What Answer?


13. Chapter XIII

"I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honor more.


Just after Surrey, for the third time, had passed through the avenue of trees, two men appeared in it, earnestly conversing. One, the older, was the same who had met Willie as he was going out, and had examined him with such curious interest. The other, in feature, form, and bearing, was so absolutely the counterpart of his companion that it was easy to recognize in them father and son,--a father and son whom it would be hard to match. "The finest type of the Anglo-Saxon race I have seen from America," was the verdict pronounced upon Mr. Ercildoune, when he was a young man studying abroad, by an enthusiastic and nationally ignorant Englishman; "but then, sir," he added, "what very dark complexions you Americans have! Is it universal?"

"By no means, sir," was Mr. Ercildoune's reply. "There are some exceedingly fine ones among my countrymen. I come from the South: that is a bad climate for the tint of the skin."

"Is it so?" exclaimed John Bull,--"worse than the North?"

"Very much worse, sir, in more ways than one."

Perhaps Robert Ercildoune was a trifle fairer than his father, but there was still perceptible the shade which marked him as effectually an outcast from the freedom of American society, and the rights of American citizenship, as though it had been the badge of crime or the strait jacket of a madman. Something of this was manifested in the conversation in which the two were engaged.

"It is folly, Robert, for you to carry your refinement and culture into the ranks as a common soldier, to fight and to die, without thanks. You are made of too good stuff to serve simply as food for powder."

"Better men than I, father, have gone there, and are there to-day; men in every way superior to me."

"Perhaps,--yes, if you will have it so. But what are they? white men, fighting for their own country and flag, for their own rights of manhood and citizenship, for a present for themselves and a future for their children, for honor and fame. What is there for you?"

"For one thing, just that of which you spoke. Perhaps not a present for me, but certainly a future for those that come after."

"A future! How are you to know? what warrant or guarantee have you for any such future? Do you judge by the past? by the signs of to-day? I tell you this American nation will resort to any means--will pledge anything, by word or implication--to secure the end for which it fights; and will break its pledges just so soon as it can, and with whomsoever it can with impunity. You, and your children, and your children's children after you, will go to the wall unless it has need of you in the arena."

"I do not think so. This whole nation is learning, through pain and loss, the lesson of justice; of expediency, doubtless, but still of justice; and I do not think it will be forgotten when the war is ended. This is our time to wipe off a thousand stigmas of contempt and reproach: this"--

"Who is responsible for them? ourselves? What cast them there? our own actions? I trow not. Mark the facts. I pay taxes to support the public schools, and am compelled to have my children educated at home. I pay taxes to support the government, and am denied any representation or any voice in regard to the manner in which these taxes shall be expended. I hail a car on the street, and am laughed to scorn by the conductor,--or, admitted, at the order of the passengers am ignominiously expelled. I offer my money at the door of any place of public amusement, and it is flung back to me with an oath. I enter a train to New York, and am banished to the rear seat or the 'negro car.' I go to a hotel, open for the accommodation of the public, and am denied access; or am requested to keep my room, and not show myself in parlor, office, or at table. I come within a church, to worship the good God who is no respecter of persons, and am shown out of the door by one of his insolent creatures. I carry my intelligence to the polls on election morning, and am elbowed aside by an American boor or a foreign drunkard, and, with opprobrious epithets by law officers and rabble, am driven away. All this in the North; all this without excuse of slavery and of the feeling it engenders; all this from arrogant hatred and devilish malignity. At last, the country which has disowned me, the government which has never recognized save to outrage me, the flag which has refused to cover or to protect me, are in direct need and utmost extremity. Then do they cry for me and mine to come up to their help ere they perish. At least, they hold forth a bribe to secure me? at least, if they make no apology for the past, they offer compensation for the future? at least, they bid high for the services they desire? Not at all!

"They say to one man, 'Here is twelve hundred dollars bounty with which to begin; here is sixteen dollars a month for pay; here is the law passed, and the money pledged, to secure you in comfort for the rest of life, if wounded or disabled, or help for your family, if killed. Here is every door set wide for you to rise, from post to post; money yours, advancement yours, honor, and fame, and glory yours; the love of a grateful country, the applause of an admiring world.'

"They say to another man,--you, or me, or Sam out there in the field,--'There is no bounty for you, not a cent; there is pay for you, twelve dollars a month, the hire of a servant; there is no pension for you, or your family, if you be sent back from the front, wounded or dead; if you are taken prisoner you can be murdered with impunity, or be sold as a slave, without interference on our part. Fight like a lion! do acts of courage and splendor! and you shall never rise above the rank of a private soldier. For you there is neither money nor honor, rights secured, nor fame gained. Dying, you fall into a nameless grave: living, you come back to your old estate of insult and wrong. If you refuse these tempting offers, we brand you cowards. If, under these infamous restraints and disadvantages, you fail to equal the white troops by your side, you are written down--inferiors. If you equal them, you are still inferiors. If you perform miracles, and surpass them, you are, in a measure, worthy commendation at last; we consent to see in you human beings, fit for mention and admiration,--not as types of your color and of what you intrinsically are, but as exceptions; made such by the habit of association, and the force of surrounding circumstances.'

"These are the terms the American people offer you, these the terms which you stoop to accept, these the proofs that they are learning a lesson of justice! So be it! there is need. Let them learn it to the full! let this war go on 'until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly destroyed.' Do not you interfere. Leave them to the teachings and the judgments of God."

Ercildoune had spoken with such impassioned feeling, with such fire in his eyes, such terrible earnestness in his voice, that Robert could not, if he would, interrupt him; and, in the silence, found no words for the instant at his command. Ere he summoned them they saw some one approaching.

"A fine looking fellow! fighting has been no child's play for him," said Robert, looking, as he spoke, at the empty sleeve.

Mr. Ercildoune advanced to meet the stranger, and Surrey beheld the same face upon whose pictured semblance he had once gazed with such intense feelings, first of jealousy, and then of relief and admiration; the same splendor of life, and beauty, and vitality. Surrey knew him at once, knew that it was Francesca's father, and went up to him with extended hand. Mr. Ercildoune took the proffered hand, and shook it warmly. "I am happy to meet you, Mr. Surrey."

"You know me?" said he with surprise. "I thought to present myself."

"I have seen your picture."

"And I yours. They must have held the mirror up to nature, for the originals to be so easily known. But may I ask where you saw mine? yours was in Miss Ercildoune's possession."

"As was yours," was answered after a moment's hesitation,--Surrey thought, with visible reluctance. His heart flew into his throat. "She has my picture,--she has spoken of me," he said to himself. "I wonder what her father will think,--what he will do. Come, I will to the point immediately."

"Mr. Ercildoune," said he, aloud, "you know something of me? of my position and prospects?"

"A great deal."

"I trust, nothing disparaging or ignoble."

"I know nothing for which any one could desire oblivion."

"Thanks. Let me speak to you, then, of a matter which should have been long since proposed to you had I been permitted the opportunity. I love your daughter. I cannot speak about that, but you will understand all that I wish to say. I have twice--once by letter, once by speech--let her know this and my desire to call her wife. She has twice refused,--absolutely. You think this should cut off all hope?"

Ercildoune had been watching him closely. "If she does not love you," he answered, at the pause.

"I do not know. I went away from here a little while ago with her peremptory command not to return. I should not have dared disobey it had I not learned--thought--in fact, but for some circumstances--I beg your pardon--I do not know what I am saying. I believed if I saw her once more I could change her determination,--could induce her to give me another response,--and came with that hope."

"Which has failed?"

"Which has thus far failed that she will not at all see me; will hold no communication with me. I should be a ruffian did I force myself on her thus without excuse or reason. My own love would be no apology did I not think, did I not dare to hope, that it is not aversion to me that induces her to act as she has done. Believing so, may I beg a favor of you? may I entreat that you will induce her to see me, if only for a little while?"

Ercildoune smiled a sad, bitter smile, as he answered, "Mr. Surrey, if my daughter does not love you, it would be hopeless for you or for me to assail her refusal. If she does, she has doubtless rejected you for a reason which you can read by simply looking into my face. No words of mine can destroy or do that away."

"There is nothing to destroy; there is nothing to do away. Thank you for speaking of it, and making the way easy. There is nothing in all the wide world between us,--there can be nothing between us,--if she loves me; nothing to keep us apart save her indifference or lack of regard for me. I want to say so to her if she will give me the chance. Will you not help me to it?"

"You comprehend all that I mean?"

"I do. It is, as I have said, nothing. That love would not be worth the telling that considered extraneous circumstances, and not the object itself."

"You have counted all the consequences? I think not. How, indeed, should you be able? Come with me a moment." The two went up to the house, across the wide veranda, into a room half library, half lounging-room, which, from a score of evidences strewn around, was plainly the special resort of the master. Over the mantel hung the life-size portrait of an excessively beautiful woman. A fine, spirituelle face, with proud lines around the mouth and delicate nostrils, but with a tender, appealing look in the eyes, that claimed gentle treatment. This face said, "I was made for sunshine and balmy airs, but, if darkness and storm assail, I can walk through them unflinching, though the progress be short; I can die, and give no sign." Willie went hastily up to this, and stood, absorbed, before it. "Francesca is very like her mother," said Ercildoune, coming to his side. It was his own thought, but he made no answer.

"I will tell you something of her and myself; a very little story; you can draw the moral. My father, who was a Virginian, sent my brother and me to England when we were mere boys, to be trained and educated. After his fashion, doubtless, he loved us; for he saw that we had every advantage that wealth, and taste, and care could provide; and though he never sent for us, nor came to us, in all the years after we left his house,--and though we had no legal claim upon him,--he acknowledged us his children, and left us the entire proceeds of his immense estates, unincumbered. We were so young when we went abroad, had been so tenderly treated at home, had seen and known so absolutely nothing of the society about us, that we were ignorant as Arabs of the state of feeling and prejudice in America against such as we, who carried any trace of negro blood. Our treatment in England did but increase this oblivion.

"We graduated at Oxford; my brother, who was two years older than I, waiting upon me that we might go together through Europe; and together we had three of the happiest years of life. On the Continent I met her. You see what she is; you know Francesca: it is useless for me to attempt to describe her. I loved her,--she loved me,--it was confessed. In a little while I called her wife; I would, if I could, tell you of the time that followed: I cannot. We had a beautiful home, youth, health, riches, friends, happiness, two noble boys. At last an evil fate brought us to America. I was to look after some business affairs which, my agent said, needed personal supervision. My brother, whose health had failed, was advised to try a sea-voyage, and change of scene and climate. My wife was enthusiastic about the glorious Republic,--the great, free America,--the land of my birth. We came, carrying with us letters from friends in England, that were an open sesame to the most jealously barred doors. They flew wide at our approach, but to be shut with speed when my face was seen; hands were cordially extended, and drawn back as from a loathsome contact when mine went to meet them. In brief, we were outlawed, ostracised, sacrificed on the altar of this devilish American prejudice,--wholly American, for it is found nowhere else in the world,--I for my color, she for connecting her fate with mine.

"I was so held as to be unable to return at once, and she would not leave me. Then my brother drooped more and more. His disease needed the brightest and most cheerful influences. The social and moral atmosphere stifled him. He died; and we, with grief intensified by bitterness, laid him in the soil of his own country as though it had been that of the stranger and enemy.

"At this time the anti-slavery movement was provoking profound thought and feeling in America. I at once identified myself with it; not because I was connected with the hated and despised race, but because I loathed all forms of tyranny, and fought against them with what measure of strength I possessed. Doubtless this made me a more conspicuous mark for the shafts of malice and cruelty, and as I could nowhere be hurt as through her, malignity exhausted its devices there. She was hooted at when she appeared with me on the streets; she was inundated with infamous letters; she was dragged before a court of justice upon the plea that she had defied the law of the state against amalgamation, forbidding the marriage of white and colored; though at the time it was known that she was English, that we were married in England and by English law. One night, in the midst of the riots which in 1838 disgraced this city, our house was surrounded by a mob, burned over us; and I, with a few faithful friends, barely succeeded in carrying her to a place of safety,--uncovered, save by her delicate night-robe and a shawl, hastily caught up as we hurried her away. The yelling fiends, the burning house, the awful horror of fright and danger, the shock to her health and strength, the storm,--for the night was a wild and tempestuous one, which drenched her to the skin,--from all these she might have recovered, had not her boy, her first-born, been carried into her, bruised and dead,--dead, through an accident of burning rafters and falling stones; an accident, they said; yet as really murdered as though they had wilfully and brutally stricken him down.

"After that I saw that she, too, would die, were she not taken back to our old home. The preparations were hastily made; we turned our faces towards England; we hoped to reach it at least before another pair of eyes saw the light, but hoped in vain. There on the broad sea Francesca was born. There her mother died. There was she buried."

It was with extreme difficulty Ercildoune had controlled his face and voice, through the last of this distressing recital, and with the final word he bowed his forehead on the picture-frame,--convulsed with agony,--while voiceless sobs, like spasms, shook his form. Surrey realized that no words were to be said here, and stood by, awed and silent. What hand, however tender, could be laid on such a wound as this?

Presently he looked up, and continued: "I came back here, because, I said, here was my place. I had wealth, education, a thousand advantages which are denied the masses of people who are, like me, of mixed race. I came here to identify my fate with theirs; to work with and for them; to fight, till I died, against the cruel and merciless prejudice which grinds them down. I have a son, who has just entered the service of this country, perhaps to die under its flag. I have a daughter,"--Willie flushed and started forward;--"I asked you when I began this recital, if you had counted all the consequences. You know my story; you see with what fate you link yours; reflect! Francesca carries no mark of her birth; her father or brother could not come inside her home without shocking society by the scandal, were not the story earlier known. The man whom you struck down this morning is one of our neighbors; you saw and heard his brutal assault: are you ready to face more of the like kind? Better than you I know what sentence will be passed upon you,--what measure awarded. It is for your own sake I say these things; consider them. I have finished."

Surrey had made to speak a half score of times, and as often checked himself,--partly that he should not interrupt his companion; partly that he might be master of his emotions, and say what he had to utter without heat or excitement.

"Mr. Ercildoune," he now said, "listen to me. I should despise myself were I guilty of the wicked and vulgar prejudice universal in America. I should be beneath contempt did I submit or consent to it. Two years ago I loved Miss Ercildoune without knowing aught of her birth. She is the same now as then; should I love her the less? If anything hard or cruel is in her fate that love can soften, it shall be done. If any painful burdens have been thrown upon her life, I can carry, if not the whole, then a part of them. If I cannot put her into a safe shelter where no ill will befall her, I can at least take her into my arms and go with her through the world. It will be easier for us, I think,--I hope,--to face any fate if we are together. Ah, sir, do not prevent it; do not deny me this happiness. Be my ambassador, since she will not let me speak for myself, and plead my own cause."

In his earnestness he had come close to Mr. Ercildoune, putting out his one hand with a gesture of entreaty, with a tone in his voice, and a look in his face, irresistible to hear and behold. Ercildoune took the hand, and held it in a close, firm grasp. Some strong emotion shook him. The expression, a combination of sadness and scorn, which commonly held possession of his eyes, went out of them, leaving them radiant. "No," he said, "I will say nothing for you. I would not for worlds spoil your plea; prevent her hearing, from your own mouth, what you have to say. I will send her to you,"--and, going to a door, gave the order to a servant, "Desire Miss Francesca to come to the parlor." Then, motioning Surrey to the room, he went away, buried in thought.

Standing in the parlor, for he was too restless to sit, he tried to plan how he should meet her; to think of a sentence which at the outset should disarm her indignation at being thus thrust upon him, and convey in some measure the thought of which his heart was full, without trespassing on her reserve, or telling her of the letter which he had read. Then another fear seized him; it was two years since he had written,--two years since that painful and terrible scene had been enacted in the very room where he stood,--two years since she had confessed by deed and look that she loved him. Might she not have changed? might she not have struggled for the mastery of this feeling with only too certain success? might she not have learned to regard him with esteem, perchance,--with friendship,--sentiment,--anything but that which he desired or would claim at her hands? Silence and absence and time are pitiless destructives. Might they not? Aye, might they not? He paced to and fro, with quick, restless tread, at the thought. All his love and his longing cried out against such a cruel supposition. He stopped by the side of the bookcase against which she had fallen in that merciless and suffering struggle, and put his hand down on the little projection, which he knew had once cut and wounded her, with a strong, passionate clasp, as though it were herself he held. Just then he heard a step,--her step, yet how unlike!--coming down the stairs. Where he stood he could see her as she crossed the hall, coming unconsciously to meet him. All the brightness and airy grace seemed to have been drawn quite out of her. The alert, slender figure drooped as if it carried some palpable weight, and moved with a step slow and unsteady as that of sickness or age. Her face was pathetic in its sad pallor, and blue, sorrowful circles were drawn under the deep eyes, heavy and dim with the shedding of unnumbered tears. It almost broke his heart to look at her. A feeling, pitiful as a mother would have for her suffering baby, took possession of his soul,--a longing to shield and protect her. Tears blinded him; a great sob swelled in his throat; he made a step forward as she came into the room. "Papa," she said, without looking up, "you wanted me?" There was no response. "Papa!" In an instant an arm enfolded her; a presence, tender and strong, bent above her; a voice, husky with crowding emotions, yet sweet with all the sweetness of love, breathed, "My darling! my darling!" as his fair, sunny hair swept her face.

Even then she remembered another scene, remembered her promise; even then she thought of him, of his future, and struggled to release herself from his embrace.

What did he say? what could he say? Where were the arguments he had planned, the entreaties he had purposed? where the words with which he was to tell his tale, combat her refusal, win her to a willing and happy assent? All gone.

There was nothing but his heart and its caresses to speak for him. Silent, with the ineffable stillness he kissed her eyes, her mouth, held her to his breast with a passionate fondness,--a tender, yet masterful hold, which said, "Nothing shall separate us now." She felt it, recognized it, yielded without power to longer contend, clasped her arms about his neck, met his eyes, and dropped her face upon his heart with a long, tremulous sigh which confessed that heaven was won.