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amends?"

"I was thinking of Mr. Merriweather - "

"Undoubtedly"

"Since he has seen me with my arm around your neck - you know I couldn't
help it - perhaps he might row the other way if - if - well, if he saw
you - what shall I say - sitting over here - by me - or - Somehow I don't
feel very hungry, and I wouldn't mind spending another hour - "

Scofield nearly upset the boat in his precipitous effort to gain a seat
beside her - and Mr. Merriweather did row another way.






CHRISTMAS EVE IN WAR TIMES


It was the beginning of a battle. The skirmish line of the Union
advance was sweeping rapidly over a rough mountainous region in the
South, and in his place on the extreme left of this line was Private
Anson Marlow. Tall trees rising from underbrush, rocks, bowlders,
gulches worn by spring torrents, were the characteristics of the field,
which was in wild contrast with the parade-grounds on which the
combatants had first learned the tactics of war. The majority, however,
of those now in the ranks had since been drilled too often under like
circumstances, and with lead and iron shotted guns, not to know their
duty, and the lines of battle were as regular as the broken country
allowed. So far as many obstacles permitted, Marlow kept his proper
distance from the others on the line and fired coolly when he caught
glimpses of the retreating Confederate skirmishers. They were retiring
with ominous readiness toward a wooded height which the enemy occupied
with a force of unknown strength. That strength was soon manifested in
temporary disaster to the Union forces, which were driven back with
heavy loss.

Neither the battle nor its fortunes are the objects of our present
concern, but rather the fate of Private Marlow. The tide of battle
drifted away and left the soldier desperately wounded in a narrow
ravine, through which babbled a small stream. Excepting the voices of
his wife and children no music had ever sounded so sweetly in his ears.
With great difficulty he crawled to a little bubbling pool formed by a
tiny cascade and encircling stones, and partially slaked his
intolerable thirst.

He believed he was dying - bleeding to death. The very thought blunted
his faculties for a time; and he was conscious of little beyond a dull
wonder. Could it be possible that the tragedy of his death was enacting
in that peaceful, secluded nook? Could Nature be so indifferent or so
unconscious if it were true that he was soon to lie there DEAD? He saw
the speckled trout lying motionless at the bottom of the pool, the gray
squirrels sporting in the boughs over his head. The sunlight shimmered
and glinted through the leaves, flecking with light his prostrate form.
He dipped his hand in the blood that had welled from his side, and it
fell in rubies from his fingers. Could that be his blood - his
life-blood; and would it soon all ooze away? Could it be that death was
coming through all the brightness of that summer afternoon?

From a shadowed tree further up the glen, a wood-thrush suddenly began
its almost unrivalled song. The familiar melody, heard so often from
his cottage-porch in the June twilight, awoke him to the bitter truth.
His wife had then sat beside him, while his little ones played here and
there among the trees and shrubbery. They would hear the same song
to-day; he would never hear it again. That counted for little; but the
thought of their sitting behind the vines and listening to their
favorite bird, spring after spring and summer after summer, and he ever
absent, overwhelmed him.

"Oh, Gertrude, my wife, my wife! Oh, my children!" he groaned.

His breast heaved with a great sigh; the blood welled afresh from his
wound; what seemed a mortal weakness crept over him; and he thought he
died.

* * * * * * *

"Say, Eb, is he done gone?"

"'Clar to grashus if I know. 'Pears mighty like it." These words were
spoken by two stout negroes, who had stolen to the battlefield as the
sounds of conflict died away.

"I'm doggoned if I tink dat he's dead. He's only swoonded," asserted
the man addressed as Eb. "'Twon't do to lebe 'im here to die, Zack."

"Sartin not; we'd hab bad luck all our days."

"I reckon ole man Pearson will keep him; and his wife's a po'ful nuss."

"Pearson orter; he's a Unioner."

"S'pose we try him; 'tain't so bery fur off."

* * * * * * *

On the morning of the 24th of December, Mrs. Anson Marlow sat in the
living-room of her cottage, that stood well out in the suburbs of a
Northern town. Her eyes were hollow and full of trouble that seemed
almost beyond tears, and the bare room, that had been stripped of
nearly every appliance and suggestion of comfort, but too plainly
indicated one of the causes. Want was stamped on her thin face, that
once had been so full and pretty; poverty in its bitter extremity was
unmistakably shown by the uncarpeted floor, the meagre fire, and scanty
furniture. It was a period of depression; work had been scarce, and
much of the time she had been too ill and feeble to do more than care
for her children. Away back in August her resources had been running
low; but she had daily expected the long arrears of pay which her
husband would receive as soon as the exigencies of the campaign
permitted. Instead of these funds, so greatly needed, came the tidings
of a Union defeat, with her husband's name down among the missing.
Beyond that brief mention, so horrible in its vagueness, she had never
heard a word from the one who not only sustained her home, but also her
heart. Was he languishing in a Southern prison, or, mortally wounded,
had he lingered out some terrible hours on that wild battlefield, a
brief description of which had been so dwelt upon by her morbid fancy
that it had become like one of the scenes in Dante's "Inferno"? For a
long time she could not and would not believe that such an overwhelming
disaster had befallen her and her children, although she knew that
similar losses had come to thousands of others. Events that the world
regards as not only possible but probable are often so terrible in
their personal consequences that we shrink from even the bare thought
of their occurrence.

If Mrs. Marlow had been told from the first that her husband was dead,
the shock resulting would not have been so injurious as the suspense
that robbed her of rest for days, weeks, and months. She haunted the
post-office, and if a stranger was seen coming up the street toward her
cottage she watched feverishly for his turning in at her gate with the
tidings of her husband's safety. Night after night she Jay awake,
hoping, praying that she might hear his step returning on a furlough to
which wounds or sickness had entitled him. The natural and inevitable
result was illness and nervous prostration.

Practical neighbors had told her that her course was all wrong; that
she should be resigned and even cheerful for her children's sake; that
she needed to sleep well and live well, in order that she might have
strength to provide for them. She would make pathetic attempts to
follow this sound and thrifty advice, but suddenly when at her work or
in her troubled sleep, that awful word "missing" would pierce her heart
like an arrow, and she would moan, and at times in the depths of her
anguish cry out, "Oh, where is he? Shall I ever see him again?"

But the unrelenting demands of life are made as surely upon the
breaking as upon the happy heart. She and her children must have food,
clothing, and shelter. Her illness and feebleness at last taught her
that she must not yield to her grief, except so far as she was unable
to suppress it; that for the sake of those now seemingly dependent upon
her, she must rally every shattered nerve and every relaxed muscle.
With a heroism far beyond that of her husband and his comrades in the
field, she sought to fight the wolf from the door, or at least to keep
him at bay. Although the struggle seemed a hopeless one, she patiently
did her best from day to day, eking out her scanty earnings by the sale
or pawning of such of her household goods as she could best spare. She
felt that she would do anything rather than reveal her poverty or
accept charity. Some help was more or less kindly offered, but beyond
such aid as one neighbor may receive of another, she had said gently
but firmly, "Not yet."

The Marlows were comparative strangers in the city where they had
resided. Her husband had been a teacher in one of its public schools,
and his salary small. Patriotism had been his motive for entering the
army, and while it had cost him a mighty struggle to leave his family,
he felt that he had no more reason to hold back than thousands of
others. He believed that he could still provide for those dependent
upon him, and if he fell, those for whom he died would not permit his
widow and children to suffer. But the first popular enthusiasm for the
war had largely died out; the city was full of widows and orphans;
there was depression of spirit, stagnation in business, and a very
general disposition on the part of those who had means, to take care of
themselves, and provide for darker days that might be in the immediate
future. Sensitive, retiring Mrs. Marlow was not the one to push her
claims or reveal her need. Moreover, she could never give up the hope
that tidings from her husband might at any time bring relief and safety.

But the crisis had come at last; and on this dreary December day she
was face to face with absolute want. The wolf, with his gaunt eyes, was
crouched beside her cold hearth. A pittance owed to her for work had
not been paid. The little food left in the house had furnished the
children an unsatisfying breakfast; she had eaten nothing. On the table
beside her lay a note from the agent of the estate of which her home
was a part, bidding her call that morning. She knew why - the rent was
two months in arrears. It seemed like death to leave the house in which
her husband had placed her, and wherein she had spent her happiest
days. It stood well away from the crowded town. The little yard and
garden, with their trees, vines, and shrubbery, some of which her
husband had planted, were all dear from association. In the rear there
was a grove and open fields, which, though not belonging to the
cottage, were not forbidden to the children; and they formed a
wonderland of delight in spring, summer, and fall. Must she take her
active, restless boy Jamie, the image of his father, into a crowded
tenement? Must golden-haired Susie, with her dower of beauty, be
imprisoned in one close room, or else be exposed to the evil of corrupt
association just beyond the threshold?

Moreover, her retired home had become a refuge. Here she could hide her
sorrow and poverty. Here she could touch what he had touched, and sit
during the long winter evenings in his favorite corner by the fire.
Around her, within and without, were the little appliances for her
comfort which his hands had made, flow could she leave all this and
live? Deep in her heart also the hope would linger that he would come
again and seek her where he had left her.

"O God!" she cried suddenly. "Thou wouldst not, couldst not permit him
to die without one farewell word," and she buried her face in her hands
and rocked back and forth, while hard, dry sobs shook her slight,
famine-pinched form.

The children stopped their play and came and leaned upon her lap.

"Don't cry, mother," said Jamie, a little boy of ten. "I'll soon be big
enough to work for you; and I'll get rich, and you shall have the
biggest house in town. I'll take care of you if papa don't come back."

Little Sue knew not what to say, but the impulse of her love was her
best guide. She threw her arms around her mother's neck with such an
impetuous and childlike outburst of affection that the poor woman's
bitter and despairing thoughts were banished for a time. The deepest
chord of her nature, mother love, was touched; and for her children's
sake she rose up once more and faced the hard problems of her life.
Putting on her bonnet and thin shawl (she had parted with much that she
now so sorely needed), she went out into the cold December wind. The
sky was clouded like her hopes, and the light, even in the morning
hours, was dim and leaden-hued.

She first called on Mr. Jackson, the agent from whom she rented her
home, and besought him to give her a little more time.

"I will beg for work from door to door," she said. "Surely in this
Christian city there must be those who will give me work; and that is
all I ask."

The sleek, comfortable man, in his well-appointed office, was touched
slightly, and said in a voice that was not so gruff as he at first had
intended it should be:

"Well, I will wait a week or two longer. If then you cannot pay
something on what is already due, my duty to my employers will compel
me to take the usual course. You have told me all along that your
husband would surely return, and I have hated to say a word to
discourage you; but I fear you will have to bring yourself to face the
truth and act accordingly, as so many others have done. I know it's
very hard for you, but I am held responsible by my employer, and at my
intercession he has been lenient, as you must admit. You could get a
room or two in town for half what you must pay where you are.
Good-morning."

She went out again into the street, which the shrouded sky made sombre
in spite of preparations seen on every side for the chief festival of
the year. The fear was growing strong that like Him in whose memory the
day was honored, she and her little ones might soon not know where to
lay their heads. She succeeded in getting the small sum owed to her and
payment also for some sewing just finished. More work she could not
readily obtain, for every one was busy and preoccupied by the coming
day of gladness.

"Call again," some said kindly or carelessly, according to their
nature. "After the holidays are over we will try to have or make some
work for you."

"But I need - I must have work now," she ventured to say whenever she
had the chance.

In response to this appeal there were a few offers of charity, small
indeed, but from which she drew back with an instinct so strong that it
could not be overcome. On every side she heard the same story. The
times were very hard; requests for work and aid had been so frequent
that purses and patience were exhausted. Moreover, people had spent
their Christmas money on their households and friends, and were already
beginning to feel poor.

At last she obtained a little work, and having made a few purchases of
that which was absolutely essential, she was about to drag her weary
feet homeward when the thought occurred to her that the children would
want to hang up their stockings at night; and she murmured: "It may be
the last chance I shall ever have to put a Christmas gift in them. Oh,
that I were stronger! Oh, that I could take my sorrow more as others
seem to take theirs! But I cannot, I cannot! My burden is greater than
I can bear. The cold of this awful day is chilling my very heart, and
my grief, as hope dies, is crushing my soul. Oh, he must be dead, he
must be dead! That is what they all think. God help my little ones! Oh,
what will become of them if I sink, as I fear I shall! If it were not
for them I feel as if I would fall and die here in the street. Well, be
our fate what it may, they shall owe to me one more gleam of
happiness;" and she went into a confectioner's shop and bought a few
ornamented cakes. These were the only gifts she could afford, and they
must be in the form of food.

Before she reached home the snow was whirling in the frosty air, and
the shadows of the brief winter day deepening fast. With a smile far
more pathetic than tears she greeted the children, who were cold,
hungry, and frightened at her long absence; and they, children-like,
saw only the smile, and not the grief it masked. They saw also the
basket which she had placed on the table, and were quick to note that
it seemed a little fuller than of late.

"Jamie," she said, "run to the store down the street for some coal and
kindlings that I bought, and then we will have a good fire and a nice
supper;" and the boy, at such a prospect, eagerly obeyed.

She was glad to have him gone, that she might hide her weakness. She
sank into a chair, so white and faint that even little Susie left off
peering into the basket, and came to her with a troubled face.

"It's nothing, dearie," the poor creature said. "Mamma's only a little
tired. See," she added, tottering to the table, "I have brought you a
great piece of gingerbread."

The hungry child grasped it, and was oblivious and happy.

By the time Jamie returned with his first basket of kindling and coal,
the mother had so far rallied from her exhaustion as to meet him
smilingly again and help him replenish the dying fire.

"Now you shall rest and have your gingerbread before going for your
second load," she said cheerily; and the boy took what was ambrosia to
him, and danced around the room in joyous reaction from the depression
of the long weary day, during which, lonely and hungry, he had wondered
why his mother did not return.

"So little could make them happy, and yet I cannot seem to obtain even
that little," she sighed. "I fear - indeed, I fear - I cannot be with
them another Christmas; therefore they shall remember that I tried to
make them happy once more, and the recollection may survive the long
sad days before them, and become a part of my memory."

The room was now growing dark, and she lighted the lamp. Then she
cowered shiveringly over the reviving fire, feeling as if she could
never be warm again.

The street-lamps were lighted early on that clouded, stormy evening,
and they were a signal to Mr. Jackson, the agent, to leave his office.
He remembered that he had ordered a holiday dinner, and now found
himself in a mood to enjoy it. He had scarcely left his door before a
man, coming up the street with great strides and head bent down to the
snow-laden blast, brushed roughly against him. The stranger's cap was
drawn over his eyes, and the raised collar of his blue army overcoat
nearly concealed his face. The man hurriedly begged pardon, and was
hastening on when Mr. Jackson's exclamation of surprise caused him to
stop and look at the person he had jostled.

"Why, Mr. Marlow," the agent began, "I'm glad to see you. It's a
pleasure I feared I should never have again."

"My wife," the man almost gasped, "she's still in the house I rented of
you?"

"Oh, certainly," was the hasty reply. "It'll be all right' now."

"What do you mean? Has it not been all right?"

"Well, you see," said Mr. Jackson, apologetically, "we have been very
lenient to your wife, but the rent has not been paid for over two
months, and - "

"And you were about to turn her and her children out-of-doors in
midwinter," broke in the soldier, wrathfully. "That is the way you
sleek, comfortable stay-at-home people care for those fighting your
battles. After you concluded that I was dead, and that the rent might
not be forthcoming, you decided to put my wife into the street. Open
your office, sir, and you shall have your rent."

"Now, Mr. Marlow, there's no cause for pitching into me in this way.
You know that I am but an agent, and - "

"Tell your rich employer, then, what I have said, and ask him what he
would be worth to-day were there not men like myself, who are willing
to risk everything and suffer everything for the Union. But I've no
time to bandy words. Have you seen my wife lately?"

"Yes," was the hesitating reply; "she was here to-day, and I - "

"How is she? What did you say to her?"

"Well, she doesn't look very strong. I felt sorry for her, and gave her
more time, taking the responsibility myself - "

"How much time?"

"I said two weeks, but no doubt I could have had the time extended."

"I have MY doubts. Will you and your employer please accept my humble
gratitude that you had the grace not to turn her out-of-doors during
the holiday season? It might have caused remark; but that consideration
and some others that I might name are not to be weighed against a few
dollars and cents. I shall now remove the strain upon your patriotism
at once, and will not only pay arrears, but also for two months in
advance."

"Oh, there's no need of that to-day."

"Yes, there is. My wife shall feel to-night that she has a home. She
evidently has not received the letter I wrote as soon as I reached our
lines, or you would not have been talking to her about two weeks more
of shelter."

The agent reopened his office and saw a roll of bills extracted from
Marlow's pocket that left no doubt of the soldier's ability to provide
for his family. He gave his receipt in silence, feeling that words
would not mend matters, and then trudged off to his dinner with a
nagging appetite.

As Marlow strode away he came to a sudden resolution - he would look
upon his wife and children before they saw him; he would feast his eyes
while they were unconscious of the love that was beaming upon them. The
darkness and storm favored his project, and in brief time he saw the
light in his window. Unlatching the gate softly, and with his steps
muffled by the snow that already carpeted the frozen ground, he reached
the window, the blinds of which were but partially closed. His children
frolicking about the room were the first objects that caught his eye,
and he almost laughed aloud in his joy. Then, by turning another blind
slightly, he saw his wife shivering over the fire.

"Great God!" he muttered, "how she has suffered!" and he was about to
rush in and take her into his arms. On the threshold he restrained
himself, paused, and said, "No, not jet; I'll break the news of my
return in my own way. The shock of my sudden appearance might be too
great for her;" and he went back to the window. The wife's eyes were
following her children with such a wistful tenderness that the boy,
catching her gaze, stopped his sport, came to her side, and began to
speak. They were but a few feet away, and Marlow caught every word.

"Mamma," the child said, "you didn't eat any breakfast, and I don't
believe you have eaten anything to-day. You are always giving
everything to us. Now I declare I won't eat another bit unless you take
half of my cake;" and he broke off a piece and laid it in her lap.

"Oh, Jamie," cried the poor woman, "you looked so like your father when
you spoke that I could almost see him;" and she caught him in her arms
and covered him with kisses.

"I'll soon be big enough to take care of you. I'm going to grow up just
like papa and do everything for you," the boy said proudly as she
released him.

Little Susie also came and placed what was left of her cake in her
mother's lap, saying:

"I'll work for you, too, mamma; and to-morrow I'll sell the doll Santa
Claus gave me last Christmas, and then we'll all have plenty to eat."

Anson Marlow was sobbing outside the window as only a man weeps; and
his tears in the bitter cold became drops of ice before they reached
the ground.

"My darlings!" the mother cried. "Oh, God spare me to you and provide
some way for us! Your love should make me rich though I lack all else.
There, I won't cry any more, and you shall have as happy a Christmas as
I can give you. Perhaps He who knew what it was to be homeless and
shelterless will provide for our need; so we'll try to trust Him and
keep His birthday. And now, Jamie, go and bring the rest of the coal,
and then we will make the dear home that papa gave us cheery and warm
once more. If he were only with us we wouldn't mind hunger or cold,
would we? Oh, my husband!" she broke out afresh, "if you could only
come back, even though crippled and helpless, I feel that I could live
and grow strong from simple gladness."

"Don't you think, mamma," Jamie asked, "that God will let papa come
down from heaven and spend Christmas with us? He might be here like the
angels, and we not see him."

"I'm afraid not," the sad woman replied, shaking her head and speaking
more to herself than to the child. "I don't see how he could go back to
heaven and be happy if he knew all. No, we must be patient and try to
do our best, so that we can go to him. Go now, Jamie, before it gets
too late. I'll get supper, and then we'll sing a Christmas hymn; and
you and Susie shall hang up your stockings, just as you did last
Christmas, when dear papa was with us. We'll try to do everything he
would wish, and then by and by we shall see him again."


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Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeTaken Alive → online text (page 24 of 26)