A Speckled Bird by Augusta Evans Wilson

A Speckled Bird by Augusta Evans Wilson.jpg

CHAPTER I

“Grandma, who named me Eglah?”

“My cousin, Bishop Vivian, when he baptized you.”

“Do you think he had any right to put such a label on me?”

“Certainly, because your father selected your name, and the bishop had no choice.”

“It is so ugly, I never can like it, and a little baby that can’t speak her mind ought not to be tied to something she must drag all her life and hate for ever and ever.”

“Eat your breakfast, and try to be a good, quiet child, then your name will not trouble you so much.”

“I never shall like it, any more than you do, and you know, grandma, when you call me your mouth twists like you had toothache.”

“I was not consulted about your name. It belonged to your New England Grandmother Kent, and as it appears you belong only to your father, you were called after his mother. I heard him tell you it was the name of a queen—one of David’s wives.”

“Yes, but I found out she was not the head queen—just a sort of step-wife queen. Now if I could only be the pet queen, Sheba, I should not fret at all.”

“The Queen of Sheba was not David’s wife.”

“You are all wrong about your Bible, grandma, because you are only a Methodist. David’s Sheba was nicknamed Bath Sheba, for the reason that he saw her going to her bath-house, and she looked so pretty. I saw her picture in father’s ‘Piscopal Bible.”

“There, there! Be quiet. Drink your milk.”

Mrs. Maurice leaned back in her chair and sighed as she looked down at the fragile child beside her. The tall, silver coffee urn showed in repoussé on one side the flight of Europa, on the other Dirce dragged to death. Eglah could never understand how the strands of the victim’s hair supported the weight of her form, and wondered why they did not give way and set the prisoner free. To-day she eyed it askance, then surveyed her own fair image reflected in the polished, smooth surface below the band of figures.

“Grandma, don’t you think horses are much nicer for ladies to ride than oxen?”

“Yes, my dear.”

“Then why did you buy ox riders?” one small finger pointed to the heirloom fetich.

“I did not buy the urn. It has belonged to your Grandfather Maurice’s family for one hundred and fifty years, and was brought from Old England. Eliza, take her away. If she cannot be silent, she must go back and have her meals with you. It seems impossible to teach her that in the presence of grown people children are expected to listen.”

Mrs. Mitchell came forward from a side table, lifted the little girl from her chair, and untied the ruffled bib that protected her white dimity dress.

“Now tell grandmother you are sorry you annoyed her, and if she will let you sit at her table you will be as quiet as she wishes.”

“Ma-Lila, don’t make me tell stories; she doesn’t believe them, and I am so tired saying things I don’t mean. I want to go back to the side table, where you are not always scolding me. Grandma, it will be peacefuller if I stay with Ma-Lila——”

“Hush! Come here.”

Mrs. Maurice lifted the little one’s dimpled chin and studied the fair face that had bloomed seven years in her lonely home: a winsome face cut like a gem, velvety-brown eyes, long-lashed, and the pure, pale oval set in a shining bronze frame of curling hair, all chestnut in shade, braided with gold when sunshine hid among the ripples.

“Kent! Kent—even her ears small as any other rogue’s. She is her father’s child.”

“Is that a sin, grandma?”

Mrs. Maurice swiftly laid her hand over the uplifted, upbraiding eyes, to veil something in their depths that often disquieted her, and sought refuge in her habitual command:

“Take her away, Eliza.”

Ringing the small bell close to the breakfast tray, the mistress took a spray of starry jasmine from the vase in the centre of the table, and as she turned away said to the grey-haired butler:

“Aaron, you will put a plate and chair for Miss Eglah at the side table until further orders. Tell Oliver I shall not want the carriage until four o’clock.”

Unusually tall and very handsome was this stately widow of a Confederate general who had been slain during one of the fierce conflicts around beleaguered Richmond. No white hairs marred the glossy blackness of the thick coil half hidden under a snowy crêpe cap, and the brilliant blue eyes were undimmed by tearful years of widowhood—a widowhood involving for her the full, sad significance of the sacred and melancholy term, an inability to forget, a despair of any earthly consolation, and a jealous reticence that denied all discussion of her sorrow, as she would have defended her dead from an alien’s rude touch. To her, time had brought neither oblivion nor alleviation, only a sharpened sense of irreparable bereavement; and as one standing in an unending and hopeless eclipse, she accepted the gloom with a stern and silent rejection of all other lights when the sun of her life went down.

Anniversaries are electric batteries that thrill the domain of emotions, and one day out of every three hundred and sixty-five the strings of memory are keyed to their utmost tension, vibrating with an intolerable intensity that reddens the lips of old wounds and quickens dull aches to stinging torture.

This memorial morning Mrs. Maurice crossed the wide, vaulted hall, and passing through the long, pillared drawing-room, opened a locked door and shut herself in a darkened chamber to keep tryst with the sacred souvenirs that represented all she held dear. Raising the window, she turned the blinds to allow sunlight entrance into this silent reliquary filled with mementoes jealously guarded “in solemn salvatory”: a heavy, square bedstead with twisted columns that upheld a red-lined tester whence embroidered draperies fell; a gilded swinging wicker crib, with baby blankets, rose bordered; a velvet easy chair, where a gentleman’s quilted silk dressing-gown hung over the carved back, and his slippers lay beneath; a table heaped with a child’s toys, books, and daguerreotypes of various sizes. On a leathern couch lay a folded Confederate uniform, and a man’s straw hat, cane, spurs, and riding whip had been placed beside the faded grey coat. Over the old-fashioned, high marble mantel hung a portrait of General Egbert Maurice, clad in uniform, wearing three stars and a wreath on his collar, and holding his plumed hat in his right hand. At one corner of the mantel a furled Confederate flag leaned until it touched the frame of the picture, and from the marble shelf, where lay the general’s sash and sword, hung the stained and torn guidon of his favorite regiment. On the wall opposite the fireplace the portrait of a lovely girl with an apron full of roses seemed to fill the room with radiance and color.

With a slow, caressing movement, Mrs. Maurice’s slim white hand passed over the front of the smoking-gown, and fastened in a button hole the spray of fragrant, satin-starred jasmine; then, lifting the faded grey coat, she held it to her heart in a tight, straining clasp, as she seated herself on the couch, and her fingers lingered on tarnished gilt buttons and braid. Inside the uniform was pinned a parcel wrapped in tissue paper, from which she shook out a mass of yellowed lace, and as the filmy folds of an infant’s christening robe swept across her lap, a subtle perfume of withered flowers like the breath of a rose jar stole over the room.

With dry eyes she looked long at one portrait, then at the other: the husband of her youth and the only child that had come as crowning blessing to a happy married life where no dissensions muttered, no discordant clash jarred the perfect harmony. As the dead years babbled, she listened now to echoes of manly tones, and now to a baby’s prattling lisp, still dividing as of yore her heart’s homage. When war robbed her of the husband who had never ceased to be tender lover, her only hold on life centred in their beautiful daughter Marcia, and the struggle to guard her and defend from confiscation and ruin the fine landed estate and large fortune left by General Maurice had served, in some degree, to lessen the tendency to morbid brooding.

To the truly typical Southern woman who survived the loss of family idols and of her country’s freedom, for which she had surrendered them, “reconstruction,” political and social, was no more possible than the physical resurrection and return of slain thousands lying in Confederate graves all over the trampled and ruined South.

No mourning Southern matron indulged more intensely an inexorable, passionate hatred of Northern invaders than did Mrs. Maurice, who refused to accept the inevitable, and shut her doors against agents of “union and reconstruction” as promptly as she would have barred out leprosy or smallpox.

Proud of the social prestige with which her Brahmin birth and stainless family record had dowered her, she wielded her influence in uncompromising hostility to all who advocated a tacit acceptance of the new conditions called “peace.” The loss of negroes that abandoned several plantations would have materially impaired the Maurice fortune, had not the prevision of the general’s commission merchant in a distant seaport induced the precautionary course of sending a portion of his crop of cotton to Liverpool early in the first year of the war, thus securing a large amount of treasure under the British flag, where (as the cotton factor wrote Mrs. Maurice a few years later) “‘Union’ thieves could not steal, nor ‘reconstruction’ moths and rust feed upon it.” Out of the wreckage that succeeded the final catastrophe at Appomattox the family fortune of General Maurice emerged triumphant in proportions, and the minority of Marcia was a bulwark that defied successfully the numerous assaults of “loyal confiscators.”

Sooner or later the diabolus ex machina confronts us all, and pierces at the one spot least guarded because deemed invulnerable. Mrs. Maurice’s maternal pride was built on the shifting sands of girlish impulse and flattered vanity, and the crash showed her that somewhere at the cross roads she had failed to offer a black lamb in propitiating evil divinities—had left no morsel of meat for the sleuth-hounds of baleful destiny that suddenly bayed destruction to the last earthly hope life held for her. Reared in the semi-cloistral seclusion of a Southern girl’s education in ante-bellum days, trained at home by governesses, and barred from society until she should have made the European tour for which her mother had fixed an early date, predestined Marcia went to her doom when at the house of a friend she met accidentally the recently appointed Federal judge, Allison Kent—handsome, courtly, debonair, and wily.

Clandestine courtships rarely lag; hence this lover of forty years, dreading discovery and the prompt removal of an infatuated girl only seventeen on her last birthday, kept the mother in complete ignorance of impending calamity until the night before her departure for Europe, when Marcia fled with him to an adjoining State, where a justice of the peace made them man and wife.

In accordance with life-long custom, Mrs. Maurice went to her child’s bedroom to kiss her good night, and on the pillow found a farewell note, praying for forgiveness, and promising to meet her at a town on the line of her journey. How the mother bore this shock only God knew; no eye but His watched during that long night, when her soul went down into a Gehenna of torture—when, alone in her crucifixion, she accepted defeat, and girded herself for grim endurance. As day dawned she unlocked her door, and summoning her servants, said:

“Miss Marcia has left me to marry a man who cannot enter my house. Take this note to Mr. Whitfield’s residence at once; not to his office, to his house. Minerva, you will finish packing Miss Marcia’s trunk, which must be sent to her. I shall make no change in my plans, except to take the noon train instead of the one at midnight. Ask me no questions. Send Mitchell and Eliza to me.”

When her attorney, Mr. Whitfield, appalled by the stony white face that showed no hint of tears, no more trace of grief than the marble figure that supported the mantel at her side, essayed a few words of sympathy, she put out her hands with an imperious gesture.

“There is no comfort possible, and I need your help only in writing a new will. I start to New York at noon, so you have little time.”

A few hours later, having seen only her pastor and her lawyer, she left her rifled home by a route that enabled her to avoid the town designated as a place of meeting. Across the girl’s farewell letter, which was returned to “Marcia Maurice,” she had written: “My only hope is that God will take me out of this world before I see again the face of the child who has disgraced the memory of her father and the name of her mother.”

Eighteen months had been spent in Europe, whence she was most reluctantly recalled by the death of Robert Mitchell, the overseer and business manager of one of her plantations, who was killed by the explosion of a mill engine. His young widow, Eliza, had been sheltered and guarded in Mrs. Maurice’s home when orphaned by the death of her father, a Methodist chaplain attached to General Maurice’s command, and the intimacy of years was marked by unfailing kindness and confidence on the part of the benefactress, by profound affection and ardent gratitude on that of the destitute girl. The peculiarly harrowing circumstances attending her husband’s loss had so severely shocked Eliza that Mrs. Maurice promptly removed her from the “overseer’s cottage” to her own house, where she was nursed tenderly and skilfully in the room that before her marriage she had so long called her home. Loving Marcia very warmly, she had attempted to intercede with the indignant mother, and one of her letters had enclosed an appeal from the erring daughter. It was returned unopened, and accompanied by a very positive assurance that any future repetition would not be forgiven. Old friends gathered to greet the returned traveller, yet all intuitively avoided allusion to the domestic cancer that, despite her proud, silent composure, was eating the heart barred against sympathy. She learned from the newspapers that under the new Federal régime Judge Kent was temporarily Senator, and that after a season in Washington he and Marcia were living at a hotel in her own neighboring city; but as the latter had followed her husband into the Episcopal Church, no meeting occurred between parent and child. So complete was the estrangement, and so unapproachable the stern, silent attitude of the mother, that when Dr. Eggleston, the family physician, and Bishop Vivian, the favorite cousin, called early one morning on an urgent errand, both realized that they championed a forlorn and desperate cause in battling with this old lioness robbed of her young.

Instinctively she divined their mission as her eyes fell upon a letter lying on the bishop’s knee, and her lips narrowed and tightened. Standing on the hearth with her arms folded, she listened quietly to her cousin’s impassioned pleading for forgiveness and to the doctor’s distressing presentation of Marcia’s alarming condition, which he felt constrained to pronounce hopeless.

“Madam, if you deny her dying prayer, remorse will drive you to despair.”

“She has been dead to me since the hour she deliberately deceived and forsook me. Kent’s wife ceased to be my child when she insulted, disgraced, her father’s name.”

“Oh, Patricia, how can you hope or claim God’s mercy for yourself if you refuse pardon to your repentant and unhappy daughter?”

A spark leaped into the cold clear eyes.

“For mercy I think I shall never need to plead, and when my God grants me justice I will try to be satisfied.”

“Will you not at least read the few lines the poor child wrote while we held her hand and guided the pen? Oh, cousin, if you could see her now!” The bishop held out the letter.

“Because you are the bearer I cannot refuse you that courtesy.”

She walked to the window and, holding the curtain aside, read the brief petition:

“My Own Mother:

“Let me come home to die. It will not be so hard if I can look into your face once more, and know that your dear hand will close my eyes as I go down into my grave. I shall see father soon, and if he could come now to my help, you know he would take me in his arms and lay me in my mother’s lap. Be merciful to your poor, dying

Marcia.”

Leaning eagerly forward, the two grey-haired men watched and listened for some relenting token; but after a few moments she turned toward a desk, and with no change in the frozen calm of her handsome face, she merely traced a word at the bottom of the page, handed it to the bishop, and left the room. “Come.”

That night a cold waxen image of a boy whose soul refused to enter its clay tabernacle was laid for a moment in Eliza Mitchell’s arms, to be kissed as only young mothers can kiss their dead first-born. The following day the hospital ambulance brought back on a stretcher the wan form of the erring daughter, who fainted from exhaustion as the bearers carried her into the home of her fathers. Three days later she died in her mother’s arms, whispering with icy lips: “If my baby lives, keep her for my sake—for my sake.”

So little Eglah Kent was given, when three hours old, to the care of the young foster-mother Eliza, and slept upon the heart that mourned for the lost baby boy. Since then seven years had passed, and to-day, as Mrs. Maurice caressed Marcia’s lace christening robe, she put aside all that pertained to the girl’s disobedience and elopement, and memory dwelt only upon the sunny time when her husband and daughter made home a heaven. Into the quiet room crept the whine of a dog scratching at the door. As she opened it, a feeble brown creature crossed the floor, crouched before the hearth, and, raising soft, tender eyes to the portrait of the general, barked once and beat the carpet with his tail, as if in salute; her husband’s favorite pointer Hector, failing fast, but loyal and true as the heart of his widow.

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Categories: English Literature

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