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- The Battle Ground - 60/71 -
landscape. Then the distance closed over it, the sand settled in the road, and the blank purple hills crowded against the sky.
"THE PLACE THEREOF"
In the full beams of the sun the wagon turned into the drive between the lilacs and drew up before the Doric columns. Mr. Bill and the two old ladies came out upon the portico, and the Governor was lifted down by Uncle Shadrach and Hosea and laid upon the high tester bed in the room behind the parlour.
As Betty entered the hall, the familiar sights of every day struck her eyes with the smart of a physical blow. The excitement of the shock had passed from her; there was no longer need to tighten the nervous strain, and henceforth she must face her grief where the struggle is always hardest--in the place where each trivial object is attended by pleasant memories. While there was something for her hands to do--or the danger of delay in the long watch upon the road--it had not been so hard to brace her strength against necessity, but here--what was there left that she must bring herself to endure? The torturing round of daily things, the quiet house in which to cherish new regrets, and outside the autumn sunshine on the long white turnpike. The old waiting grown sadder, was begun again; she must put out her hands to take up life where it had stopped, go up and down the shining staircase and through the unchanged rooms, while her ears were always straining for the sound of the cannon, or the beat of a horse's hoofs upon the road.
The brick wall around the little graveyard was torn down in one corner, and, while the afternoon sun slanted between the aspens, the Governor was laid away in the open grave beneath rank periwinkle. There was no minister to read the service, but as the clods of earth fell on the coffin, Mrs. Ambler opened her prayer book and Betty, kneeling upon the ground, heard the low words with her eyes on the distant mountains. Overhead the aspens stirred beneath a passing breeze, and a few withered leaves drifted slowly down. Aunt Lydia wept softly, and the servants broke into a subdued wailing, but Mrs. Ambler's gentle voice did not falter.
"He, cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay."
She read on quietly in the midst of the weeping slaves, who had closed about her. Then, at the last words, her hands dropped to her sides, and she drew back while Uncle Shadrach shovelled in the clay.
"It is but a span," she repeated, looking out into the sunshine, with a light that was almost unearthly upon her face.
"Come away, mamma," said Betty, holding out her arms; and when the last spray of life-everlasting was placed upon the finished mound, they went out by the hollow in the wall, turning from time to time to look back at the gray aspens. Down the little hill, through the orchard, and across the meadows filled with waving golden-rod, the procession of white and black filed slowly homeward. When the lawn was reached each went to his accustomed task, and Aunt Lydia to her garden.
An hour later the Major rode over in response to a message which had just reached him.
"I was in town all the morning," he explained in a trembling voice, "and I didn't get the news until a half hour ago. The saddest day of my life, madam, is the one upon which I learn that I have outlived him."
"He loved you, Major," said Mrs. Ambler, meeting his swimming eyes.
"Loved me!" repeated the old man, quivering in his chair, "I tell you, madam, I would rather have been Peyton Ambler's friend than President of the Confederacy! Do you remember the time he gave me his last keg of brandy and went without for a month?"
She nodded, smiling, and the Major, with red eyes and shaking hands, wandered into endless reminiscences of the long friendship. To Betty these trivial anecdotes were only a fresh torture, but Mrs. Ambler followed them eagerly, comparing her recollections with the Major's, and repeating in a low voice to herself characteristic stories which she had not heard before.
"I remember that--we had been married six months then," she would say, with the unearthly light upon her face. "It is almost like living again to hear you, Major."
"Well, madam, life is a sad affair, but it is the best we've got," responded the old gentleman, gravely.
"He loved it," returned Mrs. Ambler, and as the Major rose to go, she followed him into the hall and inquired if Mrs. Lightfoot had been successful with her weaving. "She told me that she intended to have her old looms set up again," she added, "and I think that I shall follow her example. Between us we might clothe a regiment of soldiers."
"She has had the servants brushing off the cobwebs for a week," replied the Major, "and to-day I actually found Car'line at a spinning wheel on the back flagstones. There's not the faintest doubt in my mind that if Molly had been placed in the Commissary department our soldiers would be living to-day on the fat of the land. She has knitted thirty pairs of socks since spring. Good-by, my dear lady, good-by, and may God sustain you in your double affliction."
He crossed the portico, bowed as he descended the steps, and, mounting in the drive, rode slowly away upon his dappled mare. When he reached the turnpike he lifted his hat again and passed on at an amble.
During the next few months it seemed to Betty that she aged a year each day. The lines closed and opened round them; troops of blue and gray cavalrymen swept up and down the turnpike; the pastures were invaded by each army in its turn, and the hen-house became the spoil of a regiment of stragglers. Uncle Shadrach had buried the silver beneath the floor of his cabin, and Aunt Floretta set her dough to rise each morning under a loose pile of kindling wood. Once a deserter penetrated into Betty's chamber, and the girl drove him out at the point of an old army pistol, which she kept upon her bureau.
"If you think I am afraid of you come a step nearer," she had said coolly, and the man had turned to run into the arms of a Federal officer, who was sweeping up the stragglers. He was a blue-eyed young Northerner, and for three days after that he had set a guard upon the portico at Uplands. The memory of the small white-faced girl, with her big army pistol and the blazing eyes haunted him from that hour until Appomattox, when he heaved a sigh of relief and dismissed it from his thoughts. "She would have shot the rascal in another second," he said afterward, "and, by George, I wish she had."
The Governor's wine cellar was emptied long ago, the rare old wine flowing from broken casks across the hall.
"What does it matter?" Mrs. Ambler had asked wearily, watching the red stream drip upon the portico. "What is wine when our soldiers are starving for bread? And besides, war lives off the soil, as your father used to say."
Betty lifted her skirts and stepped over the bright puddles, glancing disdainfully after the Hessian stragglers, who went singing down the drive.
"I hope their officers will get them," she remarked vindictively, "and the next time they offer us a guard, I shall accept him for good and all, if he happens to have been born on American soil. I don't mind Yankees so much--you can usually quiet them with the molasses jug--but these foreigners are awful. From a Hessian or a renegade Virginian, good Lord deliver us."
"Some of them have kind hearts," remarked Mrs. Ambler, wonderingly. "I don't see how they can bear to come down to fight us. The Major met General McClellan, you know, and he admitted afterwards that he shouldn't have known from his manner that he was not a Southern gentleman."
"Well, I hope he has left us a shoulder of bacon in the smokehouse," replied Betty, laughing. "You haven't eaten a mouthful for two days, mamma."
"I don't feel that I have a right to eat, my dear," said Mrs. Ambler. "It seems a useless extravagance when every little bit helps the army."
"Well, I can't support the army, but I mean to feed you," returned Betty decisively, and she went out to ask Hosea if he had found a new hiding place for the cattle. Except upon the rare mornings when Mr. Bill left his fishing, the direction of the farm had fallen entirely upon Betty's shoulders. Wilson, the overseer, was in the army, and Hosea had gradually risen to take his place. "We must keep things up," the girl had insisted, "don't let us go to rack and ruin--papa would have hated it so," and, with the negro's aid, she had struggled to keep up the common tenor of the old country life.
Rising at daybreak, she went each morning to overlook the milking of the cows, hidden in their retreat among the hills; and as the sun rose higher, she came back to start the field hands to the ploughing and the women to the looms in one of the detached wings. Then there was the big storehouse to go into, the rations of the servants to be drawn from their secret corners, the meal to be measured, and the bacon to be sliced with the care which fretted her lavish hands. After this there came the shucking of the corn, a negro frolic even in war years, so long as there was any corn to shuck, and lastly the counting of the full bags of grain before the heavy wagon was sent to the little mill beside the river. From sunrise to sunset the girl's hands were not idle for an instant, and in the long evenings, by the light of the home-made tallow dips, which served for candles, she would draw out a gray yarn stocking and knit busily for the army, while she tried, with an aching heart, to cheer her mother. Her sunny humour had made play of a man's work as of a woman's anxiety.
Sometimes, on bright mornings, Mr. Bill would stroll over with his rod upon his shoulder and a string of silver perch in his hand. He had grown old and very feeble, and his angling had become a passion mightier than an army with bayonets. He took small interest in the war--at times he seemed almost unconscious of the suffering around him--but he enjoyed his chats with Union officers upon the road, who occasionally capped his stories of big sport with tales of mountain trout which they had drawn from Northern streams. He would sit for hours motionless under the willows by the river, and once when his house was fired, during a raid up the valley, he was heard to remark regretfully that the messenger had "scared away his first bite in an hour." Placid, wide-girthed, dull-faced, innocent as a child, he sat in the midst of war dangling his line above the silver perch.
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