The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter II. Love's Agony
As the exaggerated reports of a magnificent Confederate victory at Bull Run continued to pour in, Major Burgoyne shared for a time in the general elation, believing that independence, recognition abroad, and peace had been virtually secured. All the rant about Northern cowardice appeared to be confirmed, and he eagerly waited for the announcement that Washington had been captured by Johnston's victorious army.
Instead, came the dismal tidings from his only sister that her husband, Captain Hunter, had been killed in the battle over which he had been rejoicing. Then for some mysterious reason the Southern army did not follow the Federals, who had left the field in such utter rout and panic. It soon appeared that the contending forces were occupying much the same positions as before. News of the second great uprising of the North followed closely, and presaged anything but a speedy termination of the conflict. Major Burgoyne was not a Hotspur, and he grew thoughtful and depressed in spirit, although he sedulously concealed the fact from his associates. The shadow of coming events began to fall upon him, and his daughter gradually divined his lack of hopefulness. The days were already sad and full of anxiety, for her husband was absent. He had scouted the idea of the Yankees standing up before the impetuous onset of the Southern soldiers, and his words had apparently proved true, yet even those Northern cowards had killed one closely allied to her before they fled. Remembering, therefore, her husband's headlong courage, what assurance of his safety could she have although victory followed victory?
Major Burgoyne urged his widowed sister to leave her plantation in the charge of an overseer and make her home with him. "You are too near the probable theatre of military operations to be safe," he wrote, "and my mind cannot rest till you are with us in this city which we are rapidly making impregnable." The result was that she eventually became a member of his family. Her stern, sad face added to the young wife's depression, for the stricken woman had been rendered intensely bitter by her loss. Mary was too gentle in nature to hate readily, yet wrathful gleams would be emitted at times even from her blue eyes, as her aunt inveighed in her hard monotone against the "monstrous wrong of the North." They saw their side with such downright sincerity and vividness that the offenders appeared to be beyond the pale of humanity. Few men, even though the frosts of many winters had cooled their blood and ripened their judgment, could reason dispassionately in those days, much less women, whose hearts were kept on the rack of torture by the loss of dear ones or the dread of such loss.
It is my purpose to dwell upon the war, its harrowing scenes and intense animosities, only so far as may be essential to account for my characters and to explain subsequent events. The roots of personality strike deep, and the taproot, heredity, runs back into the being of those who lived and suffered before we were born.
Gentle Mary Burgoyne should have been part of a happier day and generation. The bright hopes of a speedily conquered peace were dying away; the foolish bluster on both sides at the beginning of the war had ceased, and the truth so absurdly ignored at first, that Americans, North and South, would fight with equal courage, was made clearer by every battle. The heavy blows received by the South, however, did not change her views as to the wisdom and righteousness of her cause, and she continued to return blows at which the armies of the North reeled, stunned and bleeding. Mary was not permitted to exult very long, however, for the terrible pressure was quickly renewed with an unwavering pertinacity which created misgivings in the stoutest hearts. The Federals had made a strong lodgment on the coast of her own State, and were creeping nearer and nearer, often repulsed yet still advancing as if impelled by the remorseless principle of fate.
At last, in the afternoon of a day early in April, events occurred never to be forgotten by those who witnessed them. Admiral Dupont with his armored ships attempted to reduce Fort Sumter and capture the city. Thousands of spectators watched the awful conflict; Mary Wallingford and her aunt, Mrs. Hunter, among them. The combined roar of the guns exceeded all the thunder they had ever heard. About three hundred Confederate cannon were concentrated on the turreted monitors, and some of the commanders said that "shot struck the vessels as fast as the ticking of a watch." It would seem that the ships which appeared so diminutive in the distance must be annihilated, yet Mary with her powerful glass saw them creep nearer and nearer. It was their shots, not those of her friends, that she watched with agonized absorption, for every tremendous bolt was directed against the fort in which was her father.
The conflict was too unequal; the bottom of the harbor was known to be paved with torpedoes, and in less than an hour Dupont withdrew his squadron in order to save it from destruction.
In strong reaction from intense excitement, Mary's knees gave way, and she sank upon them in thankfulness to God. Her aunt supported her to her room, gave restoratives, and the daughter in deep anxiety waited for tidings from her father. He did not come to her; he was brought, and there settled down upon her young life a night of grief and horror which no words can describe. While he was sighting a gun, it had been struck by a shell from the fleet, and when the smoke of the explosion cleared away he was seen among the debris, a mangled and unconscious form. He was tenderly taken up, and after the conflict ended, conveyed to his home. On the way thither he partially revived, but reason was gone. His eyes were scorched and blinded, his hearing destroyed by the concussion, and but one lingering thought survived in the wreck of his mind. In a plaintive and almost childlike tone he continually uttered the words, "I was only trying to defend my city and my home."
Hour after hour he repeated this sentence, deaf to his child's entreaties for recognition and a farewell word. His voice grew more and more feeble until he could only whisper the sad refrain; at last his lips moved but there was no sound; then he was still.
For a time it seemed as if Mary would soon follow him, but her aunt, her white face tearless and stern, bade her live for her husband and her unborn child. These sacred motives eventually enabled her to rally, but her heart now centred its love on her husband with an intensity which made her friends tremble for her future. His visits had been few and brief, and she lived upon his letters. When they were delayed, her eyes had a hunted, agonized look which even her stoical aunt could not endure.
One day about midsummer she found the stricken wife, unconscious upon the floor with the daily paper in her clenched hand. When at last the physician had brought back feeble consciousness and again banished it by the essential opiate, Mrs. Hunter read the paragraph which, like a bolt, had struck down her niece. It was from an account of a battle in which the Confederates had been worsted and were being driven from a certain vantage point. "At this critical moment," ran the report, "Colonel Wallingford, with his thinned regiment, burst through the crowd of fugitives rushing down the road, and struck the pursuing enemy such a stinging blow as to check its advance. If the heroic colonel and his little band could only have been supported at this instant the position might have been regained. As it was, they were simply overwhelmed as a slight obstacle is swept away by a torrent. But few escaped; some were captured, while the colonel and the majority were struck down, trampled upon and fairly obliterated as the Northern horde of infantry and artillery swept forward all the more impetuously. The check was of very great advantage, however, for it gave our vastly outnumbered troops more time to rally in a stronger position."
This brief paragraph contained the substance of all that was ever learned of the young husband, and his mangled remains filled an unknown grave. His wife had received the blow direct, and she never rallied. Week after week she moaned and wept upon her bed when the physician permitted consciousness. Even in the deep sleep produced by opiates, she would shudder at the sound of Gilmore's guns as they thundered against Forts Sumter and Wagner. A faithful colored woman who had been a slave in the family from infancy watched unweariedly beside her, giving place only to the stern-visaged aunt, whose touch and words were gentle, but who had lost the power to disguise the bitterness of her heart. She tried to awaken maternal instincts in the wife, but in vain, for there are wounds of the spirit, like those of the body, which are fatal. All efforts to induce the widow to leave the city, already within reach of the Federal guns, were unavailing, and she was the more readily permitted to have her own way, because, in the physician's opinion, the attempt would prove fatal.
Meanwhile her time was drawing near. One August night she was dozing, and moaning in her sleep, when suddenly there was a strange, demoniac shriek through the air followed by an explosion which in the still night was terrifically loud. The invalid started up and looked wildly at her sable nurse, who was trembling like a leaf.
"O Lawd hab mercy, Missus," she exclaimed. "Dem Yankees shellin' de town."
Mrs. Hunter was instantly at the bedside. The faithful doctor came hurriedly of his own accord, and employed all his skill.
A few hours later Mrs. Hunter tried to say cheerily, "Come, Mary, here is a fine little girl for you to love and live for."
"Aunty," said the mother calmly, "I am dying. Let me see my child and kiss her. Then put her next my heart till it is cold."
Mrs. Hunter lifted her startled eyes to the physician, who sadly nodded his head in acquiescence. In a few moments more the broken heart found healing far beyond all human passion and strife.
With hot, yet tearless eyes, and a face that appeared to be chiselled from marble in its whiteness and rigidity, the aunt took up the child. Her tone revealed the indescribable intensity of her feelings as she said, "Thy name is Mara--bitterness."