Flight from the Old Town
THE June of '63 was no less lovely and smiling and peaceful than Junes had always been in the beautiful Northumberland Valley. Little did Nature seem to know or care that the great Southern general was even then, making ready an army of invasion to despoil her of her beauty. Only nine months since the Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac, and now Lee was preparing for another crossing with a more powerful army, whose goal should be not Maryland, but Pennsylvania, and whose object not raiding and inciting to insurrection but invasion and conquest. He was grimly determined to risk the future of the Southern Confederacy on this one cast of the die.
It was Commencement Week at Old Tomlinson, always the gala week of the year in Bellaire; and whether Commencement had been set for the blooming of the roses, or whether the roses timed their blossoming to Commencement, the old town was a riot of bloom. From countless gardens, shut in by high brick walls, floated the fragrance of millions of the lovely flower; the barracks were abloom with them, and the president's garden was a glorious bower of them-every winding path hedged with them, and long garlands of roses, pink and white and red, flung over every lattice and trellis and arbor.
Eunice, standing in their midst on this sweet June evening, a white rose herself in her flowing gown of white, murmured softly:
"If on earth be an Eden of bliss,She was alone; the others had either gone or were going to the evening's exercises, but Eunice was not going. A letter from Mr. Rogers a few weeks before had said that he hoped to get a two days' leave of absence and spend Wednesday and Thursday of Commencement in Bellaire and take his diploma with his class as Dr. Charlton had promised he should. But this sudden invasion of Lee's had spoiled all that: there was no getting away from the army now for even a day, and a line from him the day before had told her how deeply he felt this disappointment.
It had been a long, sad winter and spring for her. The terrible battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had filled her soul with horror and her heart with an anguished dread. How could she hope that Rex had escaped where thousands had fallen!
But sad as it had all been, the sorrow in her heart at this moment was that it would so soon be ended. In two days Commencement would be over, and then she would leave Bellaire, perhaps never to return. Times had grown harder still with the old college, and it had been decided that Lucy should undertake the education of the younger children, and Eunice had found a position near her own home. Lucy had grown to seem to her as a dear sister, and Dr. and Mrs. Charlton had treated her as a loved daughter; it was not possible to sever these dear ties and to leave the place so full of associations with Rex without the keenest sorrow and regret.
It was Wednesday of Commencement Week. There remained but the alumni exercises of this evening and the graduating exercises of the next day. All through the week there had been persistent rumors of the advance of Lee's army up the Valley; but Dr. Charlton, true to his Spartan principles, would listen to no suggestions of dismissing the college at once without waiting for the Commencement exercises.
"No," he said; "we will go on doing the duty that lies nearest. It will be time enough to run when the foe is in sight."
It was half-past seven of this glorious June evening. The sun had not yet set, and Eunice stood among the roses watching the shadows lengthen on the grass. She could see, through the gate in the hedge, the long line of students and alumni forming in a procession, with the barracks band at their head. Marshals, with batons tied with floating white ribbons, were hurrying, back and forth, driving the stragglers into line and arranging and rearranging the order of the procession. Dr. Charlton and a group of distinguished visitors with him were standing, a little at one side waiting to take their places at the head of the line.
Mrs. Charlton was watching it, too, from the veranda with the wives of the distinguished visitors who had come on with their husbands to attend the festivities. They were only waiting for the procession to get well started when they would follow on down to the Commencement hall. Baby Ned was in bed, but Millie and the two younger boys were to stay up to see the procession start, and they were hovering between the veranda and the gate in the hedge, in eager expectancy at every blare of the trumpets as, one after another, the members of the band tried their instruments. Lucy, with two or three girl guests up for Commencement Week from Baltimore, had gone on before with Henry Sydney, who, almost eighteen now, had developed a liking for his sister's girl-friends and felt himself quite old enough to act as their escort. George Edgar, who scorned girls, was with Charles Cook, junior, hanging around the procession, fondly hoping to be permitted to come in at the tail-end and march to those soul-stirring strains of martial music. Suddenly Mrs. Charlton called to Eunice: "Eunice, come here, please-quick!" and as Eunice ran lightly up the veranda steps to her side, she exclaimed excitedly:
"See! What do you suppose is happening?"
Eunice looked, but could not understand. A soldier from the barracks had just ridden into the campus and delivered a note to Dr. Charlton. The doctor had glanced at it hastily, and then stepping quickly in front of the line, had silenced the preliminary strains of the band with uplifted hand, and was evidently speaking to the procession. His resonant tones could be heard from where they sat, but not his words. It was a time when the slightest incident out of the ordinary was alarming, and a message from the barracks was very much out of the ordinary. Eunice and Mrs. Charlton and the little company of guests sat with strained and painful attention, as if they were listening to the doctor's words.
But if they could not hear his words, they could see the startling effect they produced. The band marched off alone at double-quick down the Iron Gate path, the procession dissolved as if by magic, the black figures of the students and visitors flying in every direction and calling to each other all sorts of hoarse and unintelligible directions. The doctor and his group of dignified guests were hurrying in long strides toward Mrs. Charlton's veranda, but George Edgar and Charles Cook, junior, were flying far before them.
"The rebels mother; the rebels!" shouted George Edgar as soon as he came within ear-shot of Mrs. Charlton; and "Der rebels, mammy; der rebels is comin'!" echoed Charles Cook, junior, flying to Alcinda, who had come out on the lawn at the sounds of excitement.
Mrs. Charlton turned pale, and her guests started up in dismay, ready to flee, at once. Eunice's heart stood still. There had been many false alarms; could it be possible they were coming at last, and would Rex be with them? She could not tell whether it was fear or hope that made her heart stand still and then pound so violently. But there was no question with the others. Millie and the little boys were clinging close to their mother in terrified silence, while the visitors were uttering shrill and excited exclamations. Mrs. Charlton was trying to assure them that there could be no immediate danger, and that Dr. Charlton and their husbands would be there in a moment to tell them the truth of the matter.
The doctor had only lingered to despatch a messenger to the hall to announce to the waiting audience that there would be no exercises, and he was not far behind George Edgar.
"Well, my love," he said, as he mounted the steps with his long stride, "Major Barton sends me word that a special train will leave at eleven o'clock to carry away the officers and soldiers from the barracks. He offers to take any of our students who wish to go, and our visitors and ourselves. It will be the last train out of Bellaire; Lee's army is only twenty miles away."
They had listened breathlessly to him so far, but at his last words the women broke out once more into excited cries, begging him to tell them if they could surely get away, and could they take their trunks? Yes; in that one moment in which he had lingered he seemed to have arranged for everything. "Judge" would be over with his wheel-barrow as soon as he returned from his message to the waiting audience. It was not eight o'clock and the train would not leave until eleven, but they had better get their trunks packed as quickly as possible, for in the rush to get away on the only train there would, no doubt, be overcrowding, and those first at the station would stand the best chance of getting themselves and their baggage aboard.
Never was a little household in greater panic. Lucy's friends must be brought home at once, since they must be ready to leave also on the special train, and George Edgar was sent in quest of them. Each frantic woman seized her husband and hurried him away to help with her packing. Mrs. Charlton started to follow.
"Come, Robert," she said to her husband; and then something in his face made her stop and question:
"Are we not to go?"
"Yes," he answered; "I think it is wise for you and the children. You can go to Sister Sarah's in New York, and stay until the trouble is over."
"But you?" she asked, bewildered.
"I cannot leave, Millicent," he answered gently. "I must stay and take care of the college property."
"Then we stay with you," she responded just as gently, but with a firmness that the doctor knew from the start it was useless to combat, though he could not resist making one plea for the children, hoping thereby to move her.
"No," she reiterated; "our place is with you"; and then she added with a lightness she did not feel, "I do not believe there will be any danger in staying; and the boys, at least, would be terribly disappointed to lose their chance of seeing the 'rebels.' "
The doctor's radiant smile, grateful, appreciative, comprehending, more than repaid her if she was making any sacrifice. He had been honestly anxious to have her go with the others to a place of safety, but when he found it was impossible to persuade her he was openly joyous at this new proof of her devotion.
"Millicent," he said, with his adoring look, "you should have been the wife of a hero!"
"I am," she answered softly; and then they both remembered Eunice with a start. For a moment they had forgotten her; now Mrs. Charlton said:
"My dear, you must make haste; you have more packing than the others, and you will not be ready. But do not try to do it all. Just pack one trunk with the things you need most, and we will send you the rest later. "
"I am not going," said Eunice, mildly.
"Not going!" ejaculated Dr. and Mrs. Charlton in a breath; and Mrs. Charlton added, "But, my dear, you must! Think of your family, how terrified they will be about you! "
"Yes," said the doctor; "I think you will have to go, my dear Miss Eunice. I am responsible to your father for your safety, and he would have a right to call me to account if I permitted you to stay."
Eunice listened to them both with that little tilt of her chin that made the doctor's heart fail within him. He had learned to know that that almost imperceptible tilt denoted, if not obstinacy, at least a firmness that was adamant. Eunice was still silent, and he ventured once more:
"You know, do you not, that nothing could be sweeter to us than to have you share with us the dangers of the next few weeks as you have shared the privations of the last year. But your first duty is to your father and your family, and I think you must go, my child."
At his last words Eunice turned to him quickly and passionately, and with an abandon in voice and gesture they had never seen before.
"Oh, let me stay with you, dear Dr. Charlton-dear, dear Mrs. Charlton!" she cried; "I cannot go away and leave you. I will write to them and send by the train leaving to-night, so they will know why I stay, and know that you are not at all responsible." And then she added, with the little twinkle of humor in her eye that was always irresistible to the doctor:
"I will tell my father that I could not make up my mind to miss this opportunity of seeing something of the war. That will appeal to him, and he will be envying me instead of mourning for me."
There was no gainsaying her, and while Dr. and Mrs. Charlton were genuinely concerned lest they were being very unwise in allowing her to remain, they recognized their helplessness and rejoiced that they might with a good conscience permit themselves to be glad that she was not to leave them for a while.
That was a night long to be remembered in the old town. Pandemonium had broken loose in the college; the deafening clatter of pounding and hammering, dragging heavy boxes and trunks about, bumping them down uncarpeted stairs, excited and loud demands for hammers and nails, vain calling on all the janitors by name, mingled with much good-natured joking and even an occasional snatch of song.
By ten o'clock most of the packing seemed to be finished, and the long line of wheel-barrows, piled high with trunks and boxes, had started for the train. At the president's house "Judge" and Charles Cook, junior, had, between them, wheeled to the train the dozen trunks that were leaving that evening. It was a grand frolic to the young people; the hurried packing of the girls, the young men eager with proffers of service, locking trunks that refused to go shut and then carrying them down-stairs with jest and laughter and much bandying of youthful wit. They were all going off together on the special train-well chaperoned, to be sure; but the midnight ride was in the nature of a grand lark, and they were loud in their regrets that Lucy was not to go with them.
To the confusion and bustle of getting ready there succeeded an hour of comparative quiet when work was over and there was nothing to do but wait,-an hour of feverish impatience to the older people, to whose exaggerated fears every sound was the tramp of the vanguard of the invading army. But to many young hearts in the old town that last hour was a sad one. All over the town, officers and students were making their farewell calls on those to whom it was hardest to say farewell. In many an old garden where the moon threw deepest shadows under spreading trees, or on shady, quiet streets, or in secluded nooks of the beautiful campus, remote from the noise and confusion, ardent vows were whispered and tears dimmed bright eyes, and hand sought hand in last and tenderest clasp.
Promptly at eleven o'clock, the long train, reaching almost to the campus gates, pulled up in front of the Mansion House; but so great were the piles of trunks and boxes to be loaded on the three baggage-cars that it was midnight before the last good-bys were said and the train steamed slowly down "Main Street," every platform crowded with young men frantically waving hats and handkerchiefs, each one with his last, lingering look fixed on some girlish figure standing lonely under the flaring gas-jets of the station and tearfully waving a farewell for him alone.
A great sense of loneliness and dreariness fell on the doctor's little party as they turned their faces homeward through the moonlight and the shadows. They were all there but Eunice and Baby Ned. Baby Ned was asleep, and Eunice had begged to be allowed to stay with him while the others accompanied their guests to the train. The children were so wildly excited that to have tried to force them to bed would have seemed cruelty, and now Millie voiced the general sadness by breaking into irrepressible sobs.
"Why, what is it, darling?" asked her mother, almost inclined to be amused, and yet a little touched that the child should have taken these partings so seriously.
"Oh, I can't bear to have Alcinda and Cindie and Charles Cook, junior, go away," sobbed the child.
"But they are coming back," said Mrs. Charlton, soothingly. "Father thought it was not quite safe for them here,-they're 'contraband,' you know,-and so they are going to stay at Aunt Sarah's until these troubles are over-and we don't think that will be very long."
But though Millie tried to stifle her sobs, she still wept on silently, for she knew they would never come back. In the shadow of a great pile of trunks at the station, Alcinda had taken her in her arms and said in her mournful negro tones:
"God bress yer sweet face, honey! I dunno's I 'll ever see it ag'in. Don' tell yer mother, chile; but I think ole Alcindy'll stay Norf when she gits there. I'm shore 'nuff tired o' runnin' away from the 'fed'rates. This is the third time now, and three times is out. Good-by, honey, an' don' you forget ole Alcindy."