * * *

Electra's speedy convalescence repaid the care bestowed upon her, and one afternoon, ten days after quiet had again settled around the Confederate capital, she insisted on being allowed to sit up later than usual, protesting that she would no longer be regarded as an invalid.

"Irene, stand in the light where I can see you fully. How worn and weary you look! I suspect I am regaining my health at the expense of yours."

"No; I am as well in body as I could desire. But no doubt my anxiety has left its traces on my countenance."

She leaned over Electra's chair, and stroked back the artist's shining hair.

"I wish you would let me see the papers. My eyes are strong enough now, and I want to know exactly what has taken place everywhere during my sickness. It seems to me impossible that General Lee's army can face McClellan's much longer without bringing on a battle, and I am so anxious about Russell. If he should be hurt, of course, I must go to him. It is very strange that he has not written. Are you sure no letters came for me?"

"There are no letters, I am sure; but I have a message for you. I have seen him once since you were taken sick."

"Ah! what is it? He heard that I was ill, and came to see me, I suppose. When was he here?"

Irene bent down and kissed her companion tremulously, saying slowly—

"He desired me to kiss you for him. Electra, I have not told you before because I feared the effect upon you in your weak state; but there have been desperate battles around Richmond during your illness, and the Federals have been defeated—driven back to James river."

"Was Russell wounded? Yes—I understand it all now! Where is he? Oh! tell me that I may go to him."

She sprang up, but a deathlike pallor overspread her face and she tottered to the open window.

Irene followed the thin figure, and, putting her arms about her, made her lean against her.

"He was wounded on the last day, and I went to see him; you were then delirious."

"Let me go at once! I will not disturb him; I will control myself! Only let me see him to-day!"

"Electra, you cannot see him. He has gone to his God; but in his dying hour he spoke of you fondly, sent love, and——"

The form reeled, drooped, shivered, and fell back insensible in Irene's arms.

So heavy was the swoon, that it seemed as if her spirit had fled to join her cousin's in endless union; but at length consciousness returned, and with it came the woeful realization of her loss. A long, low wail rose and fell upon the air, like the cry from lips of feeble, suffering, helpless children, and her head sank upon the shoulder of the sad-faced nurse, whose grief could find no expression in sobs, or moans, or tears.

"Dead! dead! and I shall see his dear face no more! Oh! why did you not let me die, too? What is my wretched life worth now? One grave might have held us both! My noble, peerless Russell! the light of my solitary life! O God! be merciful! take me with my idol! Take me now!"

Very tenderly and caressingly Irene endeavoured to soothe her—detailed the circumstances of her cousin's death, and pointed her despairing soul to a final reunion.

But no rift appeared in the artist's black sky of sorrow; she had not yet learned that, in drawing near the hand that holds the rod, the blow is lightened, and she bitterly demanded of her Maker to be released from the burden of life.



The sunlight of a warm spring day flashed through the open window, and made golden arabesque tracery on the walls, and portraits of the parlour at Huntingdon Hill. The costly crimson damask curtains had long since been cut into shirts for the soldiers, and transported to the army of Tennessee, and air and sunshine entered unimpeded. Electra sat before her canvas in this room, absorbed in the design which now engaged every thought. The witchery of her profession had woven its spell about her, banishing for a time the spectral past.

The extension of the Conscription statute had, several months before, deprived Irene of a valued and trusty overseer; and to satisfy herself concerning the character of his successor, and the condition of affairs at home, she and her uncle had returned to W——, bringing Electra with them.

Irene was with Electra in the parlour.

"What progress are you making, Electra?"

"Very little. I shall not hurry myself; I intend that the execution shall be equal to my ideal—and that ideal entirely worthy of the theme. I want to lay my 'Modern Macaria,' as the first offering of Southern art, upon my country's altar, as a nucleus around which nobler and grander pictures, from the hands of my countrymen and women, shall cluster."

"Electra, in order to effect this 'consummation devoutly to be wished,' it is necessary that the primary branches of Art should be popularized, and thrown open to the masses; and in order to open for them new avenues of support, I have determined to establish in W—— a School of Design for Women—similar in plan, though more extensive, than that founded some years ago by Mrs. Peter of Philadelphia. The upper portion of the building will be arranged for drawing classes, wood-engraving, and the various branches of Design; and the lower, corresponding in size and general appearance, I intend for a circulating library for our county. Over that School of Design I want you to preside; your talents, your education, your devotion to your Art fit you peculiarly for the position. The salary shall be such as to compensate you for your services; and, when calmer days dawn upon us, we may be able to secure some very valuable lecturers among our gentlemen-artists. I have a large lot on the corner of Pine Street and Huntingdon Avenue, opposite the court-house, which will be a fine location for it, and I wish to appropriate it to this purpose. While you are adorning the interior of the building, the walls of which are to contain frescoes of some of the most impressive scenes of our Revolution, I will embellish the grounds in front, and make them my special charge. I understand the cultivation of flowers, though the gift of painting them is denied me. Yesterday I sold my diamonds for a much larger amount than I supposed they would command, and this sum, added to other funds now at my disposal, will enable me to accomplish the scheme. Dr. Arnold and Uncle Eric cordially approve my plan, will aid me very liberally, and as soon as tranquillity is restored I shall succeed in erecting the building without applying to any one else for assistance. When your picture is finished, I wish you to make me a copy to be hung up in our School of Design, that the students may be constantly reminded of the debt of gratitude we owe our armies."

The canvas, which she leaned forward to inspect more closely, contained an allegorical design representing, in the foreground, two female figures. One stern, yet noble-featured, crowned with stars—triumph and exultation flashing in the luminous eyes. Independence, crimson-mantled, grasping the Confederate Banner of the Cross, whose victorious folds streamed above a captured battery, where a Federal flag trailed in the dust. At her side stood white-robed, angelic Peace with one hand over the touch-hole of the cannon against which she leaned, and the other extended in benediction. Vividly the faces contrasted—one all athrob with national pride, beaming with brilliant destiny; the other wonderfully serene and holy. In the distance, gleaming in the evening light which streamed from the West, tents dotted a hill-side; and, intermediate between Peace and the glittering tents, stretched a torn, stained battlefield, over which the roar and rush of conflict had just swept, leaving mangled heaps of dead in attestation of its fury.

"How many months do you suppose it will require to complete it?" asked Irene, whose interest in the picture was scarcely inferior to that of its creator.

"If I work steadily upon it, I can soon finish it; but if I go with you to a Tennessee hospital, I must, of course, leave it here until the war ends. After all, Irene, the joy of success does not equal that which attends the patient working. Perhaps it is because 'anticipation is the purest part of pleasure.' I love my work; no man or woman ever loved it better; and yet there is a painful feeling of isolation, of loneliness, which steals over me sometimes, and chills all my enthusiasm. It is so mournful to know that, when the labour is ended, and a new chaplet encircles my brow, I shall have no one but you to whom I can turn for sympathy in my triumph. If I feel this so keenly now, how shall I bear it when the glow of life fades into sober twilight shadows, and age creeps upon me?"

She threw down her brush and palette, and, turning towards her companion, leaned her purplish head against her.

"Electra, it is very true that single women have trials for which a thoughtless, happy world has little sympathy. But lonely lives are not necessarily joyless; they should be, of all others, most useful.

"Remember that the woman who dares to live alone, and be sneered at, is braver, and nobler, and better than she who escapes both in a loveless marriage. It is true that you and I are very lonely, and yet our future holds much that is bright. You have the profession you love so well, and our new School of Design to engage your thoughts; and I a thousand claims on my time and attention. I have Uncle Eric to take care of and to love, and Dr. Arnold, who is growing quite infirm, has promised me that, as soon as he can be spared from the hospitals, he will make his home with us. When this storm of war has spent itself, your uncle's family will return from Europe and reside here with you. Harvey, too, will come to W—— to live—will probably take charge of Mr. Campbell's church—and we shall have the pleasure and benefit of his constant counsel. If I could see you a member of that church I should be better satisfied—and you would be happier."

"I would join to-morrow, if thereby I could acquire your sublime faith, and strength, and resignation. Oh, Irene! my friend and comforter! I want to live differently in future. Once I was wedded to life and my Art—pre-eminence in my profession, fame, was all that I cared to attain; now I desire to spend my remaining years so that I may meet Russell beyond the grave. His death broke the ties that bound me to this world; I live now in hope of reunion in God's eternal kingdom. I have been selfish, and careless, and complaining; but, oh! I want to do my whole duty henceforth. Irene, my calm, sweet, patient guide, teach me to be more like you."

"Electra, take Christ for your model, instead of an erring human being like yourself, constantly falling short of her own duty. With Harvey to direct us, we ought to accomplish a world of good, here in sight of Russell's grave."

The eyes of the artist went back to the stainless robes and seraphic face of her pictured Peace in the loved "Modern Macaria," and, as she resumed her work, her brow cleared, the countenance kindled as in days of yore, bitter memories hushed their moans and fell asleep at the wizard touch of her profession, and the stormy, stricken soul found balm and rest in Heaven-appointed Labour.

Standing at the back of Electra's chair, with one hand resting on her shoulder, Irene raised her holy violet eyes, and looked through the window toward the cemetery, where glittered a tall marble shaft which the citizens of W—— had erected over the last quiet resting-place of Russell Aubrey. Sands of Time were drifting stealthily around the crumbling idols of the morning of life, levelling and tenderly shrouding the Past, but sorrow left its softening shadow on the orphan's countenance, and laid its chastening finger about the lips which meekly murmured: "Thy will be done." The rays of the setting sun gilded her mourning dress, gleamed in the white roses that breathed their perfume in her rippling hair, and lingered like a benediction on the placid pure face of the lonely woman who had survived every earthly hope; and who, calmly fronting her Altars of Sacrifice, here dedicated herself anew to the hallowed work of promoting the happiness and gladdening the paths of all who journeyed with her down the chequered aisles of Time.

Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner, Frome and London


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse