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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 25. The Mountain General
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 25. The Mountain General Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :3128

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 25. The Mountain General

CHAPTER XXV. THE MOUNTAIN GENERAL

It was a bleak, cold night and Prescott's feelings were of the same tenor. The distant buildings seemed to swim in a raw mist and pedestrians fled from the streets. Prescott walked along in aimless fashion until he was hailed by a dark man on a dark horse, who wished to know if he were going "to walk right over us," but the rough words were belied by joviality and welcome.

Prescott came out of his cloud and, looking up, recognized the great cavalryman, Wood. His huge beard seemed bigger than ever, but his keen eyes shone in the black tangle as if they were looking through the holes in a mask.

"What ails you, boy?" he asked Prescott. "You were goin' to walk right into me, horse an' all, an' I don't believe you'd have seen a house if it had been planted right in your path!"

"It's true I was thinking of something else," replied Prescott with a smile, "and did not see what was about me; but how are you, General?"

Wood regarded him closely for a moment or two before replying and then said:

"All right as far as that goes, but I can't say things are movin' well for our side. We're in a deadlock down there at Petersburg, and here comes winter, loaded with snow an' hail an' ice, if signs count for anythin'. Mighty little for a cavalryman to do right now, so I just got leave of absence from General Lee, an' I've run up to Richmond for a day or two."

Then the big man laughed in an embarrassed way, and Prescott, looking up at him, knew that his face was turning red could it but be seen.

"A man may employ his time well in Richmond, General," said Prescott, feeling a sudden and not unsympathetic desire to draw him out.

The General merely nodded in reply and Prescott looked at him again and more closely. The youth of General Wood and himself had been so different that he had never before recognized what there was in this illiterate man to attract a cultivated woman.

The crude mountaineer had seemed to him hitherto to be a soldier and nothing else; and soldiership alone, in Prescott's opinion, was very far from making up the full complement of a man. The General sitting there on his horse in the darkness was so strong, so masterful, so deeply touched with what appeared to be the romantic spirit, that Prescott could readily understand his attraction for a woman of a position originally different in life. His feeling of sympathy grew stronger. Here at least was a man direct and honest, not evasive and doubtful.

"General," he said with abrupt frankness, "you have come to Richmond to see Miss Harley and I want to tell you that I wish you the utmost success."

He held out his hand and the great mountaineer enclosed it in an iron grasp. Then Wood dismounted, threw his bridle over his arm and said:

"S'pose we go along together for awhile?"

They walked a minute or two in silence, the General running his fingers nervously through his thick black beard.

"See here, Prescott," he said at last, "you've spoke plain to me an' I'll do the same to you. You wished me success with Miss Harley. Why, I thought once that you stood in the way of me or any other man."

"Not so, General; you credit me with far more attractions than I have," replied Prescott deliberately. "Miss Harley and I were children together and you know that is a tie. She likes me, I am sure, but nothing more. And I--well I admire her tremendously, but----"

He hesitated and then stopped. The mountaineer gave him a sudden keen glance and laughed softly.

"There's somebody else?" he said.

Prescott was silent but the mountaineer was satisfied.

"See here, Prescott," he exclaimed with great heartiness. "Let's wish each other success."

Their hands closed again in a firm grasp.

"There's that man Sefton," resumed the mountaineer, "but I'm not so much afraid of him as I was of you. He's cunnin' and powerful, but I don't think he's the kind of man women like. He kinder gets their teeth on edge. They're afraid of him without admirin' his strength. There's two kinds of strong men: the kind that women are afraid of an' like and the kind that they're afraid of an' don't like; an' I think Sefton falls into the last class."

Prescott's liking for his companion increased, and mingled with it was a growing admiration wholly aside from his respect for him as a soldier. He was showing observation or intuition of a high order. The General's heart was full. He had all of the mountaineer's reserve and taciturnity, but now after years of repression and at the touch of real sympathy his feelings overflowed.

"See here, Prescott," he said abruptly, "I once thought it was wrong for me to love Helen Harley--the difference between us is so great--and maybe I think so yet, but I'm goin' to try to win her anyhow. I'm just that deep in love, and maybe the good God will forgive me, because I can't help it. I loved that girl the first time I ever set eyes on her; I wasn't asked about it, I just had to."

"There is no reason why you should not go ahead and win her," said the other, warmly.

"Prescott," continued the mountaineer, "you don't know all that I've been."

"It's nothing dishonest, that I'd swear."

"It's not that, but look where I started. I was born in the mountains back there, an' I tell you we weren't much above the wild animals that live in them same mountains. There was just one room to our log house--one for father, mother and all of us. I never was taught nothin'. I didn't learn to read till I was twenty years old and the big words still bother me. I went barefoot six months every year till I was a man grown. Why, my cavalry boots pinch me now."

He uttered the lamentation of the boots with such tragic pathos that Prescott smiled, but was glad to hide it in the darkness.

"An' I don't know nothin' now," resumed the mountaineer sadly. "When I go into a parlour I'm like a bear in a cage. If there's anythin' about to break, I always break it. When they begin talkin' books and pictures and such I don't know whether they are right or wrong."

"You are not alone in that."

"An' I'm out of place in a house," continued the General, not noticing the interruption. "I belong to the mountains an' the fields, an' when this war's over I guess I'll go back to 'em. They think somethin' of me now because I can ride an' fight, but war ain't all. When it's over there'll be no use for me. I can't dance an' I can't talk pretty, an' I'm always steppin' on other peoples' feet. I guess I ain't the timber they make dandies of."

"I should hope not," said Prescott with emphasis. He was really stirred by the big man's lament, seeing that he valued so much the little things that he did not have and so little the great things that he did have.

"General," he said, "you never shirked a battle and I wouldn't shirk this contest either. If I loved a woman I'd try to win her, and you won't have to go back to the mountains when this war is over. You've made too great a name for that. We won't give you up."

Wood's eyes shone with satisfaction and gratitude.

"Do you think so?" he asked earnestly.

"I haven't a doubt of it," replied Prescott with the utmost sincerity. "If fortune was unkind to you in the beginning nature was not so. You may not know it, but I think that women consider you rather good to look at."

Thus they talked, and in his effort to console another Robert forgot some of his own pain. The simple, but, on the whole, massive character of Wood appealed to him, and the thought came with peculiar force that what was lacking in Helen Harley's nature the tougher fiber of the mountaineer would supply.

It was late when they separated and much later before Prescott was able to sleep. The shadow of the Secretary was before him and it was a menacing shadow. It seemed that this man was to supplant him at every turn, to appear in every cause his successful rival. Nor was he satisfied with himself. A small but audible voice told him he had behaved badly, but stubborn pride stopped his ear. What right did he have to accuse her? In a worldly sense, at least, she might fare well if she chose the Secretary.

There was quite a crowd in the lobby of the Spotswood Hotel next morning, gathered there to talk, after the Southern habit, when there is nothing pressing to be done, and conspicuous in it were the editors, Raymond and Winthrop, whom Prescott had not seen in months and who now received him with warmth.

"How's the _Patriot_?" asked Prescott of Raymond.

"The _Patriot is resting just now," replied Raymond quietly.

"How is that--no news?"

"Oh, there's plenty of news, but there's no paper. I did have a little, but Winthrop was short on a supply for an edition of his own sheet, and he begged so hard that I let him have mine. That's what I call true professional courtesy."

"The paper was so bad that it crumbled all to pieces a day after printing," said Winthrop.

"So much the better," replied Raymond. "In fact, a day is much too long a life for such a sheet as Winthrop prints."

The others laughed and the talk returned to the course from which it had been taken for a moment by the arrival of Prescott. Conspicuous in the crowd was the Member of Congress, Redfield, not at all improved in appearance since the spring. His face was redder, heavier and coarser than ever.

"I tell you it is so," he said oratorically and dogmatically to the others. "The Secretary is in love with her. He was in love with Helen Harley once, but now he has changed over to the other one."

Prescott shifted uneasily. Here was the name of the Secretary dogging him and in a connection that he liked least of all.

"It's the 'Beautiful Yankee,' then," said another, a young man named Garvin, who aspired eagerly to the honours of a ladykiller. "I don't blame him. You don't see such a face and figure more than once in a lifetime. I've been thinking of going in there myself and giving the Secretary something to do."

He flecked a speck of dust off his embroidered waistcoat and exuded vanity. Prescott would have gone away at once, but such an act would have had an obvious meaning--the last thing that he desired, and he stayed, hoping that the current of talk would float to a new topic. Winthrop and Raymond glanced at him, knowing the facts of the Wilderness and of the retreat that followed, but they said nothing.

"I think that the Secretary or anybody else should go slow with this Yankee girl," said Redfield. "Who is she--and what is she? Where did she come from? She drifted in with the army after the battles in the Wilderness and that's all we know."

"It's enough," said Garvin; "because it makes a delightful mystery which but adds to the 'Beautiful Yankee's' attractions. The Secretary is far gone there. I happen to know that he is to take her to the President's reception to-morrow night."

Prescott started. He was glad now that he had not humbled himself.

"At any rate," said Redfield, "Mr. Sefton can't mean to marry her--an unknown like that; it must be something else."

Prescott felt hot pincers grip him around the heart, and a passion that he could not control flamed to his brain. He strode forward and put his hand heavily on the Member's shoulder.

"Are you speaking of Miss Catherwood?" he demanded.

"I am," replied Redfield, throwing off the heavy hand. "But what business is that of yours?"

"Simply this; that she is too good and noble a woman to be spoken of slightingly by you. Such remarks as you have just made you repeat at your risk."

Redfield made an angry reply and there were all the elements of a fierce encounter; but Raymond interfered.

"Redfield," he said, "you are wrong, and moreover you owe all of us an apology for speaking in such a way of a lady in our presence. I fully indorse all that Captain Prescott says of Miss Catherwood--I happen to have seen instances of her glorious unselfishness and sacrifice, and I know that she is one of God's most nearly perfect women."

"And so do I," said Winthrop, "and I," "and I," said the others. Redfield saw that the crowd was unanimously against him and frowned.

"Oh, well, perhaps I spoke hastily and carelessly," he said. "I apologize."

Raymond changed the talk at once.

"When do you think Grant will advance again?" he asked.

"Advance?" replied Winthrop hotly. "Advance? Why, he can't advance."

"But he came through the Wilderness."

"If he did he lost a hundred thousand men, more than Lee had altogether, and now he's checkmated."

"He'll never see Richmond unless he comes to Libby," said Redfield coarsely.

"I'm not so sure," said Raymond gravely. "Whatever we say to the people and however we try to hold up their courage, we ought not to conceal the facts from ourselves. The ports of the Confederacy are sealed up by the Yankee cruisers. We have been shattered down South and here we are blockaded in Richmond and Petersburg. It takes a cartload of our money to buy a paper collar and then it's a poor collar. When I bring out the next issue of my newspaper--and I don't know when that will be--I shall say that the prospects of the Confederacy were never brighter; but I warn you right now, gentlemen, that I shall not believe a single one of my own words."

Thus they talked, but Prescott did not follow them, his mind dwelling on Lucia and the Secretary. He was affected most unpleasantly by what he had heard and sorry now that he had come to the hotel. When he could conveniently do so he excused himself and went home.

He was gloomier than ever at supper and his mother uttered a mild jest or two on his state of mind.

"You must have failed to find any friends in the city," she said.

"I found too many," he replied. "I went to the Spotswood Hotel, mother, and I listened there to some tiresome talk about whipping the Yankees out of their boots in the next five minutes."

"Aren't you going to do it?"

Prescott laughed.

"Mother," he said, "I wouldn't have your divided heart for anything. It must cause you a terrible lot of worry."

"I do very well," she said, with her quiet smile, "and I cherish no illusions."

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