The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter I. A Declaration.
O, what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days; Then Heaven tries the Earth if it be in tune, And over it softly her warm ear lays." --Lowell.
Of all human teachers they were the grandest who gave us the New Testament, and made it a textbook for Man in every age. Transcendent benefactors of the race, they opened in it a never-failing well-spring of the sweet waters of Consolation and Hope, which have flowed over, fertilized, and made blossom as a rose the twenty-century wide desert of the ills of human existence.
But they were not poets, as most of the authors of the Old Testament were.
They were too much in earnest in their great work of carrying the glad evangel of Redemption to all the earth--they so burned with eagerness to pour their joyful tidings into every ear, that they recked little of the form in which the saving intelligence was conveyed.
Had they been poets would they have conceived Heaven as a place with foundations of jasper, sapphires and emeralds, gates of pearl, and streets of burnished gold that shone like glass? Never.
That showed them to be practical men, of a Semitic cast of mind, who addressed hearers that agreed with them in regarding gold and precious stones as the finest things of which the heart could dream.
Had they been such lovers of God's handiwork in Nature as the Greek religious teachers--who were also poets--they would have painted us a Heaven vaulted by the breath of opening flowers, and made musical by the sweet songs of birds in the first rapture of finding their young mates.
In other words they would have given us a picture of earth on a perfect June day.
On the afternoon of such a day as this Rachel Bond sat beneath an apple-tree at the crest of a moderate hill, and looked dreamily away to where, beyond the village of Sardis at the foot of the hill, the Miami River marked the beautiful valley like a silver ribbon carelessly flung upon a web of green velvet. Rather she seemed to be looking there, for the light that usually shown outward in those luminous eyes was turned inward. The little volume of poems had dropped unheeded from the white hand. It had done its office: the passion of its lines had keyed her thoughts to a harmony that suffused her whole being, until all seemed as naturally a part of the glorious day as the fleecy clouds in the sapphire sky, the cheerful hum of the bees, and the apple-blossoms' luxurious scent.
Her love--and, quite as much, her girlish ambition--had been crowned with violets and bays some weeks before, when the fever-heat of patriotism seemed to bring another passion in Harry Glen's bosom to the eruptive point, and there came the long-waited-for avowal of his love, which was made on the evening before his company departed to respond to the call for troops which followed the fall of Fort Sumter.
Does it seem harsh to say that she had sought to bring about this denouement? Rather, it seems that her efforts were commendable. She was a young woman of marriageable age. She believed her her mission in life was marriage to some man who would make her a good husband, and whom she would in turn love, honor, and strive to make happy. Harry Glen's family was the equal of her's in social station, and a little above it in wealth. to this he added educational and personal advantages that made him the most desirable match in Sardis. Starting with the premises given above, her first conclusion was the natural one that she should marry the best man available, and the next that that man was Harry Glen.
Her efforts had been bounded by the strictest code of maidenly ethics, and so artistically developed that the only persons who penetrated their skillful veiling, and detected her as a "designing creature," were two or three maiden friends, whose maneuvers toward the same objective were brought to naught by her success.
It must be admitted that refining causists may find room for censure in this making Ambition the advance guard to spy out the ground that Love is to occupy. But, after all, is there not a great deal of mistake about the way that true love begins? If we had the data before us we should be pained by the enlightenment that, in the vast majority of cases the regard of young people for each other is fixed in the first instance by motives that will bear quite as little scrutiny as Miss Rachel Bond's.
We can afford to be careless how the germ of love is planted. The main thing is how it is watered and tended, and brought to a lasting and beautiful growth. Rachel's ambition gratified, there had been a steady rise toward flood in the tide of her affections. She was not long in growing to love Harry with all the intensity of a really ardent nature.
After the meeting at which Harry had signed the recruiting roll, he had taken her home up the long, sloping hill, through moonlight as soft, as inspiring, as glorifying as that which had melted even the frosty Goddess of Maidenhood, so that she stooped from her heavenly unapproachableness, and kissed the handsome Endymion as he slept.
Though little and that commonplace was said as they walked, subtle womanly instinct prepared Rachel's mind for what was coming, and her grasp upon Harry's arm assumed a new feeling that hurried him on to the crisis.
They stopped beneath the old apple-tree, at the crest of the hill, and in front of the house. Its gnarled and twisted limbs had been but freshly clothed in a suit of fragrant green leaves.
The ruddy bonfires, lighted for the war-meeting, still burned in the village below. The hum of supplementary speeches to the excited crowds that still lingered about came to their ears, mingled with cheers from throat rapidly growing hoarse, and the throb and wail of fife and drum. Then, uplifted on the voices of hundreds who sang it as only men, and men swayed by powerful emotions can, rose the ever-glorious "Star-Spangled Banner," loftiest and most inspiring of national hymns. Through its long, forceful measures, which have the sweep and ring of marching battalions, swung the singers, with a passionate earnestness that made every note and word glow with meaning. The swelling paean told of the heroism and sacrifice with which the foundations of the Nation were laid, of the glory to which the land had risen, and then its mood changing to one of direness and wrath, it foretold the just punishment of those who broke the peace of a happy land.
The mood of the Sardis people was that patriotic exaltation which reigned in every city and village of the North on that memorable night of April, 1861.
But Rachel and Harry had left far behind them this passion of the multitude, which had set their own to throbbing, even as the roar of a cannon will waken the vibrations of harp-strings. Around where they stood was the peace of the night and sleep. The perfume of violets and hyacinths, and of myriads of opening buds seemed shed by the moon with her silvery rays through the soft, dewy air; a few nocturnal insects droned hither and thither, and "drowsy tinklings lulled the distant folds."
As their steps were arrested Rachel released her grasp from Harry's arm, but he caught her hand before it fell to her side, and held it fast. She turned her face frankly toward him, and he looked down with anxious eyes upon the broad white forehead, framed in silken black hair, upon great eyes, flaming with a meaning that he feared to interpret, upon the eloquent lines about the mobile, sensitive mouth, all now lifted into almost supernatural beauty by the moonlight's spiritualizing magic.
What he said he could never afterward recall. His first memory was that of a pause in his speech, when he saw the ripe, red lips turned toward him with a gesture of the proud head that was both an assent and invitation. The kiss that he pressed there thrilled him with the intoxication of unexpectedly rewarded love, and Rachel with the gladness of triumph.
What they afterward said was as incoherent as the conversations of those rapturous moments ever are.
"You know we leave in the morning?" he said, when at last it became necessary for him to go.
"Yes," she answered calmly. "And perhaps it is better that it should be so--that we be apart for a little while to consider this new-found happiness and understand it. I shall be sustained with the thought that in giving you to the country I have given more than any one else. I know that you will do something that will make me still prouder of you, and my presentiments, which never fail me, assure me that you will return to me safely."
His face showed a little disappointment with the answer.
She reached above her head, and breaking off a bud handed it to him, saying in the words of Juliet:
"Sweet, good-night: This bud of love, by Summer's ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower, when next we meet."
He kissed the bud, and put it in his bosom; kissed her again passionately, and descended the hill to prepare for his departure in the morning.
She was with the rest of the village at the depot to bid the company good-bye, and was amazed to find how far the process of developing the bud into the flower had gone in her heart since parting with her lover. Her previous partiality and admiration for him appeared now very tame and colorless, beside the emotions that stirred her at the sight of him marching with erect grace at the head of his company. But while all about her were tears and sobs, and modest girls revealing unsuspecting attachments in the agitation of parting, her eyes were undimmed. She was proud and serene, a heightening of the color in her cheeks being the only sign of unusual feeling. Harry came to her for a moment, held her hand tightly in his, took the bud from his bosom, touched it significantly with his lips, and sprang upon the train which was beginning to move away.
The days that followed were halcyon for her. While the other women of Sardis, whose loved ones were gone, were bewailing the dangers they would encounter, her proud spirit only contemplated the chances that Harry would have for winning fame. Battles meant bright laurels for him in which she would have a rightful share.
Her mental food became the poetry of love, chivalry and glorious war. The lyric had a vivid personal interest. Tales of romantic daring and achievement were suggestions of possibilities in Harry's career. Her waking hours were mainly spent, book in hand, under the old apple-tree that daily grew dearer to her.
The exalted mood in which we found her was broken in upon by the sound of some one shutting the gate below very emphatically. Looking down she saw her father approaching with such visible signs in face and demeanor of strong excitement that she arose and went to him.
"Why, father, what can be the matter?" she said, stopping in front of him, with the open book pressed to her breast.
"Matter enough, I'm afraid, Rachel. There's been a battle near a place called Rich Mountain, in Western Virginia, and Harry Glen's---"
"O, father," she said, growing very white, "Harry's killed."
"No; not killed." The old man's lip curled with scorn. "It's worse. He seems to've suddenly discovered he wasn't prepared to die; he didn't want to rush all at once into the presence of his Maker. Mebbe he didn't think it'd be good manners. You know he was always stronger on etikwet than anything else. In short, he's showed the white feather. A dozen or more letters have come from the boys telling all about it, and the town's talking of nothing else. There's one of the letters. It's from Jake Alspaugh, who quite working for me to enlist. Read it yourself."
The old gentleman threw the letter upon the grass, and strode on angrily into the house. Rachel smoothed out the crumpled sheet, and read with a growing sickness at heart:
Mr. Bond--Deer Sur:
i taik my pen in hand to lett you no that with the exception of an occashunal tuch of roomaticks, an boonions all over my fete from hard marchin, ime all rite, an i hope you ar injoin the saim blessin. Weve jest had an awful big fite, and the way we warmed it to the secshers jest beat the jews. i doant expect theyve stopt runnin yit. All the Sardis boys done bully except Lieutenant Harry Glen. The smell of burnt powder seamed to onsettle his narves. He tuk powerful sick all at wunst, jest as the trail was gittin rather fresh, and he lay groanin wen the rest of the company marched off into the fite. He doant find the klime-it here as healthy as it is in Sardis. i 'stinguished myself and have bin promoted, and ive got a Rebel gun for you with a bore big enuff to put a walnut in, and it'll jest nock your hole darned shoulder off every time you shoot it. No more yours til deth send me some finecut tobacker for heavens sake.
Rachel tore the letter into a thousand fragments, and flung the volume of poems into the ditch below. She hastened to her room, and no one saw her again until the next morning, when she came down dressed in somber black, her face pale, and her colorless lips tightly compressed.