An Unconditional Surrender
REX had had a keen suspicion that Mr. Rogers had been responsible for the locking of the gate, and the fact that he had been apparently on watch at the door strengthened it. He confided his suspicions to Willie Dayton that evening after they had both returned to their room, and was amazed to see Willie receive his confidence with an explosion of laughter.
The laughter was so long continued that Rex's temper was fast rising, which Willie perceiving, he made an effort at soberness, and told Rex that Lucy and he had locked the gate most innocently. They had gone through it, looking for Eunice and Rex, thinking it possible they were walking up and down the pavement outside, and on their return Lucy had suggested that it ought to be locked, as she knew Miss Perkins usually kept it so in the evening, and they had turned the key without the remotest suspicion that they were locking out Eunice and Rex or causing them any annoyance.
His explanation was interrupted by so many "Ha-ha's" and "Ho-ho's" and "That's too good" and "I reckon I'11 have to tell Miss Lucy," that Rex's countenance gradually relaxed into a grim smile though he threatened that if Willie knew what was good for him he would tell nobody. His threats would have had little effect, but when he added that he hoped Willie would say nothing to any one about it as it certainly be very annoying to Miss Harlow, Willie sobered up at once, and readily promised to keep "mum."
The fact that he had suspected Mr. Rogers unjustly combined with his new resolves for reformation to make Rex feel more kindly toward him and regard him no longer as a "pragmatical bigot." He began to have a respect for his clean, upright life, and to wish that his own had been more like it. Greatly to Mr. Rogers's astonishment, he greeted him at their next meeting with a cordial grasp of the hand; and as his manner lost entirely the superciliousness that had always marked his treatment of the Pennsylvanian, Mr. Rogers in his turn began to regard the South Carolinian with less severity. Rex, determined to make a thorough thing of his reform, had been endeavoring to cut loose from his wild associates,–a difficult matter to accomplish,–and therefore welcomed eagerly the signs of friendship in Rogers, which seemed to offer another sheet-anchor to his shifting impulses. Besides, he believed that it would please Eunice, and prove to her that he was in earnest, if she saw him cultivating friendly relations with the man he had spoken of so ungenerously, and whom she evidently held in high esteem.
To Willie Dayton and to his friends Rex's reform was a source of great delight, chastened only by the fear that it might not last; but while they unobtrusively tried to offer him all the help possible, they avoided speaking to him on the subject. Some of his old associates had not had such delicate scruples, and had undertaken to scoff him out of what they called his "pious resolutions"; but they shrank back abashed at the lightnings of wrath they drew down upon themselves as, with flashing eyes and his most superb air, Rex bade them beware of how they interfered with the private and personal concerns of a gentleman. Indeed, he probably would not have hesitated to challenge them to a duel to the death in defense of his conscientious scruples and considered himself as acting the part of a good Christian in so doing.
There was one feature of Bellaire life which seemed to Eunice quite ideal: every pleasant evening on these warm autumn days, Dr. and Mrs. Charlton held an informal reception. It was the doctor's habit after the early tea to step out of the dining-room on to the lawn, and, with his children, enjoy the soft air, while he inspected the growing things, watching for new buds or planning some improvements in flower-garden and shrubbery. There Mrs. Charlton joined him as soon as she had superintended the washing of the silver and the china and glass, a ceremony always performed in the dining-room by Charles Cook, junior; and they were both sure to be joined later by two or three friends out for an evening stroll and dropping in to have a little chat with the doctor and his wife in their pleasant garden.
Miss Caroline and Miss Phoebe were almost invariably of this number, for in the fine weather it was this hour of the day that they selected for their constitutional, and Miss Caroline dearly loved a bout of argument with the doctor, or a dish of gossip with his radiant wife. One or two of the professors, also, were generally of the party–more often one of the bachelors, but quite frequently a married member of the faculty, with or without his wife. They strolled about the winding paths of the garden as they talked, sometimes stopping for a few minutes if the discussion grew heated, but resuming their walk with their serenity when the doctor managed, as he always did, to pour oil on the troubled waters.
As the evening grew later, they often gathered on the steps of the veranda, where, if one caught the sound of merry laughter, it was quite certain the doctor was entertaining his friends with a good story; and sometimes a Senior or Junior lingering near, waiting for half-past seven to arrive,–the earliest hour at which he might present himself as a caller on the young ladies,–tempted by the jovial sounds would pass through the gate and join the charmed circle. The little receptions broke up when gathering darkness warned them that they must seek the house. Miss Caroline always gave the signal for leaving; she felt that when darkness came she must be at home to see that her young ladies were all safely shut in with their books. It was the duty of a younger teacher to take charge of the study table, but Miss Caroline liked to see for herself that every young lady was in her place, so deeply rooted was her conviction that the Tomlinson students were constantly plotting to entice her maidens to moonlight walks or other forbidden joys of youth. At the defection of the Misses Perkins the little circle gradually disintegrated, when, if there happened to be any young men coming in to make a call, Dr. and Mrs. Charlton stopped in the parlor a few minutes to show a proper courtesy to the young people, and then Mrs. Charlton went up-stairs with the children and the doctor sought his study.
Eunice enjoyed these informal evenings keenly. She felt as if heretofore her intellectual and social nature had been half starved, and she could hardly get enough of the bright and animated talk tossed back and forth like a glittering ball from one member of the little circle to another.
Of late there had been a larger attendance at these open-air receptions, and the talk had been graver, and sometimes excitement had run high, and it had needed all the doctor's skill to keep his guests within the bounds of moderation. The waves of fierce passion, running mountain-high in the fall of '60 over the coming elections, beat fiercely against the walls of Old Tomlinson. Most of the students were from the South, and of course intense in their Southern sympathies; some were from the border, and tinged with the views of both sections; while a few were uncompromising abolitionists. The faculty were almost as much divided as the students. They were of all creeds, although when the crucial test came they were all loyal to the old flag. The Misses Perkins were New England born, but a large part of their lives had been spent in the South, their patronage was almost exclusively Southern, and the accident of their birth seemed but to add virulence to the intensity of their Southern sympathies.
In those days a house was often divided against itself. Naturally Mrs. Charlton's sympathies were with the home and friends of her youth, but not even his admiration and devotion to her could swerve the doctor from the clear line of duty and principle; and Mrs. Charlton, who in all small matters ruled regally in her household, could yield all the more gracefully to her husband when it came to matters of greater moment. Only in this one was her heart divided against itself, and it was through a long and bitter struggle that she learned at last to place her love and honor and loyalty undividedly on the side she had chosen when she had chosen her husband.
But she would not have been Mrs. Charlton if, while going through this struggle, she had not seemed often enthusiastically on the other side. It was the last gallant fight she was making against a submission all the more complete, finally, for her long resistance. And it would not have been Dr. Charlton if his sensitive soul had not often been wounded to the quick by her swift thrusts where, she knew so well, his love for her made his armor of truth and loyalty most vulnerable.
One Saturday evening the little company had divided itself into two coteries; in the center of one was Mrs. Charlton, her eyes flashing, her cheeks flushed, denouncing in the strongest terms John Brown and his attempted insurrection. No words seemed intense enough to express her loathing and horror of a man who could deliberately incite slaves to an insurrection, with all its attendant horrors. It was the anniversary of John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry, and some one mentioning that fact, it had aroused Mrs. Charlton to her denunciation. It was not so many miles away that it had been made, and some of his band, fleeing northward up the valley, had been taken near Bellaire.
"Can it be possible," she was saying, in tones vibrating with indignation, "that there could be men in the North so lost to all that is noblest and best in humanity as to uphold him in his vile attempt to let loose wild fiends upon helpless women and children?"
About her stood Professor Haywood, Professor and Mrs. Tiffin, and Miss Caroline Perkins, with Rex McAllister and Willie Dayton, who had come to escort Eunice and Lucy to choir rehearsal. Around Dr. Charlton had gathered Professor Harkness, the other bachelor of the faculty, and Professor Fieldman and his wife. Insensibly Eunice had drawn near Dr. Charlton as she saw Mrs. Charlton flash upon him a glance of superb indignation, as if on his devoted head rested all the sins of the North. Miss Phoebe hovered vaguely between the two parties, powerfully attracted by Dr. Charlton, whom she secretly but ardently worshiped, yet not quite daring to range herself opposite Miss Caroline. Mrs. Charlton's coterie loudly applauded her vehement speech, but the doctor felt he would be disloyal if he did not try to soothe these excited feelings. He said mildly:
"There is, no good man at the North who does not deprecate the horrors of negro insurrection, if he realizes them. I believe the trouble with John Brown that he did not realize them. His soul was so filled with the evils and wickedness of slavery, he could think of nothing else. I believe him to have been an honest patriot, mistaken only in his methods."
His wife had been listening to him with head averted. She turned toward him now like a flash and hurled her words at him with ineffable scorn.
"Evils and wickedness of slavery! What do you at the North know about its evils? I know that the slaves are treated with all the tenderness and care of children; and yet let some ignorant, jealous, mischief-brewing abolitionist come among them to stir them to revolt, and they become fiends incarnate, and murder in cold blood the masters who have cared for them! Do you mean to tell me, if that vile miscreant, that stirrer-up of insurrections, that murderer of women and children, had appeared among us, you would not have handed him over at once to suffer the utmost rigors of the law? Those who would aid and abet such a foul murderer are murderers themselves."
In her intense feeling she had extended her right arm, and unconsciously looked as if she were denouncing her husband. We were all abashed, and hardly knew where to look. We had always known that Mrs. Charlton was a high-spirited woman, and had liked her the better for it; but that she should break out into such wrathful invective, and apparently against Dr. Charlton, our hero and saint, and the husband we knew she adored, we could not comprehend.
Lucy stood with drooping head and the hot color flaming in her cheeks, and little Millicent, who had been standing by her mother, listening to all that had preceded with wide-eyed interest, now stole to her father's side and took his hand as if to protect him, while she looked from him to her mother in terrified perplexity.
Dr. Charlton himself had, in the beginning of her speech, watched her with a troubled expression, and as she grew more vehement dropped his eyes in pained embarrassment. As she uttered the last sentence, her arm extended toward him, her head thrown back, her eyes flashing, her whole figure breathing magnificent denunciation, he raised his eyes quickly and looked straight into hers. There was trouble and pain in his glance, but there was fire also, such as we had never seen in those blue eyes.
"Millicent!" he said.
His tone was not raised, but there was such ringing command in it that we were all electrified. As for Mrs. Charlton, we could see self-consciousness returning in her softening glance and slowly sinking arm. The doctor held her for a moment as if fascinated by his steady look; then swiftly the color receded from her face, leaving her deadly pale. She sprang forward with a low cry–"Oh, Robert"–and seized Dr. Charlton's hand, looking up into his face with piteous repentance in her imploring eyes.
"Can you forgive me? I never meant it," she whispered.
We saw the fire in the doctor's blue eyes quenched in a sudden mist. He lifted her hand to his lips with courtly old-world grace, and then drew it through his arm and held it there, while Millie stole round to her mother's side, and clung to her dress, her face wreathed in happy smiles.
We had all been so intensely interested in the little drama that we had forgotten to be embarrassed; but as Mrs. Charlton turned toward us, and we saw her face rosy as a girl's, her drooping figure and down cast eyes, we began to realize that to the principal actors any spectators, even those with the kindliest interest, would seem de trop.
But the doctor, with his usual tact, relieved our fast rising discomfort. He said with his genial smile:
"The war is over, friends. The South and the North are reunited. Let us take it as a happy omen that nothing more serious than a difference of opinion will ever disturb the Union.
And Mrs. Charlton lifting her head and looking at us bravely but with shining eyes, added:
"And please, dear friends, forget that I was ever guilty of making a scene. It is all because I am such a hot-headed Southerner. But I am not a Southerner anymore. I am a United-Stateser." And then looking up at the doctor with a radiant smile: "I love the North, and I am sorry they ever caught John Brown."
After that there were a few minutes of unusually animated conversation, everybody trying to talk as lightly and carelessly as possible, and then the little company broke up, Miss Caroline, as usual, going first, and saying in her most punctilious fashion, "Good night, Dr. Charlton. Good night, Mrs. Charlton. We have had a delightful evening." And then a sudden remembrance seemed to strike her: "That is–ah–most interesting, I am sure."
But it was Professor Harkness who surprised the doctor and his wife. He lingered until after the other guests had taken their leave and then said with a pompous gallantry that would have been laughable only that it was accompanied with such genuine feeling, "Will you permit me, madam, to express my admiration and respect;" and awkwardly bending his huge head, for probably the first and only time in his life he lifted a lady's hand to his lips.
Eunice and Rex, Lucy and Willie, had gone to choir rehearsal, and for over an hour Mrs. Charlton was busy with the younger children, looking after their Saturday-night baths and seeing them safely into bed. There were no studies on Saturday evening, and George Edgar and Henry Sidney were playing a quiet and amicable game of chess. There were times when Mrs. Charlton appreciated the game–when it could keep her noisy boys still and out of all mischief for an hour or two. Seeing them wholly engrossed now, and the little ones all asleep, she stole softly away to the doctor's study. Dr. Charlton was bent over his big table, littered with books and papers, writing diligently, and she came in so quietly that he did not hear her until she laid her hand softly on his shoulder. Then he whirled around quickly in his revolving chair; but before he had time to speak she said hastily and with a quivering lip:
"Were you dreadfully ashamed of me this evening, dear? Oh, will I ever learn to govern my temper?"
He looked up at her with an adoring gaze, and putting his arms around her slender waist, drew her down to a seat upon his knee.
"I think it was the proudest, happiest moment of my life, my love, when you proved to my friends that my wife is not more beautiful and high-spirited than she is noble and loving."