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- The Battle Ground - 50/71 -
For a time they were all silent, each looking happily into the far-off room, and each seeing a distinct and different vision. To the Governor the peaceful hearth grew warm again--he saw his wife and children gathered there, and a few friendly neighbours with their long-lived, genial jokes upon their lips. To Virginia it was her own bridal over again with the fear of war gone from her, and the quiet happiness she wanted stretching out into the future. To Dan there was first his own honour to be won, and then only Betty and himself--Betty and himself under next year's mistletoe together.
"Well, well," sighed the Governor, and came back regretfully to the present. "It's a good place we're thinking of, and I reckon you're sorry enough you left it before you were obliged to. We all make mistakes, my boy, and the fortunate ones are those who live long enough to unmake them."
His warm smile shone out suddenly, and without waiting for a reply, he began to ask for news of Jack Powell and his comrades, all of whom he knew by name. "I was talking to Colonel Burwell about you the other day," he added presently, "and he gave you a fighting record that would do honour to the Major."
"He's a nice old chap," responded Dan, easily, for in the first years of the Army of Northern Virginia the question of rank presented itself only upon the parade ground, and beyond the borders of the camp a private had been known to condescend to his own Colonel. "A gentleman fights for his country as he pleases, a plebeian as he must," the Governor would have explained with a touch of his old oratory. "He's a nice old chap himself, but, by George, the discipline fits like a straight-jacket," pursued Dan, as he finished his coffee. "Why, here we are three miles below Winchester in a few threadbare tents, and they make as much fuss about our coming into town as if we were the Yankees themselves. Talk about Romney! Why, it's no colder at Romney than it was here last week, and yet Loring's men are living in huts like princes."
"Show me a volunteer and I'll show you a grumbler," put in the Governor, laughing.
"Oh, I'm not grumbling, I'm merely pointing out the facts," protested Dan; then he rose and stood holding Virginia's hand as he met her upward glance with his unflinching admiration. "Come again! Why, I should say so," he declared. "I'll come as long as I have a collar left, and then--well, then I'll pass the time of day with you over the hedge. Good-by, Colonel, remember I'm not a grumbler, I'm merely a man of facts."
The door closed after him and a moment later they heard his clear whistle in the street.
"The boy is like his father," said the Governor, thoughtfully, "like his father with the devil broken to harness. The Montjoy blood may be bad blood, but it makes big men, daughter." He sighed and drew his small figure to its full height.
Virginia was looking into the fire. "I hope he will come again," she returned softly, thinking of Betty.
But when he called again a week later Virginia did not see him. It was a cold starlit night, and the big yellow house, as he drew near it, glowed like a lamp amid the leafless trees. Beside the porch a number of cavalry horses were fastened to the pillars, and through the long windows there came the sound of laughter and of gay "good-bys."
The "fringe of the army," as Dan had once jeeringly called it, was merrily making ready for a raid.
As he listened he leaned nearer the window and watched, half enviously, the men he had once known. His old life had been a part of theirs and now, looking in from the outside, it seemed very far away--the poetry of war beside which the other was mere dull history in which no names were written. He thought of Prince Rupert, and of his own joy in the saddle, and the longing for the raid seized him like a heartache. Oh, to feel again the edge of the keen wind in his teeth and to hear the silver ring of the hoofs on the frozen road.
"Jine the cavalry, Jine the cavalry, If you want to have a good time jine the cavalry."
The words floated out to him, and he laughed aloud as if he had awakened from a comic dream.
That was the romance of war, but, after all, he was only the man who bore the musket.
THE ALTAR OF THE WAR GOD
With the opening spring Virginia went down to Richmond, where Jack Morson had taken rooms for her in the house of an invalid widow whose three sons were at the front. The town was filled to overflowing with refugees from the North and representatives from the South, and as the girl drove through the crowded streets, she exclaimed wonderingly at the festive air the houses wore.
"Why, the doors are all open," she observed. "It looks like one big family."
"That's about what it is," replied Jack. "The whole South is here and there's not a room to be had for love or money. Food is getting dear, too, they say, and the stranger within the gates has the best of everything." He stopped short and laughed from sheer surprise at Virginia's loveliness.
"Well, I'm glad I'm here, anyway," said the girl, pressing his arm, "and Mammy Riah's glad, too, though she won't confess it.--Aren't you just delighted to see Jack again, Mammy?"
The old negress grunted in her corner of the carriage. "I ain' seed no use in all dis yer fittin'," she responded. "W'at's de use er fittin' ef dar ain' sumpen' ter fit fer dat you ain' got a'ready?"
"That's it, Mammy," replied Jack, gayly, "we're fighting for freedom, and we haven't had it yet, you see."
"Is dat ar freedom vittles?" scornfully retorted the old woman. "Is it close? is it wood ter bu'n?"
"Oh, it will soon be here and you'll find out," said Virginia, cheerfully, and when a little later she settled herself in her pleasant rooms, she returned to her assurances.
"Aren't you glad you're here, Mammy, aren't you glad?" she insisted, with her arm about the old woman's neck.
"I'd des like ter git a good look at ole Miss agin," returned Mammy Riah, softening, "caze ef you en ole Miss ain' des like two peas in a pod, my eyes hev done crack wid de sight er you. Dar ain' been nuttin' so pretty es you sence de day I dressed ole Miss in 'er weddin' veil."
"You're right," exclaimed Jack, heartily. "But look at this, Virginia, here's a regular corn field at the back. Mrs. Minor tells me that vegetables have grown so scarce she has been obliged to turn her flower beds into garden patches." He threw open the window, and they went out upon the wide piazza which hung above the young corn rows.
During the next few weeks, when Jack was often in the city, an almost feverish gayety possessed the girl. In the war-time parties, where the women wore last year's dresses, and the wit served for refreshment, her gentle beauty became, for a little while, the fashion. The smooth bands of her hair were copied, the curve of her eyelashes was made the subject of some verses which _The Examiner_ printed and the English papers quoted later on. It was a bright and stately society that filled the capital that year; and on pleasant Sundays when Virginia walked from church, in her Leghorn bonnet and white ruffles flaring over crinoline as they neared the ground, men, who had bled on fields of honour for the famous beauties of the South, would drop their talk to follow her with warming eyes. Cities might fall and battles might be lost and won, but their joy in a beautiful woman would endure until a great age.
At last Jack Morson rode away to service, and the girl kept to the quiet house and worked on the little garments which the child would need in the summer. She was much alone, but the delicate widow, who had left her couch to care for the sick and wounded soldiers, would sometimes come and sit near her while she sewed.
"This is the happiest time--before the child comes," she said one day, and added, with the observant eye of mothers, "it will be a boy; there is a pink lining to the basket."
"Yes, it will be a boy," replied Virginia, wistfully.
"I have had six," pursued the woman, "six sons, and yet I am alone now. Three are dead, and three are in the army. I am always listening for the summons that means another grave." She clasped her thin hands and smiled the patient smile that chilled Virginia's blood.
"Couldn't you have kept one back?" asked the girl in a whisper.
The woman shook her head. Much brooding had darkened her mind, but there was a peculiar fervour in her face--an inward light that shone through her faded eyes.
"Not one--not one," she answered. "When the South called, I sent the first two, and when they fell, I sent the others--only the youngest I kept back at first--he is just seventeen. Then another call came and he begged so hard I let him go. No, I gave them all gladly--I have kept none back."
She lowered her eyes and sat smiling at her folded hands. Weakened in body and broken by many sorrows as she was, with few years before her and those filled with inevitable suffering, the fire of the South still burned in her veins, and she gave herself as ardently as she gave her sons. The pity of it touched Virginia suddenly, and in the midst of her own enthusiasm she felt the tears upon her lashes. Was not an army invincible, she asked, into which the women sent their dearest with a smile?
Through the warm spring weather she sat beside the long window that gave on the street, or walked slowly up and down among the vegetable rows in the garden. The growing of the crops became an unending interest to her and she watched them, day by day, until she learned to know each separate plant and to look for its unfolding. When the drought came she carried water from the hydrant, and assisted by Mammy Riah sprinkled the young tomatoes until they shot up like weeds. "It is so much better than war," she would say to Jack when he rode through the city. "Why will men kill one another when they might make things live instead?"
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