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- An Original Belle - 20/94 -
AN OATH AND A GLANCE.
As Strahan disappeared in the winding of the avenue a sudden and terrible thought occurred to Mrs. Merwyn. She glanced at her son, who had walked to the farther end of the piazza, and stood for a moment with his back towards her. His manly proportions made her realize, as she had never done before, that he had attained his majority,--that he was his own master. He had said he would not fight against the North, but, as far as the South was concerned, he had never committed himself. And then his terrible will!
She went to her room and thought. He was in a land seething with excitement and patriotic fervor. She knew not what influences a day might bring to bear upon him. Above all else she feared taunts for lack of courage. She knew that her own passionate pride slept in his breast and on a few occasions she had seen its manifestations. As a rule he was too healthful, too well organized and indolent, to be easily irritated, while in serious matters he had not been crossed. She knew enough of life to be aware that his manhood had never been awakened or even deeply moved, and she was eager indeed to accomplish their mission in the States and return to conditions of life not so electrical.
In the mean time she felt that she must use every precaution. She summoned a maid and asked that her son should be sent to her.
The young man soon lounged in, and threw himself into an easy chair.
His mother looked at him fixedly for a moment, and then asked, "Why is young Strahan in THAT uniform?"
"I didn't ask him," was the careless reply. "Obviously, however, because he has entered the service in some capacity."
"Did he not suggest that it would be a very proper thing for you to do, also?"
"Oh, of course. He wouldn't be Strahan if he hadn't. He has a high appreciation of a 'little brief authority,' especially if vested in himself. Believing himself to be so heroic he is inclined to call others to account."
"I trust you have rated such vaporings at their worth."
"I have not rated them at all. What do I care for little Strahan or his opinions? Nil."
"Shall you see much of him while we are compelled to remain in this detestable land?"
"More of him than of any one else, probably. We were boys together, and he amuses me. What is more to the point, if I make a Union officer my associate I disarm hostile criticism and throw an additional safeguard around my property. There is no telling to what desperate straits the Northern authorities may be reduced, and I don't propose to give them any grounds for confiscation."
"You are remarkably prudent, Willard, for a young man of Southern descent."
"I am of Northern descent also," he replied, with a light laugh. "Father was as strong a Northern man--so I imagine--as you are a Southern woman, and so, by a natural law, I am neutral, brought to a standstill by two equal and opposite forces."
The intense partisan looked at him with perplexity, and for a moment felt a strange and almost superstitious belief in his words. Was there a reciprocal relation of forces which would render her schemes futile? She shared in the secret hopes and ambitions of the Southern leaders. Had Northern and Southern blood so neutralized the heart of this youth that he was indifferent to both sections? and had she, by long residence abroad, and indulgence, made him so cosmopolitan that he merely looked upon the world as "his oyster"? She was not the first parent who, having failed to instil noble, natural principles in childhood, is surprised and troubled at the outcome of a mind developing under influences unknown or unheeded. That the South would be triumphant she never doubted a moment. It would not merely achieve independence, but also a power that would grow like the vegetation of its genial climate, and extend until the tapering Isthmus of Panama became the national boundary of the empire. But what part would be taken by this strange son who seemed equally endowed with graceful indolence and indomitable will? Were his tireless strength and energy to accomplish nothing better than the climbing of distant mountains? and would he maintain indifference towards a struggle for a dominion beyond Oriental dreams? Physically and mentally he seemed capable of doing what he chose; practically he chose to do what he pleased from hour to hour. Amusing himself with a languid, good-natured disregard of what he looked upon as trivial affairs, he was like adamant the moment a supreme and just advantage was his. He was her husband over agaim, with strange differences. What could she do at the present moment but the thing she proposed to do?
"Willard," she said, slowly, and in a voice that pierced his indifference, "have you any regard for me?"
"Certainly. Have I shown any want of respect?"
"That is not the question at all. You are young, Willard, and you live in the future. I live much in the past. My early home was in the South, where my family, for generations, has been eminent. Is it strange, then, that I should love that sunny land?"
"Well, all I ask at present is that you will promise me never, under any motive, to take up arms against that land of my ancestors."
"I have not the slightest disposition to do so."
"Willard, what to-day is, is. Neither you nor I know what shall be on the morrow. I never expected to marry a Northern man, yet I did so; nor should I regret it if I consulted my heart only. He was different from all his race. I did not foresee what was coming, or I could have torn my heart out before involving myself in these Northern complications. I cannot change the past, but I must provide for the future. O Willard, to your eyes your Northern fortune seems large. But a few years will pass before you will be shown what a trifle it is compared with the prizes of power and wealth that will be bestowed upon loyal Southerners. You have an ancestry, an ability, that would naturally place you among the foremost. Terrible as would be the sacrifice on my part, I could still give you my blessing if you imitated young Strahan in one respect, and devoted yourself heart, soul, and sword to our cause."
"The probable result would be that you and my sisters would be penniless, I sleeping in mud, and living on junk and hoe-cake. Another result, probable, only a little more remote, is that the buzzards would pick my bones. Faugh! Oh, no. I've settled that question, and it's a bore to think a question over twice. There are thousands of Americans in Europe. Their wisdom suits me until this tea-pot tempest is over. If any one doubts my courage I'll prove it fast enough, but, if I had my way, the politicians, North and South, should do their own fighting and starving."
"But, Willard, our leaders are not mere politicians. They are men of grand, far-reaching schemes, and when their plans are accomplished, they will attain regal power and wealth."
"Visions, mamma, visions. I have enough of my father's blood in my veins to be able to look at both sides of a question. Strahan asked me severely if I did not read the papers;" and he laughed lightly. "Well, I do read them, at least enough of them to pick out a few grains of truth from all the chaff. The North and South have begun fighting like two bull-dogs, and it's just a question which has the longer wind and the more endurance. The chances are all in favor of the North. I shall not throw myself and property away for the sake of a bare possibility. That's settled."
"Have you ice-water in your veins?" his mother asked, passionately.
"I have your blood, madam, and my father's, hence I am what I am."
"Well, then you must be a man of honor, of your word. Will you promise never to take arms against the South?"
"I have told you I have no disposition to do so."
"The promise, then, can cost you little, and it will be a relief to my mind."
"Oh, well, mamma, if it will make you feel any easier, I promise with one exception. Both South and North must keep their hands off the property my father gave me."
"If Southern leaders were dictating terms in New York City, as they will, ere long, they would never touch your property."
"They had better not."
"You know what I mean, Willard. I ask you never to assume this hated Northern uniform, or put your foot on Southern soil with a hostile purpose."
"Yes, I can promise that."
"Swear it to me then, by your mother's honor and your father's memory."
"Is not my word sufficient?"
"These things are sacred to me, and I wish them treated in a sacred manner. If you will do this my mind will be at rest and I may be able to do more for you in the future."
"To satisfy you, I swear never to put on the Northern uniform or to enter the South with a hostile purpose."
She stepped forward and touched his forehead with her lips, as she said: "The compact is sealed. Your oath is registered on earth and in heaven. Your simple word as a man of honor will satisfy me as to one other request. I wish you never to speak to any one of this
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