Elsie's Womanhood by Martha Finley
"O war!--what, what art thou? At once the proof and scourge of man's fallen state." --HANNAH MORE.
Richard Allison had gone to Lansdale for his bride a fortnight ago; they were now taking their bridal trip and expected to reach Elmgrove a day or two before the wedding of May and Harry Duncan. The latter would bring Aunt Wealthy with him, and leave her for a short visit among her friends.
Sophie's mother and sister-in-law, Mrs. Carrington, and Lucy Ross, came earlier, arriving only two days after our party from Europe.
There was great pleasure, yet mingled with profound sadness, in the meeting of these old and dear friends. Lucy and her mother were in deep mourning, and in Mrs. Carrington's countenance Christian resignation blended with heart-breaking sorrow; grief and anxiety had done the work of a score of years, silvering her hair and ploughing deep furrows in the face that five years ago was still fresh and fair.
Mr. Travilla had taken wife and children for a morning drive, and on their return, Adelaide, meeting them at the door, said to her niece, "They have come, they are in Mrs. Carrington's dressing-room; and she begs that you will go and meet her there. She has always loved you so dearly, and I know is longing for your sympathy."
Elsie, waiting only to lay aside hat and gloves, hastened to grant the request of the gentle lady for whom she cherished almost a daughter's affection.
She found her alone. They met silently, clasping each other in a long, tearful embrace, Mrs. Carrington's sobs for many minutes the only sound that broke the stillness of the room.
"I have lost all," she said at length, as they released each other and sat down side by side upon a sofa; "all: husband, sons, home----"
Sobs choked her utterance, and Lucy coming hastily in at the open door of the adjoining room, dropped on her knees by her mother's side, and taking one thin, pale hand in hers, said tearfully, "Not all, dear mamma; you have me, and Phil, and the children."
"Me too, mother dear, and your Harry's children," added Sophie, who had followed her sister, and now knelt with her.
"Yes, yes, dear daughters, I was wrong: I have lost much, but have many blessings still left, your love not the least; and my grandchildren are scarcely less dear than my own. Lucy, dear, here is Elsie."
"Yes, our own dear, darling Elsie, scarcely changed at all!" Lucy cried, springing up to greet her friend with a warm embrace.
A long talk followed, Mrs. Carrington and Sophie giving their experiences of the war and its results, to which the others listened with deep interest.
"Thank God it is over at last!" concluded the elder lady; "and oh, may He, in His great goodness and mercy, spare us a repetition of it. Oh, the untold horrors of civil war--strife among brethren who should know nothing but love for each other--none can imagine but those who have passed through them! There was fault on both sides, as there always is when people quarrel. And what has been gained? Immense loss of property, and of far more precious lives, an exchange of ease and luxury for a hard struggle with poverty."
"But it is over, dear mother, and the North will help the South to recuperate," said Lucy. "Phil says so, and I've heard it from others too; just as soon as the struggle ended, people were saying, 'Now they have given up, the Union is safe, and we're sorry for them and will do all we can to help them; for they are our own people.'"
"Yes, I have been most agreeably surprised at the kind feeling here," her mother answered; "nobody has had a hard word to say of us, so far as I have been able to learn; and I have seen nothing like exultation over a fallen foe; but on the contrary there seems a desire to lend us a helping hand and set us on our feet again."
"Indeed, mother, I assure you that is so," said Sophie.
"And all through the war," added Lucy, "there was but little hard feeling towards the people of the South; 'deceived and betrayed by their leaders, they are more to be pitied than blamed,' was the opinion commonly expressed by those who stood by the government."
"And papa says there will be no confiscation of property," Sophie said, "unless it may be merely that of the leaders; and that he will help us to restore Ashlands to what it was: so you will have your own home again, mother."
"How generous! I can never repay the obligation," Mrs. Carrington said, in a choking voice.
"But you need not feel overburdened by it, dear mother. It is for Herbert, you know, his own grand son."
"And mine! Ah, this news fills me with joy and gratitude."
"Yes, I feel papa's kindness very much," Sophie said, "and hope my son will never give him cause to regret it."
Elsie rose. "I hear my baby crying, and know that he wants his mother. Dear Mrs. Carrington, you are looking very weary; and it is more than an hour yet to dinner-time; will you not lie down and rest?"
"Yes, and afterwards you must show me your children. I want to see them."
"Thank you; I shall do so with much pleasure," the young mother answered smilingly, as she hastened from the room; for Baby Harold's cries were growing importunate.
This was the regular hour for Eddie and Vi to take a nap, and Elsie found them lying quietly in their little bed, while the screaming babe stoutly resisted the united efforts of his elder sister and Aunt Chloe to pacify and amuse him.
"Give him to me, mammy," she said, seating herself by the open window; "it is his mother he wants."
Little Elsie, ever concerned for her mother's happiness, studied the dear face intently for a moment, and seeing the traces of tears, drew near and, putting an arm about her neck, "Mamma," she said tenderly, "dear mamma, what troubles you? May I know about it?"
Mrs. Travilla explained briefly, telling of Mrs. Carrington's trials, and of those of other old friends and neighbors in the South.
"Mamma," said the child, with eyes filled to overflowing, "I am very sorry for them all, and for you. Mamma, it is like Jesus to shed tears for other people's troubles: but, mamma, I think it is too much; there are so many, it makes you sorry all the time, and I can't bear it."
The mother's only answer was a silent caress, and the child went on: "I hope nobody else will come with such sad stories to make you cry. Is there anybody else to do it, mamma?"
"I think not, dear; there are only Aunt Wealthy, who has not lost any near friend lately, and--Why there she is now! the dear old soul!" she broke off joyously, for at that instant a carriage, which she had been watching coming up the drive, drew up before the door, and a young gentleman and a little old lady alighted.
Aunt Chloe took the babe, and Elsie hastened down to meet her aunt, her little daughter following.
To the child's great relief it was an altogether joyous greeting this time; both Miss Stanhope, and her escort, Harry Duncan, were looking very happy, which caused her to regard them with much satisfaction, and the kisses asked of her were given very readily.
"Were you expecting us to-day, Mrs. Allison?" Harry asked, turning to Adelaide.
"Yes; I received your telegram."
"Business hurried us off two days sooner than we expected," said Miss Stanhope. "I would have written, but was so very busy with papers and painterers doing the house all up new; and putting down new curtains, and tacking up new carpets, till, Elsie, the old place would hardly know you."
The old lady's heart was evidently full to overflowing, with happiness at the prospect of seeing May installed as future mistress in the pretty cottage at Lansdale.
Yet there was no lack of sympathy in the sorrows or joys of others; she wept with them all over their losses past and prospective; for she, too, saw that Harold must soon pass away from earth, and while rejoicing with him, when she learned how gladly he would obey the summons, her heart yet bled for those to whom he was so dear.
Richard and his bride arrived in due season. The latter had lost no near relative by the war, and--to wee Elsie's delight--the meeting between "Aunt Lottie and mamma," seemed one of unalloyed pleasure.
Unlike those of her older sisters, May's was a private wedding--none but the family and a few near relatives and connections being present. Though deeply attached to Harry, and trusting him fully, much of sadness was unavoidably mingled with her happiness as she prepared for her bridal. It could not be otherwise, as she thought of Fred in his soldier grave, Harold soon to follow, and Sophie--whose had been the last wedding in the paternal home, and so gay and joyous a one--now in her widow's weeds and well-nigh broken-hearted.
"Mine will not be a gay bridal," May had said, in arranging her plans; "and I will just wear my traveling suit."
But Harold objected. "No, no, May; I want to see you dressed as Rose and Sophie were--in white, with veil and orange blossoms. Why shouldn't your beauty be set off to the best advantage as well as theirs, even though only the eyes of those who love you will look upon it?"
And so it was; for Harold's wishes were sacred now.
They were married in the morning; and after a sumptuous breakfast the bridal attire was exchanged for the traveling suit, and the new-made husband and wife set out upon their wedding trip. It was very sad for poor May to leave, not only childhood's home, parents, and brothers and sisters whose lease of life seemed as likely to be long as her own, but to part from the dying one to whom she was most tenderly attached.
But Harry promised to bring her back; and she was to be immediately summoned, in case of any marked unfavorable change in the invalid.
Then, too, Harold was so serenely happy in the prospect before him, and talked so constantly of it as only going home a little while before the rest, and of how at length all would be reunited in that better land, to spend together an eternity of bliss, that it had robbed death of half its gloom and terror.
It was Harold's earnest desire that all his dear ones should be as gay and happy as though he were in health; he would not willingly cast a shadow over the pathway of any of them, for a day; especially the newly married, whose honeymoon, he said, ought to be a very bright spot for them to look back upon in all after years.
So Lottie felt it right to let her heart swell with gladness in the new love that crowned her life; and the time passed cheerfully and pleasantly to the guests at Elmgrove.
Mrs. Ross and her mother, and Miss Stanhope, remained for a fortnight after the wedding. All were made to feel themselves quite at home in both houses; the two families were much like one, and usually spent their evenings together, in delightful social intercourse; Harold in their midst on his couch, or reclining in an easy chair, an interested listener to the talk and occasionally joining in it.
One evening when they were thus gathered about him, Mrs. Carrington, looking compassionately upon the pale, patient face, remarked, "You suffer a great deal, Captain Allison?"
"Yes, a good deal," he answered cheerfully, "but not more than I can easily endure, remembering that it is 'whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.'"
"You take a very Christian view of it; but do your sufferings arouse no bitterness of feeling towards the South?"
"Oh, no!" he answered, earnestly, "why should they? The people of the South were not responsible for what was done at Andersonville; perhaps the Confederate government was so only in a measure; and Wirtz was a foreigner. Besides, there was a great deal endured by rebel prisoners in some of our Northern prisons. Father," turning to the elder Mr. Allison, "please tell Mrs. Carrington about your visit to Elmira."
The others had been chatting among themselves, but all paused to listen as Mr. Allison began his narrative.
"We learned that a young relative of my wife was confined there, and ill. I went at once to see what could be done for him, and finding the prison in charge of a gentleman who was under much obligation to me, gained admittance without much difficulty. It was a wretched place, and the prisoners were but poorly fed; which was far more inexcusable here than at the South, where food was scarce in their own army and among the people."
"I know that to have been the case," said Mrs. Carrington. "The farmers were not allowed to make use of their grain for their own families, till a certain proportion had been taken for the army; and there were families among us who did not taste meat for a year."
"Yes; the war has been hard for us, but far harder upon them. I found our young friend in a very weak state. I succeeded in getting permission to remove him to more comfortable quarters, and did so; but he lived scarcely two days after."
"How very sad," remarked Elsie, with emotion. "Oh, what a terrible thing is war!"
"Especially civil war," said the elder Mrs. Allison; "strife among brethren; its fruits are bitter, heart-rending."
"And being all one people there was equal bravery, talent, and determination on both sides; which made the struggle a very desperate one," said Harold.
"And the military tic-tacs were the same," added Aunt Wealthy; "and then speaking the same language, and looking so much alike, foes were sometimes mistaken for friends, and versa-vice."
"A brother-in-law of Louise's was confined in Fort Delaware for some months," said Adelaide, addressing her brother, "and wrote to me for some articles of clothing he needed badly, adding, 'If you could send me something to eat, it would be most thankfully received.' I sent twice, but neither package ever reached him."
"Too bad! too bad!" said Mr. Dinsmore; "yet very likely it was through no fault of the government."
"No; I am satisfied that individuals--selfish, unscrupulous men of whom there were far too many on both sides, were the real culprits, and that the government intended every prisoner should be made as comfortable as circumstances would permit," said Mr. Allison. "But there are men who made large fortunes by swindling the government and robbing our brave soldiers; men unworthy of the name! who would sell their own souls for gold!"
"You are right, sir!" said Mr. Travilla; "one who could take advantage of the necessities of his own country, to enrich himself by robbing her, is not worthy to be called a man."
"And I esteem an officer who could rob the soldiers very little better," said Daisy. "Again and again canned fruits and other niceties, sent by ladies for the comfort of the sick and wounded men, were appropriated by officers who did not need them, and knew they were not given to them."
"And the conclusion of the whole matter," said Harold, with his placid, patient smile, "is that there were on both sides men who, loving and seeking their own interest above country, personal honor, or anything else, would bring disgrace upon any cause. No, Mrs. Carrington, I have no bitter feeling towards the South. My heart aches for her people in their bereavements, their losses, and all the difficulties of reconstruction and adapting themselves to the new order of things which is the result of the war."
Elsie had several times expressed to her husband and father a deep anxiety to hear from Viamede, and had written to both Mr. Mason and Spriggs, inquiring about the people and the condition of the estate, yet with but slight hope of reply, as all communication with the place had been cut off for years, and it was more than likely that one or both had been driven, or drifted away from his post during the progress of the war.
She was therefore greatly pleased when, on entering the parlor one morning on her return from a drive, she found Mr. Mason there waiting for an interview.
"You are not direct from Viamede!" she asked, when they had exchanged a cordial greeting.
"No, Mrs. Travilla," he answered; "I stayed as long as I could, but not being willing to go into the army, was finally compelled to leave. That was more than two years ago. But I received a letter from Spriggs only yesterday, written from the estate. He was in the Confederate service; and when the struggle was over, went back to Viamede.
"He says it was not visited by either army, and has suffered only from neglect. The old house-servants are still there--Aunt Phillis, Aunt Sally, and the rest; many of the field hands, too, occupying their old quarters, but looking ragged and forlorn enough.
"They are willing to work for wages, and Spriggs begs of me to find out where you are, and tell you that, if you wish it and will furnish the means, he will hire them, and do the best he can to restore the place and make it profitable to you.
"I saw your name in the list of arrivals by a late steamer, and with some little painstaking, at length learned where you were."
"I am very glad you have come, Mr. Mason; and I am inclined to think well of Mr. Spriggs' proposition," Elsie answered; "but I must consult my--Ah, here they are!" as the husband and father entered the room together.
The matter was under discussion for the next half-hour, when it was decided to accept Mr. Spriggs' proposal, for the present at least.
Elsie then said to Mr. Mason that she hoped he was not engaged, as she would be glad to have him return to Viamede and resume his former duties there.
He colored and laughed, as he answered, "I am engaged, Mrs. Travilla, though not in the sense you mean, and shall be glad to comply with your wish, if you do not object to my taking a wife with me."
"Not at all," she answered, smiling; "the Bible says, 'it is not good for man to be alone,' and I hope you will be all the happier and more useful in the Master's service for having a better-half with you. A suite of rooms shall be placed at your service and your wants attended to as formerly."
Mr. Mason returned warm thanks for her kindness, and took his departure, evidently well-pleased with the result of his call.