The Handsomest Man in the Army
EUNICE began to fear life in Bellaire was to prove a round of dissipation when, the next morning at breakfast, Mrs. Charlton announced that Mrs. Barton, wife of the commandant at the barracks, had invited them out to "retreat," with tea on the lawn to follow.
"Oh, lovely!" exclaimed Lucy. "I'm so glad you 're to be introduced to the barracks so soon, Eunice. That 's one of the nicest things we do in Bellaire–walk out to the barracks to 'retreat,' or sometimes in the morning to 'guard mount.' But we don't often have tea on the lawn afterward. It's very grand, you know, to be invited to the commandant's house; especially if you don't happen to belong to the army set."
Then a sudden fear as to the walk presented itself to her, and she added quickly:
"Is it only we that are invited, mother? Will there be no other young people?"
"Oh, I think so. I fancy it's to be quite a party," Mrs. Charlton assured her. "Mrs. Barton says it is a special invitation to meet the 'handsomest man it the army.' "
"Whom does she mean, mother–not Lieutenant Watson?" Lucy's tones were slightly scornful.
"I'm not sure," answered Mrs. Charlton, slowly; "but I think I know;" and then refused to hazard a guess. "No, we'll wait and see," she said; and had hardly finished speaking when "Judge" appeared at the door, the bearer of a tiny white note for Lucy.
"It's from Cousin Willie," said Lucy, looking up at Eunice as she finished reading it. "He asks permission for Rex and himself to walk out with us to the barracks this afternoon. Shall I say yes for you?"
"I presume so," said Eunice, trying to look as indifferent as Lucy over such a momentous affair as an invitation from a young man, and hoping that no one would notice the little tongues of flame she could feel darting in and out of her cheeks.
There were only eight in the little party setting out from Mrs. Charlton's door as the late afternoon shadows were lengthening over the velvety turf of the campus. Of the eight, only Lucy and Eunice and Rex and Willie were of the college set; Marcia Morris, the beauty, and Lydia McNair, the belle, were the other girls, and by their sides stalked two stalwart officers from the barracks.
They were a pleasant sight, those Bellaire belles and beaux of long ago, as they walked down the shaded streets of the old town; and the neighbors, sitting on the stoops in the cool of the afternoon and watching them as they passed, had only kindly comments for them. The stately Marcia, tall, dark, and graceful, led the way, and by her side an officer, walking, awkwardly as became a cavalry officer, his spurs jingling and his sword clanking superciliously. By Miss Lydia's side walked Lieutenant Watson, a glow of pleasure on his fine face, and holding himself a little more proudly erect as he walked beside the acknowledged leader of Bellaire society. Willie was with Lucy, of course–dainty little Lucy, her golden curls afloat on the breeze, and tripping by Willie's side with the light and airy grace of a fairy; and Rex brought up the rear, holding with studied grace a plain and somber parasol over Eunice.
It was something of a trial to Rex that every other man was holding, more or less clumsily, a tiny sunshade ruffled gaily, and that Lucy and Lydia and Marcia were all a fluff of summer muslins and laces over swaying crinoline, while Eunice's pearl-gray chally fell in straight, soft folds to her feet. Yet there must have been an atom of moral courage in his character; for as he saw wondering or critical glances directed toward Eunice as they passed in review down the long line of Bellaire burghers at ease on own door-steps, he said to himself slowly, noting Eunice's gray eyes dancing with excitement under their long lashes and the color coming and going in the oval of her cheeks, and her lithe and graceful figure swaying with each elastic step, "She's as pretty as any of them, and a thousand times more classic in her style of dress."
Dr. and Mrs. Charlton had gone on in advance of the young folks in the family carryall, and it proved to be, as Mrs. Charlton had conjectured, quite a party. Most of the guests were already gathered on the veranda and the lawn before the commandant's house, and Eunice found she had another dreadful ordeal to undergo in the introductions. But Dr. and Mrs. Charlton were there to keep her in countenance, and Mrs. Barton was cordial and sweet, and her own calm exterior helped her to go bravely through with it. It was the army set that was present in force, Dr. Charlton's little household were the only outsiders, and Eunice had already formed rigid ideas of the worldliness, or perhaps worse, of the army set; but they melted rapidly away under the thawing influence of the gracious cordiality that met her on all sides. They were a manless company at first, for the two officers had hastily excused themselves to take their places in the coming ceremony, and Rex and Willie were the only men left among the bevy of girls.
"Who is your lion, Mrs. Barton?" asked Lydia McNair. "We've all been trying to guess. Mrs. Charlton says there's only one man who answers to the description of 'the handsomest man in the army,' but she won't tell us who it is."
"Wait till you see him" Mrs. Barton answered. "Or perhaps you know him. There he comes across the parade-ground with Major Barton."
Everyone turned quickly. Riding across the open square beside Major Barton was an erect, soldierly figure towering by half a bead above the group of subalterns surrounding him. It was impossible to distinguish more of him than that the close-cut beard and thick wavy hair were already turning white; but Rex exclaimed quickly:
"Why, it's Uncle Robert! There's no mistaking 'Traveller' even at this distance. Did you ever see a more magnificent horse, Miss Harlowe?"
Miss Lydia gave Eunice no chance to reply, for which she was grateful–since she knew so little of horses that she had no intelligent answer ready.
"Of course!" Lydia exclaimed; "that description could apply to no one else." And then a sudden silence fell upon the little party.
The garrison band had been playing at intervals, and at intervals also the mounted buglers had been sounding their musical summons. In response to the summons the whole garrison was now drawn up in picturesque order surrounding the tall flag-staff on the parade in front of the commandant's house. The shadows had been lengthening rapidly across the deep emerald of the close-cut lawns,–the garrison's pride, for the turf was a hundred years old,–and now the lower rim of the sun was just touching the horizon. Once more the mounted buglers sounded the beautiful "retreat," the sunset gun boomed forth its signal, and the orderly standing at the foot of the tall staff began to lower the flag. As it fluttered slowly down every soldier and every officer stood facing it at salute, while the famous band broke into the strains of the "Star Spangled Banner."
It was Lydia McNair who first broke the silence. The soldiers in squadrons were wheeling and marching toward their quarters, and the officers were dismounting and giving their horses into the charge of orderlies preparatory to joining the ladies on Mrs. Barton's veranda. Miss Lydia sighed.
"No wonder our soldiers love their flag so," she said, "when they see it so honored every day."
"I could die for it!" exclaimed Lucy, ardently, her eyes beaming and her cheeks glowing with the enthusiasm with which the scene had inspired her.
"And so could I!' exclaimed Willie and Rex in concert.
It was an old story to all those on the veranda, except to Eunice. It was a favorite pastime with the young people of Bellaire to form walking-parties to the barracks for "retreat," but the beautiful ceremony never palled and never failed to fill them with love and loyalty. To Eunice it was new and wonderful. She had never before known that all over her native land, wherever a company or a regiment of the army was stationed, and on every ship of the navy riding the seas, the sunset hour was always witness to just such honoring of the beautiful flag. A fierce new loyalty began to burn within her. She began to feel that heretofore she bad been provincial: she had loved New England, but had cared but little for that whole broad country which for almost the first time she proudly claimed as her own. She glowed with pride to hear Rex ardently second Lucy's speech, and she longed to be able to break through her native reserve and second it also.
In the midst of her glowing thoughts she found herself being presented to a tall soldier who seemed to her to merit a better description than handsome, there was such mingled benignity and nobility in his bearing. The dark-brown eyes beamed on her in kindly fashion, but yet she was sure she caught a glimpse of lightning lurking in their depths, and they inspired her almost as much with awe as with liking. She was aghast when one of Mrs. Barton's little girls rushed across the veranda and flung herself into his arms. But he seemed to like it and not to be embarrassed by the child's noisy demonstration of affection.
"She's namesake to both me and my wife," he said to Eunice in apology for the child, "and knows she has full liberty with her old godfather. Come, Roberta, tell Miss Harlowe your name."
"Roberta Custis Barton," responded the child, promptly; and in the same breath: " Please, Uncle Robert, haven't you any candy in your pocket?"
"Look and see, Bobolink, " he answered, and pretended to be greatly astonished when the child pulled a bag of peppermints out of the skirts of his coat.
"Are you everybody's uncle?" asked Eunice, beginning to feel wonderfully at ease with the stern soldier.
"Not 'really, truly' uncle," he answered, smiling. "I am only uncle by courtesy to Willie Dayton and Rex McAllister because their fathers and I were college chums and Rex's mother was one of my childish sweethearts. Of course, I'm uncle to all of Mrs. Barton's children; we've been in barracks together and in camp together, and we're all old soldiers together.
"Robert," said Mrs. Barton, coming up at this moment intent on seating her guests at the little tables set on the veranda and the lawn, "I'm going to put you with Dr. and Mrs. Charlton."
"By all means," answered Uncle Robert; "but let me have some of the young people as well. You know my weakness, Emily; give me Miss Harlowe and Rex, at least."
"It will make jealousy, I fear," said Mrs. Barton, shaking her head doubtfully; " but I know you're not happy without young people around you. Not to seem invidious, I will have to add one or two others, and I think I will give you Lydia McNair and Lieutenant Watson also. You remember the McNairs when you were stationed in Bellaire years ago?"
"Of course! and I remember Miss Lydia as a saucy little girl in pantalets. Give me her also, by all means."
On their way to the table, the colonel. threw his arm affectionately over Rex's shoulders.
"Well, Rex, and how are they all at home?" he asked genially.
Rex colored with pleasure.
"All very well, sir. " he answered respectfully. "They will be delighted to hear so directly from you. I shall write my mother all about your visit."
"And tell her I found her boy in good company," he said, with a sly glance at Eunice, which greatly pleased Rex as an evidence of Uncle Robert's admiration of the little New Englander. But it was not the colonel's way to lose an opportunity of uttering the "word in season," and so he added in a graver tone:
"And how is it with you, my boy? Is everything as it should be? Are you making of yourself a man of whom that dear mother of yours will be proud some day?"
Rex colored violently this time, and hardly with pleasure.
"I hope so, sir," he said, at first stiffly, as one who rejects unwarrantable interference. Then a better impulse followed quickly, and he added impulsively:
"I'm afraid, Uncle Robert, I'm hardly up to your standard or my mother's, but perhaps I 'm not quite as bad as I seem."
There was no time for any further words, and the colonel relinquished Rex's shoulder with a friendly pressure. Mrs. Barton had put him on her right and Dr. Charlton on her left, and since the table was a long square held eight people,–an impossible number to seat symmetrically,–Eunice sat next Mrs. Charlton, who was at the right of her host. It was an arrangement that put Eunice directly opposite Rex; and though Rex was in duty bound to devote himself to Lydia, by whose side he sat, he had a very good chance to watch Eunice, and he was curiously interested to note how she would bear herself at what might almost be called her first dinner party. He had begun to decide that he had no reason to feel ashamed; she lacked a little the ease of the other guests, the primness inseparable from her was perhaps a little more noticeable than usual but her air of breeding was unmistakable and her quiet dignity a pleasant contrast to Miss Lydia's boisterousness, which, however, was less pronounced than her wont, held in bounds by her awe of Dr. Charlton, whose kind blue eyes she liked to shine and dreaded to read disapproval.
Half-way through the supper, Rex, who had been leaning toward Lydia with his usual air of devotion, lifted his head at the sound of something like a half gasp from Eunice, and glanced across the table at her. She was leaning slightly forward, her eyes fixed on the colonel, and the look in them was half horror, half unwilling interest. Rex turned to listen to what his Uncle Robert could be saying to account for that intense expression in Eunice's eyes.
"Is it not strange," he was saying, "that the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers, who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their religious freedom, have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?"
The good doctor, embarrassed for Eunice, hastened to modify this statement; but the colonel, not understanding at all that Miss Harlowe, who had greatly attracted him, was a New Englander, went on, serenely unconscious of any discourtesy:
"The efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South are unlawful and foreign to their duty. They are neither responsible nor accountable for this institution, and it can only be changed through the agency of a civil and servile war."
"But I thought I had understood that you did not approve of slavery," interposed the doctor, mildly.
"I do not. There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country; but I think it a greater evil to the white than to the black race. My feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter; my sympathies are more strongly with the former."
"Then why," objected the doctor, "are you so severe in your disapproval of the abolitionist, who thinks with you that slavery is an evil to both whites and blacks?"
For the first time in the course of the argument the colonel's calm exterior seemed ruffled. Eunice saw the lightning-flash she had suspected of lurking in his brown eyes. He spoke with some asperity:
"The abolitionist, sir, must know that the course he is pursuing will only excite angry feelings in the master and insurrection in the slave. Emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity than from the storms and tempests of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers and all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands Who sees the end, Who chooses to work by slow influences, with Whom a thousand years are but as a single day. But the abolitionist does not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose; though the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no concern with, hold good of every kind of interference with our neighbors."
"I am somewhat of your way of thinking," said the doctor, benignly; "though I believe 'God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform," and the abolitionist may be one of them."
The colonel smiled.
"I cannot possibly accuse you of irreverence, sir," he said; "and perhaps you are right–but God forbid!"
Seeing that the colonel was now mollified, the doctor ventured on a question he was greatly desiring to ask.
"What do you think, colonel, will be the effect in the South should Lincoln be elected?"
The colonel's broad brow and kindly eyes clouded at once.
"Ah, my dear sir, I greatly dread the result. You remember that in '56 the South had determined upon secession if Fremont should be elected, and only the election of Buchanan saved us. Feeling is running greatly higher now. As far as I can judge by the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert from us both!"
The colonel spoke with deep feeling–a feeling the doctor shared so strongly he could not trust himself to reply. But Eunice had heard but one word–secession." Her whole soul was in a turmoil of indignation and horror. Hardly realizing what she was doing, she, usually so calm and self-restrained, and with a modesty in the presence of her elders that verged on timidity, rushed impetuously into speech.
"Secession! Destroy the Unionl That would be the act of traitors!" she exclaimed indignantly. "I am from New England. I am a descendant of those Puritans you have just accused of narrow-mindedness and bigotry–and perhaps they are all that; but no one can accuse them of not being patriots, or of being disloyal to their country."
Yet, with all her indignation hot within her, she still maintained her quiet dignity of manner; and Rex, who had at first fidgeted a little and dropped his eyes, embarrassed by what struck him as her "strong-minded" attitude, so alien to all her surroundings, lifted them at last and let them rest on Eunice with admiration and something akin to pride in his long look.
The colonel's dark-brown eyes expressed something of the same admiration as he hastened to disclaim all intentional discourtesy in his animadversions, on her ancestors. But he seemed to feel, also, that in the little Puritan he had found a foeman not unworthy of his steel, and so, his apologies fully made, he added with the kindly smile natural to him in addressing a young woman: "Is it because the South threatens secession that you accuse her of disloyalty and lack of patriotism?" and as Eunice merely bowed her assent, he went on:
"Have you forgotten that his Britannic Majesty, in his treaty of peace after the Revolution, acknowledged the thirteen colonies by name to be 'free, sovereign and independent states,' and there was no quarrel on our side with the phraseology of the treaty? And in 1786, you know, New England made many threats of secession, and Rhode Island did actually secede and was not readmitted until 1790. And in 1804, at the time of the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon, New England was full of threats that it would secede from the Federal Union and form a Northern Confederacy. Later, Josiah Quincy said on the floor of Congress: 'If Louisiana is granted statehood, it is my deliberate opinion that it is virtually a dissolution of the Union, that it will free the States from their moral obligation; and as it will be the right of all, it will be the duty of some definitely to prepare for a separation–amicably if they can, violently if they must'; and from no quarter came any denial of this right of secession. Throughout the war of 1812 talk of secession was rife in New England, and very probably the only thing that prevented the formation of the Northern Confederacy at that time was the treaty of peace made with England. Now, my dear young lady, I don't want to throw any discredit on your forebears; I am not sure but they were well within their rights in all this talk of secession; but I only want to remind you that it is not the South alone that has shown itself so disloyal as to threaten disruption of the Union."
Poor Eunice! She was hurt twice: first in her pride of an unblemished ancestry, and second, which was perhaps the more mortifying of the two in her pride of scholarship. She could not remember that she had ever even read these damning facts of history, whose verity she could not for a moment discredit; she had prided herself expressly on being well read in the history of her own country! She had no weapons with which to refute the colonel's arguments; there was nothing left to her but capitulation: but she was not of that obstinate feminine type that will never own itself beaten, and her surrender was made so sweetly that she took the enemy by storm in the very act of making it, and went down with colors flying.
"You have quite confounded me, colonel," she said in her sweet little prim way; "I find I must confess myself very ignorant of my country's history. I shall always be very humble hereafter about my Puritan ancestors, for it seems the Puritans of the North are no more infallible than the Chevaliers of the South. But, individually, I shall always maintain that loyalty to the Union is a far nobler and more patriotic sentiment than loyalty to any 'sovereign and independent state'!"
Dr. Charlton led and the colonel was the first to follow in the round of applause that greeted Eunice's little speech. To her surprise and confusion, she found herself the center of attention. The guests at the other tables looked up to see what had occasioned the commotion at the table of honor, and saw the grave Miss Harlowe all smiles and blushes as she received the compliments and congratulations showered upon her. Then they saw the colonel rise to his feet with his wine-glass in his hand, his splendid figure erect, his waving hair a crown of glory, his dark eyes blazing. Lifting his voice to include the little circle of tables about his own, he invited every one to drink, standing, the toast he was about to propose:
"The Union forever! Pride of our fathers, may it be the joy and glory of our descendants!"
Eunice found herself on her feet with the others, a wine-glass in her hand,–she, who had never touched the hated thing in her life before,–and amid clinking glass and ringing cheers she raised it to her lips.