The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter VI. The Awakening.
The nobler nature within him stirred To life, at that woman's deed and word. -- Whittier.
Deeper emotions than he had felt before in all his life of shallow aimlessness stirred Harry Glen's bosom as he turned away from the door which Rachel Bond closed behind her with a decisive promptness that chorded well with her resolute composure during the interview.
This blow fell much more heavily than any that had preceded it, because it descended from the towering height to which he had raised his expectations of an ardent greeting from a loving girl, eagerly watching for his return.
As was to be expected from one of his nature, he forgot entirely his ruminations upon the advisability of discarding her, and the difficulty he experienced in devising a plan whereby this could be done easily and gracefully. He only thought of himself as the blameless victim of a woman's fickleness. The bitter things he had read and heard of the sex's inconstancy rose in his mind, as acrid bile sometimes ascends in one's throat.
"Here," he said to himself, "is an instance of feminine perfidy equal to anything that Byron ever sneered at. This girl, who was so proud to receive my attentions a little while ago, and who so gladly accepted me for her promised husband, now turns away at the slightest cloud of disapproval falling upon me. And to think, too, how I have given her all my heart, and lavished upon her a love as deep and true as ever a man gave a woman."
He was sure that he had been so badly used as to have sufficient grounds for turning misanthrope and woman-hater. Thin natures are like light wines and weak syrups in the readiness with which they sour.
The moon had risen as it did on that eventful betrothal-night. Again the stars had sunk from sight in the sea of silver splendor rolling from the round, full orb. Again the roadway down the hill lay like a web of fine linen, bleaching upon an emerald meadow. Again the clear waters of the Miami rippled in softly merry music over the white limestone of their shallow bed. Again the river, winding through the pleasant valley, framed in gently rising hill-sides, appeared as great silver ribbon, decorating a mass of heavily-embroidered green velvet. Again Sardis lay at the foot of the hills, its coarse and common place outlines softened into glorious symmetry by the moonlight's wondrous witchery.
He stopped for a moment and glanced at the old apple-tree, under which they had stood when
"Their spirits rushed together at the meeting of their lips."
But its raiment of odorous blossoms was gone. Instead, it bore a load of shapeless, sour, unripened fruit. Instead of the freshling springing grass, at its foot was now a coarse stubble. Instead of the delicately sweet breath of violets and fruit blooms scenting the evening air came the heavy, persistent perfume of tuberoses, and the mawkish scent of gaudy poppies.
"Bah, it smells like a funeral," he said, and he turned away and walked slowly down the hill. "And it is one. My heart and all my hopes lie buried at the foot of that old apple-tree."
It had been suggested that much of the sympathy we lavish upon martyrs is wanton waste, because to many minds, if not in fact to all, there is a positive pleasure in considering oneself a martyr. More absolute truth is contained in this than appears at the first blush. There are very few who do not roll under their tongues as a sweet morsel the belief that their superior goodness or generosity has brought them trouble and affliction from envious and wicked inferiors.
So the honey that mingled with the gall and hysop of Harry Glen's humiliation was the martyr feeling that his holiest affections had been ruthlessly trampled upon by a cold-hearted woman. His desultory readings of Byron furnished his imagination with all the woful suits and trappings necessary to trick himself out as a melancholy hero.
On his way home he had to pass the principal hotel in the place, the front of which on Summer evenings was the Sardis forum for the discussion of national politics and local gossip. As he approached quietly along the grassy walk he overheard his own name used. He stepped back into the shadow of a large maple and listened:
"Yes, I seen him as he got off the train," said Nels Hathaway, big, fat, lazy, and the most inveterate male gossip in the village. "And he is looking mighty well--yes, mighty well. I said to Tom Botkins, here, 'what a wonderful consitution Harry Glen has, to be sure, to stand the hardships of the field so well.'"
The sarcasm was so evident that Harry's blood seethed. The Tim Botkins alluded to had been dubbed by Basil Wurmset, the cynic and wit of the village, "apt appreciation's artful aid." Red-haired, soft eyed, moon-faced, round of belly and lymphatic of temperament, his principal occupation in life was to play fiddle in the Sardis string-band, and in the intervals of professional engagements at dances and picnics, to fill one of the large splint-bottomed chairs in front of the hotel with his pulpy form, and receive the smart or bitter sayings of the loungers there with a laught that began before any one else's, and lasted after the others had gotten through. His laugh alone was as good as that of all the rest of the crowd. It was not a hearty, resonant laugh, like that from the mouth of a strong-lunged, wholesome-natured man, which has the mellow roundness of a solo on a French horn. It was a slovenly, greasy, convictionless laugh, with uncertain tones and ill-defined edges. Its effect was due to its volume, readiness, and long continuance. Swelling up of the puffy form, and reddening ripples of the broad face heralded it, it began with a contagious cackle, it deepened into a flabby guffaw, and after all the others roundabout had finished their cachinnatory tribute it wound up with what was between a roar and the lazy drone of a bagpipe.
It now rewarded Nels Hathaway's irony, and the rest of the loungers joined in. Encouraged, Nels continued, as its last echoes died away:
"Yes, he's just as spry and pert as anybody. He seems to have recovered entirely from all his wounds; none of 'em have disfiggered him any, and his nerves have got over their terrible strain."
Tim ran promptly through all the notes in his diapason, and the rest joined in on the middle register.
"Well, I'm not at all surprised," said Mr. Oldunker, a bitter States' Rights Democrat, and the oracle of his party. "I told you how it'd be from the first. Harry Glen was one of them Wide-Awakes that marched around on pleasant evenings last Fall with oil-cloth capes and kerosene lamps. I told you that those fellows'd be no where when the war they were trying to bring on came. I'm not at all astonished that he showed himself lily-livered when he found the people that he was willing to rob of their property standing ready to fight for their homes and their slaves."
"Ready to shoot into a crowd of unsuspecting men, you mean," sneered Basil Wurmset, "and then break their own cursed necks when they saw a little cold steel coming their way."
Tim came in promptly with his risible symphony.
"Well, they didn't run away from any cold steel that Harry Glen displayed," sneered Oldunker.
Tim's laugh was allegro and crescendo at the first, and staccato at the close.
"You seem to forget that Capt. Bob Bennett was a Wide-Awake, too," retorted Wurmset, "though you might have remembered it from his having threatened to lick you for encouraging the boys to stone the lamps in the procession."
Tim cackled, gurgled and roared.
Nels Hathaway had kept silent as long as he could. He must put his oar into the conversational tide.
"I'd give six bits," he said, "to know how the meeting between him and Rachel Bond passes off. He's gone up to the house. The boys seen him, all dressed up his best. But his finery and his perfumed hankerchiefs won't count anything with her, I can tell you. She comes of fighting stock, if ever a woman did. The Bonds and Harringtons--her mother's people--are game breeds, both of 'em, and stand right on their record, every time. She'll have precious little traffic with a white-feathered fellow. I think she's been preparing for him the coldest shoulder any young feller in Sardis's got for many a long day."
There was nothing very funny in this speech, but a good deal of risible matter had accumulated in Tim's diaphragm during its delivery which he had to get rid of, and he did.
Harry had heard enough. While Tim's laugh yet resounded he walked away unnoticed, and taking a roundabout course gained his room. There he remained a week, hardly coming down to his meals. It was a terrible week for him, for every waking hour of it he walked through the valley of humiliation, and drank the bitter waters of shame. The joints of his hitherto impenetrable armor of self-conceit had been so pierced by the fine rapier thrusts of Rachel's scorn that it fell from him under the coarse pounding of the village loungers and left him naked and defenseless to their blows. Every nerve and sense ached with acute pain. He now felt all of his father's humiliation, all his mother's querulous sorrow, all his betrothed's anguish and abasement.
Thoughts of suicide, and of flying to some part of the country where he was entirely unknown, crowded upon him incessantly. But with that perversity that nature seemingly delights in, there had arisen in his heart since he had lost her, such a love for Rachel Bond as made life without her, or without her esteem even, seem valueless. To go into a strange part of the country and begin life anew would be to give her up forever, and this he could not do. It would be much preferable to die demonstrating that he was in some degree worthy of her. And a latent manly pride awakened and came to his assistance. He could not be the son of his proud, iron-willed father without some transmission of that sire's courageous qualities. He formed his resolution: He would stay in Sardis, and recover his honor where he had lost it.
At the end of the week he heard the drums beat, the cannon fire, and the people cheer. The company had come home, and was marching proudly down the street to a welcome as enthusiastic as if its members were bronzed veterans returning victoriously from a campaign that had lasted for years.
His mother told him the next day that the company had decided to re-enlist for three years or duration of the war, and that a meeting would be held that evening to carry the intention into execution. When the evening came Harry walked into the town hall, dressed as carefully as he had prepared himself for his visit with Rachel. He found the whole company assembled there, the members smoking, chatting with their friends, and recounting to admiring hearers the wonderful experiences they had gone through. The enlistment papers were being prepared, and some of the boys who had not been examined during the day were undergoing the surgeon's inspection in an adjoining room.
Harry was coldly received by everybody, and winced a little under this contrast with the attentions that all the others were given.
At last all the papers and rolls seemed to be signed, and there was a lull in the proceedings. Harry rose from his seat, as if to address the meeting. Instantly all was silence and attention.
"Comrades," he said, in a firm, even voice, "I have come to say to you that I feel that I made a mistake during our term of service, and I want to apologize to you for my conduct then. More than this, I want to redeem myself. I want to go with you again, and have another chance to---"
He was interrupted by an enthusiastic shout from them all.
"Hurrah! Bully for Lieutenant Glen! Of couse we'll give you another show. Come right along in your old place, and welcome."
There was but one dissenting voice. It was that of Jake Alspaugh:
"No, I'll be durned if we want ye along any more. We've no place for sich fellers with us. We only want them as has sand in their craws."
But the protest was overslaughed by the multitude of assents. At the first interval of silence Harry said:
"No, comrades, I'll not accept a commission again until I'm sure I can do it credit. I'll enlist in the company on the same footing as the rest of the boys, and share everything with you. Give the lieutenancy to our gallant comrade Alspaugh, who has richly earned it."
The suggestion was accepted with more enthusiastic cheering, and Harry, going up to the desk, filled out an enlistment blank, signed it and the company roll, and retired with the surgeon for the physical examination. This finished, he slipped out unnoticed and went to his home. On his way thither he saw Rachel as she passed a brilliantly lighted show-window. She was in traveling costume, and seemed to be going to the depot. She turned her head slightly and bowed a formal recognition.
As their eyes met he saw enough to make him believe that what he had done met her approval.