What Answer?


17. Chapter XVII

"Spirits are not finely touched
But to fine issues.


Surrey was to depart for his command on Monday night, and as there were various matters which demanded his attention in town ere leaving, he drove Francesca to the city on the preceding Sunday,--a soft clear summer evening, full of pleasant sights and sounds. They scarcely spoke as, hand in hand, they sat drinking in the scene whilst the old gray, for they wished no high-stepping prancers for this ride, jogged on the even tenor of his way. Above them, the blue of the sky never before seemed so deep and tender, while in it floated fleecy clouds of delicate amber, rose, and gold, like gossamer robes of happy spirits invisible to human eyes. The leaves and grass just stirred in the breeze, making a slight, musical murmur, and across them fell long shadows cast by the westering sun. A sentiment so sweet and pleasurable as to be tinged with pain, took possession of these young, susceptible souls, as the influences of the time closed about them. In our happiest moments, our moments of utmost exaltation, it is always thus:--when earth most nearly approaches the beatitudes of heaven, and the spirit stretches forward with a vain longing for the far off, which seems but a little way beyond; the unattained and dim, which for a space come near.

"Darling!" said Surrey softly, "does it not seem easy now to die?"

"Yes, Willie," she whispered, "I feel as though it would be stepping over a very little stream to some new and beautiful shore."

Doubtless, when a pure and great soul is close to eternity, ministering angels draw nigh to one soon to be of their number, and cast something of the peace and glory of their presence on the spirit yet held by its cerements of clay.

At last the ride and the evening had an end. The country and its dear delights were mere memories,--fresh, it is true, but memories still, and no longer realities,--in the luxurious rooms of their hotel.

Evidently Surrey had something to say, which he hesitated and feared to utter. Again and again, when Francesca was talking of his plans and purposes, trusting and hoping that he might see no hard service, nor be called upon for any exposing duty, "not yet awhile," she prayed, at least,--again and again he made as if to speak, and then, ere she could notice the movement, shook his head with a gesture of silence, or--she seeing it, and asking what it was he had to say--found ready utterance for some other thought, and whispered to himself, "not yet; not quite yet. Let her rest in peace a little space longer."

They sat talking far into the night, this last night that they could spend together in so long a time,--how long, God, with whom are hid the secrets of the future, could alone tell. They talked of what had passed, which was ended,--and of what was to come, which was not sure but full of hope,--but of both with a feeling that quickened their heart-throbs, and brought happy tears to their eyes.

Twice or thrice a sound from some far distance, undecided, yet full of a solemn melody, came through the open window, borne to their ears on the still air of night,--something so undefined as not consciously to arrest their attention, yet still penetrating their nerves and affecting some fine, inner sense of feeling, for both shivered as though a chill wind had blown across them, and Surrey--half ashamed of the confession--said, "I don't know what possesses me, but I hear dead marches as plainly as though I were following a soldier's funeral."

Francesca at that grew white, crept closer to his breast, and spread out her arms as if to defend him by that slight shield from some impending danger; then both laughed at these foolish and superstitious fancies, and went on with their cheerful and tender talk.

Whatever the sound was, it grew plainer and came nearer; and, pausing to listen, they discovered it was a mighty swell of human voices and the marching of many feet.

"A regiment going through," said they, and ran to the window to see if it passed their way, looking for it up the long street, which lay solemn and still in the moonlight. On either side the palace-like houses stood stately and dark, like giant sentinels guarding the magnificent avenue, from whence was banished every sight and sound of the busy life of day; not a noise, not a footfall, not a solitary soul abroad, not a wave nor a vestige of the great restless sea of humanity which a little space before surged through it, and which, in a little while to come, would rise and swell to its full, and then ebb, and fall, and drop away once more into silence and nothingness.

Through this white stillness there came marching a regiment of men, without fife or drum, moving to the music of a refrain which lifted and fell on the quiet air. It was the Battle Hymn of the Republic,--and the two listeners presently distinguished the words,--

"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on."

The effect of this; the thousand voices which sang; the marching of twice one thousand feet; the majesty of the words; the deserted street; the clear moonlight streaming over the men, reflected from their gleaming bayonets, brightening the faded blue of their uniforms, illumining their faces which, one and all, seemed to wear--and probably did wear--a look more solemn and earnest than that of common life and feeling,--the combined effect of it all was something indescribably impressive:--inspiring, yet solemn.

They stood watching and listening till the pageant had vanished, and then turned back into their room, Francesca taking up the refrain and singing the line,

"As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on."

Surrey's face brightened at the rapt expression of hers. "Sing it again, dearie!" he said. She sang it again. "Do you mean it?" he asked then. "Can you sing it, and mean it with all your heart, for me?"

She looked at him with an expression of anxiety and pain. "What are you asking, Willie?"

He sat down; taking her upon his knee, and with the old fond gesture, holding her head to his heart,--"I should have told you before, dearie, but I did not wish to throw any shadow on the happy days we have been spending together; they were few and brief enough without marring them; and I was certain of the effect it would have upon you, by your incessant anxiety for Robert."

She drew a long, gasping sigh, and started away from his hold: "O Willie, you are not going to--"

His arm drew her back to her resting-place. "I do not return to my command, darling. I am to raise a black brigade."


"Yes, dearie."

"O Willie,--and that act just passed!"

"It is true; yet, after all, it is but one risk more."

"One? O Willie, it is a thousand. You had that many chances of escape where you were; you might be wounded and captured a score of times, and come home safe at last; but this!"

"I know."

"To go into every battle with the sentence of death hanging over you; to know that if you are anywhere captured, anyhow made prisoner, you are condemned to die,--O Willie, I can't bear it; I can't bear it! I shall die, or go mad, to carry such a thought all the time."

For answer he only held her close, with his face resting upon her hair, and in the stillness they could hear each other's heart beat.

"It is God's service," he said, at last.

"I know."

"It will end slavery and the war more effectually than aught else."

"I know."

"It will make these freedmen, wherever they fight, free men. It will give them and their people a sense of dignity and power that might otherwise take generations to secure."

"I know."

"And I. Both feeling and knowing this, who so fit to yield and to do for such a cause? If those who see do not advance, the blind will never walk."

Silence for a space again fell between them. Francesca moved in his arm.

"Dearie." She looked up. "I want to do no half service. I go into this heart and soul, but I do not wish to go alone. It will be so much to me to know that you are quite willing, and bade me go. Think what it is."

She did. For an instant all sacrifices appeared easy, all burdens light. She could send him out to death unfaltering. One of those sublime moods in which martyrdom seems glorious filled and possessed her. She took away her clinging arms from his neck, and said, "Go,--whether it be for life or for death; whether you come back to me or go up to God; I am willing--glad--to yield you to such a cause."

It was finished. There was nothing more to be said. Both had climbed the mount of sacrifice, and sat still with God.

After a while the cool gray dawn stole into their room. The night had passed in this communion, and another day come.

There were many "last things" which claimed Surrey's attention; and he, wishing to get through them early so as to have the afternoon and evening undisturbed with Francesca, plunged into a stinging bath to refresh him for the day, breakfasted, and was gone.

He attended to his business, came across many an old acquaintance and friend, some of whom greeted him coldly; a few cut him dead; whilst others put out their hands with cordial frankness, and one or two congratulated him heartily upon his new condition and happiness. These last gave him fresh courage for the task which he had set himself. If friends regarded the matter thus, surely they--his father and mother--would relent, when he came to say what might be a final adieu.

He ran up the steps, rang the bell, and, speaking a pleasant word to the old servant, went directly to his mother's room. His father had not yet gone down town; thus he found them together. They started at seeing him, and his mother, forgetting for the instant all her pride, chagrin, and anger, had her arms about his neck, with the cry, "O Willie, Willie," which came from the depths of her heart; then seeing her husband's face, and recovering herself, sat down cold and still.

It was a painful interview. He could not leave without seeing them once more; he longed for a loving good by; but after that first outburst he almost wished he had not forced the meeting. He did not speak of his wife, nor did they; but a barrier as of adamant was raised between them, and he felt as though congealing in the breath of an iceberg. At length he rose to go.

"Father!" he said then, "perhaps you will care to know that I do not return to my old command, but have been commissioned to raise a brigade from the freedmen."

Both father and mother knew the awful peril of this service, and both cried, half in suffering, half in anger, "This is your wife's work!" while his father added, with a passionate exclamation, "It is right, quite right, that you should identify yourself with her people. Well, go your way. You have made your bed; lie in it."

The blood flushed into Surrey's face. He opened his lips, and shut them again. At last he said, "Father, will you never forego this cruel prejudice?"

"Never!" answered his mother, quickly. "Never!" repeated his father, with bitter emphasis. "It is a feeling that will never die out, and ought never to die out, so long as any of the race remain in America. She belongs to it, that is enough."

Surrey urged no further; but with few words, constrained on their part,--though under its covering of pride the mother's heart was bleeding for him,--sad and earnest on his, the farewell was spoken, and they watched him out of the room. How and when would they see him again?

There was one other call upon his time. The day was wearing into the afternoon, but he would not neglect it. This was to see his old protégé, Abram Franklin, in whom he had never lost interest, and for whose welfare he had cared, though he had not seen him in more than two years. He knew that Abram was ill, had been so for a long time, and wished to see him and speak to him a few friendly and cheering words,--sure, from what the boy's own hand had written, that this would be his last opportunity upon earth to so do.

Thus he went on from his father's stately palace up Fifth Avenue, turned into the quiet side street, and knocked at the little green door. Mrs. Franklin came to open it, her handsome face thinner and sadder than of old. She caught Surrey's hand between both of hers with a delighted cry: "Is it you, Mr. Willie? How glad I am to see you! How glad Abram will be! How good of you to come!" And, holding his hand as she used when he was a boy, she led him up stairs to the sick-room. This room was even cosier than the two below; its curtains and paper cheerfuller; its furniture of quainter and more hospitable aspect; its windows letting in more light and air; everything clean and homely, and pleasant for weary, suffering eyes to look upon.

Abram was propped up in bed, his dark, intelligent face worn to a shadow, fiery spots breaking through the tawny hue upon cheeks and lips, his eyes bright with fever. Surrey saw, as he came and sat beside him, that for him earthly sorrow and toil were almost ended.

He had brought some fruit and flowers, and a little book. This last Abram, having thanked him eagerly for all, stretched out his hand to examine.

"You see, Mr. Willie, I have not gotten over my old love," he said, as his fingers closed upon it. "Whittier? 'In War-Time'? That is fine. I can read about it, if I can't do anything in it," and he lay for a while quietly turning over the pages. Mrs. Franklin had gone out to do an errand, and the two were alone.

"Do you know, Mr. Willie," said Abram, putting his finger upon the titles of two successive poems, "The Waiting," and "The Summons," "I had hard work to submit to this sickness a few months ago? I fought against it strong; do you know why?"

"Not your special reason. What was it?"

"I had waited so long, you see,--I, and my people,--for a chance. It made me quite wild to watch this big fight go on, and know that it was all about us, and not be allowed to participate; and at last when the chance came, and the summons, and the way was opened, I couldn't answer, nor go. It's not the dying I care for; I'd be willing to die the first battle I was in; but I want to do something for the cause before death comes."

The book was lying open where it had fallen from his hand, and Surrey, glancing down at the very poem of which he spoke, said gently, "Here is your answer, Franklin, better than any I can make; it ought to comfort you; listen, it is God's truth!

'O power to do! O baffled will!
O prayer and action! ye are one;
Who may not strive may yet fulfil
The harder task of standing still,
And good but wished with God is done!'"

"It is so," said Abram. "You act and I pray, and you act for me and mine. I'd like to be under you when you get the troops you were telling me about; but--God knows best."

Surrey sat gazing earnestly into space, crowded by emotions called up by these last words, whilst Abram lay watching him with admiring and loving eyes. "For me and mine," he repeated softly, his look fastening on the blue sleeve, which hung, limp and empty, near his hand. This he put out cautiously, but drew it back at some slight movement from his companion; then, seeing that he was still absorbed, advanced it, once more, and slowly, timidly, gently, lifted it to his mouth, pressing his lips upon it as upon a shrine. "For me and mine!" he whispered,--"for me and mine!" tears dimming the pathetic, dying eyes.

The peaceful quiet was broken by a tempest of awful sound,--groans and shrieks and yells mingled in horrible discord, blended with the trampling of many feet,--noises which seemed to their startled and excited fancies like those of hell itself. The next moment a door was flung open; and Mrs. Franklin, bruised, lame, her garments torn, blood flowing from a cut on her head, staggered into the room. "O Lord! O Lord Jesus!" she cried, "the day of wrath has come!" and fell, shuddering and crying, on the floor.