What Answer?


19. Chapter XIX

"In breathless quiet, after all their ills."


A body of these wretches, fresh from some act of rapine and pillage, had seen Mrs. Franklin, hastening home, and, opening the hue and cry, had started in full chase after her. Struck by sticks and stones that darkened the air, twice down, fleeing as those only do who flee for life, she gained her own house, thinking there to find security. Vain hope! the door was battered in, the windows demolished, the puny barriers between the room in which they were gathered and the creatures in pursuit, speedily destroyed,--and these three turned to face death.

By chance, Surrey had his sword at his side, and, tearing this from its scabbard, sprang to the defence,--a gallant intent, but what could one weapon and one arm do against such odds as these? He was speedily beaten down and flung aside by the miscreants who swarmed into the room. It was marvellous they did not kill him outright. Doubtless they would have done so but for the face propped against the pillows, which caught their hungry eyes. Soldier and woman were alike forgotten at sight of this dying boy. Here was a foeman worthy their steel. They gathered about him, and with savage hands struck at him and the bed upon which he lay.

A pause for a moment to hold consultation, crowded with oaths and jeers and curses; obscenity and blasphemy too hideous to read or record,--then the cruel hands tore him from his bed, dragged him over the prostrate body of his mother, past the senseless form of his brave young defender, out to the street. Here they propped him against a tree, to mock and torment him; to prick him, wound him, torture him; to task endurance to its utmost limit, but not to extinguish life. These savages had no such mercy as this in their souls; and when, once or twice he fell away into insensibility, a cut or blow administered with devilish skill or strength, restored him to anguish and to life.

Surrey, bewildered and dizzy, had recovered consciousness, and sat gazing vacantly around him, till the cries and yells without, the agonized face within, thrilled every nerve into feeling. Starting up, he rushed to the window, but recoiled at the awful sight. Here, he saw, there was no human power within reach or call that could interfere. The whole block, from street to street, was crowded with men and boys, armed with the armory of the street, and rejoicing like veritable fiends of hell over the pangs of their victim.

Even in the moment he stood there he beheld that which would haunt his memory, did it endure for a century. At last, tired of their sport, some of those who were just about Abram had tied a rope about his body, and raised him to the nearest branch of an overhanging tree; then, heaping under him the sticks and clubs which were flung them from all sides, set fire to the dry, inflammable pile, and watched, for the moment silent, to see it burn.

Surrey fled to the other side of the room, and, cowering down, buried his head in his arm to shut out the awful sight and sounds. But his mother,--O marvellous, inscrutable mystery of mother-love!--his mother knelt by the open window, near which hung her boy, and prayed aloud, that he might hear, for the wrung body and passing soul. Great God! that such things were possible, and thy heavens fell not! Through the sound of falling blows, reviling oaths, and hideous blasphemy, through the crackling of burning fagots and lifting flames, there went out no cry for mercy, no shriek of pain, no wail of despair. But when the torture was almost ended, and nature had yielded to this work of fiends, the dying face was turned towards his mother,--the eyes, dim with the veil that falls between time and eternity, seeking her eyes with their latest glance,--the voice, not weak, but clear and thrilling even in death, cried for her ear, "Be of good cheer, mother! they may kill the body, but they cannot touch the soul!" and even with the words the great soul walked with God.

After a while the mob melted out of the street to seek new scenes of ravage and death; not, however, till they had marked the house, as those within learned, for the purpose of returning, if it should so please them, at some future time.

When they were all gone, and the way was clear, these two--the mother that bore him, the elegant patrician who instinctively shrank from all unpleasant and painful things--took down the poor charred body, and carrying it carefully and tenderly into the house of a trembling neighbor, who yet opened her doors and bade them in, composed it decently for its final rest.

It was drawing towards evening, and Surrey was eager to get away from this terrible region,--both to take the heart-stricken woman, thus thrown upon his care, to some place of rest and safety, and to reassure Francesca, who, he knew, would be filled with maddening anxiety and fear at his long absence.

At length they ventured forth: no one was in the square;--turned at Fortieth Street,--all clear;--went on with hasty steps to the Avenue,--not a soul in sight. "Safe,--thank God!" exclaimed Surrey, as he hurried his companion onward. Half the space to their destination had been crossed, when a band of rioters, rushing down the street from the sack and burning of the Orphan Asylum, came upon them. Defence seemed utterly vain. Every house was shut; its windows closed and barred; its inmates gathered in some rear room. Escape and hope appeared alike impossible; but Surrey, flinging his charge behind him, with drawn sword, face to the on-sweeping hordes, backed down the street. The combination--a negro woman, a soldier's uniform--intensified the mad fury of the mob, which was nevertheless held at bay by the heroic front and gleaming steel of their single adversary. Only for a moment! Then, not venturing near him, a shower of bricks and stones hurtled through the air, falling about and upon him.

At this instant a voice called, "This way! this way! For God's sake! quick! quick!" and he saw a friendly black face and hand thrust from an area window. Still covering with his body his defenceless charge, he moved rapidly towards this refuge. Rapid as was the motion, it was not speedy enough; he reached the railing, caught her with his one powerful arm, imbued now with a giant's strength, flung her over to the waiting hands that seized and dragged her in, pausing for an instant, ere he leaped himself, to beat back a half-dozen of the foremost miscreants, who would else have captured their prey, just vanishing from sight. Sublime, yet fatal delay! but an instant, yet in that instant a thousand forms surrounded him, disarmed him, overcame him, and beat him down.

Meanwhile what of Francesca? The morning passed, and with its passing came terrible rumors of assault and death. The afternoon began, wore on,--the rumors deepened to details of awful facts and realities; and he--he, with his courage, his fatal dress--was absent, was on those death-crowded streets. She wandered from room to room, forgetting her reserve, and accosting every soul she met for later news,--for information which, received, did but torture her with more intolerable pangs, and send her to her knees; though, kneeling, she could not pray, only cry out in some dumb, inarticulate fashion, "God be merciful!"

The afternoon was spent; the day gone; the summet twilight deepening into night; and still he did not come. She had caught up her hat and mantle with some insane intention of rushing into the wide, wild city, on a frenzied search, when two gentlemen passing by her door, talking of the all-absorbing theme, arrested her ear and attention.

"The house ought to be guarded! These devils will be here presently,--they are on the Avenue now."

"Good God! are you certain?"


"You may well be," said a third voice, as another step joined theirs. "They are just above Thirtieth Street. I was coming down the Avenue, and saw them myself. I don't know what my fate would have been in this dress,"--Francesca knew from this that he who talked was of the police or soldiery,--"but they were engaged in fighting a young officer, who made a splendid defence before they cut him down; his courage was magnificent. It makes my blood curdle to think of it. A fair-haired, gallant-looking fellow, with only one arm. I could do nothing for him, of course, and should have been killed had I stayed; so I ran for life. But I don't think I'll ever quite forgive myself for not rushing to the rescue, and taking my chance with him."

She did not stay to hear the closing words. Out of the room, past them, like a spirit,--through the broad halls,--down the wide stairways,--on to the street,--up the long street, deserted here, but O, with what a crowd beyond!

A company of soldiers, paltry in number, yet each with loaded rifle and bayonet set, charged past her at double-quick upon this crowd, which gave way slowly and sullenly at its approach, holding with desperate ferocity and determination to whatever ghastly work had been employing their hands,--dropped at last,--left on the stones,--the soldiers between it and the mob,--silent, motionless,--she saw it, and knew it where it lay. O woful sight and knowledge for loving eyes and bursting heart!

Ere she reached it some last stones were flung by the retreating crowd, a last shot fired in the air,--fired at random, but speeding with as unerring aim to her aching, anguished breast, death-freighted and life-destroying,--but not till she had reached her destined point and end; not till her feet failed close to that bruised and silent form; not till she had sunk beside it, gathered it in her fair young arms, and pillowed its beautiful head--from which streamed golden hair, dabbled and blood-bestained--upon her faithful heart.

There it stirred; the eyes unclosed to meet hers, a gleam of divine love shining through their fading fire; the battered, stiffened arm lifted, as to fold her in the old familiar caress. "Darling--die--to make--free"--came in gasps from the sweet, yet whitening lips. Then she lay still. Where his breath blew across her hair it waved, and her bosom moved above the slow and labored beating of his heart; but, save for this, she was as quiet as the peaceful dead within their graves,--and, like them, done with the noise and strife of time forever.

For him,--the shadows deepened where he lay,--the stars came out one by one, looking down with clear and solemn eyes upon this wreck of fair and beautiful things, wrought by earthly hate and the awful passions of men,--then veiled their light in heavy and sombre clouds. The rain fell upon the noble face and floating, sunny hair,--washing them free of soil, and dark and fearful stains; moistening the fevered, burning lips, and cooling the bruised and aching frame. How passed the long night with that half-insensible soul? God knoweth. The secrets of that are hidden in the eternity to which it now belongs. Questionless, ministering spirits drew near, freighted with balm and inspiration; for when the shadows fled, and the next morning's sun shone upon these silent forms, it revealed faces radiant as with some celestial fire, and beatified as reflecting the smile of God.

The inmates of the house before which lay this solemn mystery, rising to face a new-made day, looking out from their windows to mark what traces were left of last night's devastations, beheld this awful yet sublime sight.

"A prejudice which, I trust, will never end," had Mr. Surrey said, in bidding adieu to his son but a few short hours before. This prejudice, living and active, had now thus brought death and desolation to his own doors. "How unsearchable are the judgments of God, and his ways past finding out!"