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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 2. A Man's Mother
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 2. A Man's Mother Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :3554

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 2. A Man's Mother


It was a modest house to which Prescott turned his steps, built two stories in height, of red brick, with green shutters over the windows, and in front a little brick-floored portico supported on white columns in the Greek style. His heart gave a great beat as he noticed the open shutters and the thin column of smoke rising from the chimney. The servants at least were there! He had been gone three years, and three years of war is a long time to one who is not yet twenty-five. There was no daily mail from the battlefield, and he had feared that the house would be closed.

He lifted the brass knocker and struck but once. That was sufficient, as before the echo died his mother herself, come before the time set, opened the door. Mrs. Prescott embraced her son, and she was even less demonstrative than himself, though he was generally known to his associates as a reserved man; but he knew the depth of her feelings. One Northern mother out of every ten had a son who never came back, but it was one Southern mother in every three who was left to mourn.

She only said: "My son, I feared that I should never see you again." Then she noticed the thinness of his clothing and its dampness. "Why, you are cold and wet," she added.

"I do not feel so now, mother," he replied.

She smiled, and her smile was that of a young girl. As she drew him toward the fire in a dusky room it seemed to him that some one else went out.

"I heard your footsteps on the portico," she said.

"And you knew that it was me, mother," he interrupted, as he reached down and patted her softly on the cheek.

He could not remember the time when he did not have a protecting feeling in the presence of his mother--he was so tall and large, and she so small. She scarcely reached to the top of his shoulder, and even now, at the age of forty-five, her cheeks had the delicate bloom and freshness of a young girl's.

"Sit by the fire here," she said, as she pushed him into an armchair that she pulled directly in front of the grate.

"No, you must not do that," she added, taking the poker from his hand. "Don't you know that it is a delight for me to wait upon you, my son come from the war!"

Then she prodded the coals until they glowed a deep red and the room was suffused with generous warmth.

"What is this bundle that you have?" she asked, taking it from him.

"A new uniform, mother, that I have just bought, and in which I hope to do you credit."

She flitted about the room attending to his wants, bringing him a hot drink, and she would listen to no account of himself until she was sure that he was comfortable. He followed her with his eyes, noting how little she had changed in the three years that had seemed so long.

She was a Northern woman, of a Quaker family in Philadelphia, whom his father had married very young and brought to live on a great place in Virginia. Prescott always believed she had never appreciated the fact that she was entering a new social world when she left Philadelphia; and there, on the estate of her husband, a just and generous man, she saw slavery under its most favourable conditions. It must have been on one of their visits to the Richmond house, perhaps at the slave market itself, that she beheld the other side; but this was a subject of which she would never speak to her son Robert. In fact, she was silent about it to all people, and he only knew that she was not wholly like the Southern women about him. When the war came she did not seek to persuade her son to either side, but when he made his choice he was always sure that he caused her pain, though she never said a word.

"Do you wear such thin clothing as this out there in those cold forests?" she asked, fingering his coat.

"Mother," he replied with a smile, "this is the style now; the shops recommend it, and you know we've all heard that a man had better be dead than out of the style."

"And you have become a great soldier?" she said, looking at him fondly.

He laughed, knowing that in any event he would seem great to her.

"Not great, mother," he replied; "but I know that I have the confidence of General Lee, on whose staff I serve."

"A good man and a great one," she said, clasping her hands thoughtfully. "It is a pity----"

She stopped, and her son asked:

"What is a pity, mother?"

She did not answer, but he knew. It was said by many that Lee hesitated long before he went with his State.

"Now," she said, "you must eat," and she brought him bread and meat and coffee, serving them from a little table that she herself placed by his side.

"How happens it, mother," he asked, "that this food is still warm? It must have been hours since you had breakfast."

A deep tint of red as of a blush suffused her cheeks, and she answered in a hesitating voice:

"Since there was a pause in the war, I knew that sooner or later you would come, and I remember how hungry you used to be as a growing boy."

"And through all these days you have kept something hot on the fire for me, ready at a moment's notice!"

She looked at him and there was a faint suspicion of tears in her eyes.

"Yes, yes, Robert," she replied. "Now don't scold me."

He had no intention of scolding her, but his thought was: "Has any other man a mother like mine?" Then he corrected himself; he knew that there must be myriads of others.

He said nothing in reply, merely smiling at her, and permitted her to do as she would. She went about the room with light, easy step, intent on her little services.

She opened the window shutters and the rich sunlight came streaming in, throwing a golden glow across the brown face of him who had left her a boy and come back a man. She sighed a little as she noticed how great was the change, but she hid the sigh from her son.

"Mother," he asked presently, "was there not some one else in this room when I came in? The light was faint, but I thought I saw a shadowy figure disappear."

"Yes," she answered; "that was Helen Harley. She was with me when you came. She may have known your footstep, too, and if not, she guessed it from my face, so she went out at once. She did not wish to be a mere curious onlooker when a mother was greeting her son, come home after three years in the war."

"She must be a woman now."

"She is a woman full grown in all respects. Women have grown old fast in the last three years. She is nearly a head taller than I."

"You have been comfortable here, mother?" he asked.

"As much so as one can be in such times," she replied. "I do not lack for money, and whatever deprivations I endure are those of the common lot--and this community of ill makes them amusing rather than serious."

She rose and walked to a door leading into the garden.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I shall return in a few moments."

When she came back she brought with her a tall young woman with eyes of dark blue and hair of brown shot with gold wherever the firelight fell upon it. This girl showed a sinuous grace when she walked and she seemed to Prescott singularly self-contained.

He sprang to his feet at once and took her hand in the usual Southern fashion, making a compliment upon her appearance, also in the usual Southern fashion. Then he realized that she had ceased to be a little girl in all other respects as well as in the physical.

"I have heard that gallantry in the face of the ladies as well as of the foe is part of a soldier's trade, Robert," she replied.

"And you do not know which requires the greater daring."

"But I know which your General ought to value the more."

After this she was serious. Neither of the younger people spoke much, but left the thread of the talk to Mrs. Prescott, who had a great deal to say. The elder woman, for all her gentleness and apparent timidity, had a bold spirit that stood in no awe of the high and mighty. She was full of curiosity about the war and plied her son with questions.

"We in Richmond know little that is definite of its progress," she said. "The Government announces victories and no defeats. But tell me, Robert, is it true, as I hear, that in the knapsacks of the slain Southern soldiers they find playing-cards, and in those of the North, Bibles?"

"If the Northern soldiers have Bibles, they do not use them," said Helen.

"And if the Southern soldiers have playing-cards, they do use them," said Mrs. Prescott.

Robert laughed.

"I daresay that both sides use their cards too much and their Bibles too little," he said.

"Do not be alarmed, Robert," said his mother; "such encounters between Helen and myself are of a daily occurrence."

"And have not yet resulted in bloodshed," added Miss Harley.

Prescott watched the girl while his mother talked, and he seemed to detect in her a certain aloofness as far as he was concerned, although he was not sure that the impression was not due to his absence so long from the society of women. It gave him a feeling of shyness which he found difficult to overcome, and which he contrasted in his own mind with her ease and indifference of manner.

When she asked him of her brother, Colonel Harley, the brilliant cavalry commander, whose exploits were recounted in Richmond like a romance, she showed enthusiasm, her eyes kindling with fire, and her whole face vivid. Her pride in her brother was large and she did not seek to conceal it.

"I hear that he is considered one of the best cavalry leaders of the age," she said, and she looked questioningly at Prescott.

"There is no doubt of it," he replied, but there was such a lack of enthusiasm in his own voice that his mother looked quickly at him. Helen did not notice. She was happy to hear the praises of her brother, and she eagerly asked more questions about him--his charge at this place, the famous ruse by which he had beaten the Yankees at that place, and the esteem in which he was held by General Lee; all of which Prescott answered readily and with pleasure. Mrs. Prescott looked smilingly at Miss Harley.

"It does not seem fair for a girl to show such interest in a brother," she said. "Now, if it were a lover it would be all right."

"I have no lover, Mrs. Prescott," replied Helen, a slight tint of pink appearing in her cheeks.

"It may be so," said the older woman, "but others are not like you." Then after a pause she sighed and said: "I fear that the girls of '61 will show an unusually large crop of old maids."

She spoke half humourously of what became in reality a silent but great tragedy, especially in the case of the South.

The war was prominent in the minds of the two women. Mrs. Prescott had truly said that knowledge of it in Richmond was vague. Gettysburg, it was told, was a great victory, the fruits of which the Army of Northern Virginia, being so far from its base, was unable to reap; moreover, the Army of the West beyond a doubt had won a great triumph at Chickamauga, a battle almost as bloody as Gettysburg, and now the Southern forces were merely taking a momentary rest, gaining fresh vigour for victories greater than any that had gone before.

Nevertheless, there was a feeling of depression over Richmond. Bread was higher, Confederate money was lower; the scarcity of all things needed was growing; the area of Southern territory had contracted, the Northern armies were coming nearer and nearer, and a false note sometimes rang in the gay life of the capital.

Prescott answered the women as he best could, and, though he strove to keep a bold temper, a tone of gloom like that which afflicted Richmond appeared now and then in his replies. He was sorry that they should question him so much upon these subjects. He was feeling so good, and it was such a comfort to be there in Richmond with his own people before a warm fire, that the army could be left to take care of itself for awhile. Nevertheless, he understood their anxiety and permitted no show of hesitation to appear in his voice. Miss Harley presently rose to go. The clouds had come again and a soft snow was falling.

"I shall see you home," said Prescott. "Mother, will you lend me an umbrella?"

Mrs. Prescott laughed softly.

"We don't have umbrellas in Richmond now!" she replied. "The Yankees make them, not we, and they are not selling to us this year."

"Mother," said Prescott, "if the Yankees ever crush us it will be because they make things and we don't. Their artillery, their rifles, their ammunition, their wagons, their clothes, everything that they have is better than ours."

"But their men are not," said Helen, proudly.

"Nevertheless, we should have learned to work with our hands," said Prescott.

They slipped into the little garden, now bleak with winter waste. Helen drew a red cloak about her shoulders, which Prescott thought singularly becoming. The snow was falling gently and the frosty air deepened the scarlet in her cheeks. The Harley house was only on the other side of the garden and there was a path between the two. The city was now silent. Nothing came to their ears save the ringing of a church bell.

"I suppose this does not seem much like war to you," said Helen.

"I don't know," replied Robert. "Just now I am engaged in escorting a very valuable convoy from Fort Prescott to Fort Harley, and there may be raiders."

"And here may come one now," she responded, indicating a horseman, who, as he passed, looked with admiring eyes over the fence that divided the garden from the sidewalk. He was a large man, his figure hidden in a great black cloak and his face in a great black beard growing bushy and unkempt up to his eyes. A sword, notable for its length, swung by his side.

Prescott raised his hand and gave a salute which was returned in a careless, easy way. But the rider's bold look of admiration still rested on Helen Harley's face, and even after he had gone on he looked back to see it.

"You know him?" asked Helen of Robert.

"Yes, I know him and so do you."

"If I know him I am not aware of it."

"That is General Wood."

Helen looked again at the big, slouching figure disappearing at the corner. The name of Wood was famous in the Confederacy. The greatest of all the cavalry commanders in a service that had so many, a born military genius, he was an illiterate mountaineer, belonging to that despised, and often justly despised, class known in the South as "poor white trash." But the name of Wood was now famous in every home of the revolting States. It was said that he could neither read nor write, but his genius flamed up at the coming of war as certainly as tow blazes at the touch of fire. Therefore, Helen looked after this singular man with the deepest interest and curiosity.

"And that slouching, awkward figure is the great Wood!" she said.

"He is not more slouching and awkward than Jackson was."

"I did not mean to attack him," she said quickly.

She had noticed Wood's admiring glance. In fact, it brought a tint of red to her cheeks, but she was not angry. They were now at her own door.

"I will not ask you to come in," she said, "because I know that your mother is waiting for you."

"But you will some other time?"

"Yes, some other time."

When he returned to his own house Mrs. Prescott looked at him inquiringly but said nothing.

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