Chapter Twenty-Fourth.
 
    "Is't death to fall for Freedom's right?
     He's dead alone who lacks her light."
                              --CAMPBELL.

Wee Elsie was convalescing rapidly, and the hearts so wrung with anguish at sight of her sufferings and the fear of losing her, relieved from that, were again filled with the intense anxiety for their country, which for a short space had been half forgotten in the severity of the trial apparently so close at hand.

Mails from America came irregularly; now and then letters and papers from Philadelphia, New York, and other parts of the North; very seldom anything from the South.

What was going on in their homes? what were dear relatives and friends doing and enduring? were questions they were often asking of themselves or each other--questions answered by a sigh only, or a shake of the head. The suspense was hard to bear; but who of all Americans, at home or abroad, who loved their native land, were not suffering at this time from anxiety and suspense?

"A vessel came in last night, which I hope has a mail for us," remarked Mr. Dinsmore as they sat down to the breakfast table one morning early in November. "I have sent Uncle Joe to find out; and bring it, if there."

"Ah, if it should bring the glorious news that this dreadful war is over, and all our dear ones safe!" sighed Rose.

"Ah, no hope of that," returned her husband. "I think all are well-nigh convinced now that it will last for years: the enlistments now, you remember, are for three years or the war."

Uncle Joe's errand was not done very speedily, and on his return he found the family collected in the drawing-room.

"Good luck dis time, massa," he said, addressing Mr. Dinsmore, as he handed him the mail bag, "lots ob papahs an' lettahs."

Eagerly the others gathered about the head of the household. Rose and Elsie, pale and trembling with excitement and apprehension, Mr. Travilla, grave and quiet, yet inwardly impatient of a moment's delay.

It was just the same with Mr. Dinsmore; in a trice he had unlocked the bag and emptied its contents--magazines, papers, letters--upon a table.

Rose's eye fell upon a letter, deeply edged with black, which bore her name and address in May's handwriting. She snatched it up with a sharp cry, and sank, half-fainting, into a chair.

Her husband and Elsie were instantly at her side. "Dear wife, my love, my darling! this is terrible; but the Lord will sustain you."

"Mamma, dearest mamma; oh that I could comfort you!"

Mr. Travilla brought a glass of water.

"Thank you; I am better now; I can bear it," she murmured faintly, laying her head on her husband's shoulder. "Open--read--tell me."

Elsie, in compliance with the sign from her father, opened the envelope and handed him the letter.

Glancing over it, he read in low, moved tones.

"Rose, Rose, how shall I tell it? Freddie is dead, and Ritchie sorely wounded--both in that dreadful, dreadful battle of Ball's Bluff; both shot while trying to swim the river. Freddie killed instantly by a bullet in his brain, but Ritchie swam to shore, dragging Fred's body with him; then fainted from fatigue, pain, and loss of blood.

"Mamma is heart-broken--indeed we all are--and papa seems to have suddenly grown many years older. Oh, we don't know how to bear it! and yet we are proud of our brave boys. Edward went on at once, when the sad news reached us; brought Ritchie home to be nursed, and--and Freddie's body to be buried. Oh! what a heart-breaking scene it was when they arrived!

"Harold, poor Harold, couldn't come home; they wouldn't give him a furlough even for a day. Edward went, the day after the funeral, and enlisted, and Ritchie will go back as soon as his wound heals. He says that while our men stood crowded together on the river-bank, below the bluff, where they could neither fight nor retreat, and the enemy were pouring their shot into them from the heights, Fred came to him, and grasping his hand said, 'Dear Dick, it's not likely either of us will come out of this alive; but if you do and I don't, tell mother and the rest not to grieve; for I know in whom I have believed.' Remember, dear Rose, this sweet message is for you as well as for us.

Your loving sister,
May Allison."

Rose, who had been clinging about her husband's neck and hiding her face on his shoulder, vainly striving to suppress her sobs during the reading, now burst into a fit of hysterical weeping.

"Oh Freddie, Freddie, my little brother! my darling brother, how can I bear to think I shall never, never see you again in this world! Oh Horace, he was always so bright and sweet, the very sunshine of the house."

"Yes, dearest, but remember his dying message; think of his perfect happiness now. He is free from all sin and sorrow, done with the weary marchings and fightings, the hunger and thirst, cold and heat and fatigue of war; no longer in danger from shot or bursting shell, or of lying wounded and suffering on the battle-field, or languishing in hospital or prison."

"Yes," she sighed, "I should rather mourn for poor wounded Ritchie, for Harold and Edward, still exposed to the horrors of war. Oh, when will it end?--this dreadful, dreadful war!"

All were weeping; for all had known and loved the bright, frank, noble-hearted, genial young man.

But Rose presently became more composed, and Mr. Travilla proceeded with the distribution of the remaining letters.

"From Adelaide, doubtless, and I presume containing the same sad news," Mr. Dinsmore said, breaking the seal of another black edged epistle, directed to him. "Yes, and more," he added, with a groan, as he ran his eye down the page. "Dick Percival was killed in a skirmish last May; and Enna is a widow. Poor fellow, I fear he was ill prepared to go."

Mr. Travilla had taken up a newspaper. "Here is an account of that Ball's Bluff affair, which seems to have been very badly managed on the part of the Federals. Shall I read it aloud?"

"Oh, yes, yes, if you please," sobbed Rose; "let us know all."

"Badly managed, indeed," was Mr. Dinsmore's comment at the conclusion, "it looks very like the work of treason."

"And my two dear brothers were part of the dreadful sacrifice," moaned Rose.

"But oh! how brave, noble, and unselfish they, and many others, showed themselves in that awful hour," said Elsie amid her sobs and tears. "Dear mamma, doesn't that comfort you a little?"

"Yes, dear child. Freddie's sweet message still more, Oh, I need not mourn for him!"