English Literature

The Girl at The Halfway House by Emerson Hough

The Girl at The Halfway House by Emerson Hough.jpg

BOOK I

THE DAY OF WAR

CHAPTER I

THE BRAZEN TONGUES

The band major was a poet. His name is lost to history, but it deserves a place among the titles of the great. Only in the soul of a poet, a great man, could there have been conceived that thought by which the music of triumph should pass the little pinnacle of human exultation, and reach the higher plane of human sympathy.

Forty black horses, keeping step; forty trumpeters, keeping unison; this procession, headed by a mere musician, who none the less was a poet, a great man, crossed the field of Louisburg as it lay dotted with the heaps of slain, and dotted also with the groups of those who sought their slain; crossed that field of woe, meeting only hatred and despair, yet leaving behind only tears and grief. Tears and grief, it is true, yet grief that knew of sympathy, and tears that recked of other tears.

For a long time the lines of invasion had tightened about the old city of Louisburg, and Louisburg grew weaker in the coil. When the clank of the Southern cavalry advancing to the front rang in the streets, many were the men swept away with the troops asked to go forward to silence the eternally throbbing guns. Only the very old and the very young were left to care for the homes of Louisburg, and the number of these grew steadily less as the need increased for more material at the front. Then came the Southern infantry, lean, soft-stepping men from Georgia and the Carolinas, their long black hair low on their necks, their shoes but tattered bits of leather bound upon their feet, their blankets made of cotton, but their rifles shining and their drill perfection. The wheat lay green upon the fields and the odours of the blossoms of the peach trees hung heavy on the air; but there was none who thought of fruitage or of harvest. Out there in front, where the guns were pulsing, there went on that grimmer harvest with which the souls of all were intimately concerned. The boys who threw up their hats to greet the infantry were fewer than they had been before the blossoming of the peach. The war had grown less particular of its food. A boy could speed a bullet, or could stop one. There were yet the boys.

Of all the old-time families of this ancient little city none held position more secure or more willingly accorded than the Fairfaxes and the Beauchamps. There had always been a Colonel Fairfax, the leader at the local bar, perhaps the representative in the Legislature, or in some position of yet higher trust. The Beauchamps had always had men in the ranks of the professions or in stations of responsibility. They held large lands, and in the almost feudal creed of the times they gave large services in return. The curse of politics had not yet reached this land of born politicians. Quietly, smoothly, yet withal keyed to a high standard of living, the ways of this old community, as of these two representative families, went on with little change from generation to generation.

It was not unknown that these two families should intermarry, a Fairfax finding a wife among the Beauchamps, or perchance a Beauchamp coming to the Fairfax home to find a mistress for his own household. It was considered a matter of course that young Henry Fairfax, son of Colonel Fairfax, should, after completing his studies at the ancient institution of William and Mary College, step into his father’s law office, eventually to be admitted to the bar and to become his father’s partner; after which he should marry Miss Ellen Beauchamp, loveliest daughter of a family noted for its beautiful women. So much was this taken for granted, and so fully did it meet the approval of both families, that the tide of the young people’s plans ran on with little to disturb its current. With the gallantry of their class the young men of the plantations round about, the young men of the fastidiously best, rode in to ask permission of Mary Ellen’s father to pay court to his daughter. One by one they came, and one by one they rode away again, but of them all not one remained other than Mary Ellen’s loyal slave. Her refusal seemed to have so much reason that each disappointed suitor felt his own defeat quite stingless. Young Fairfax seemed so perfectly to represent the traditions of his family, and his future seemed so secure; and Mary Ellen herself, tall and slender, bound to be stately and of noble grace, seemed so eminently fit to be a Beauchamp beauty and a Fairfax bride.

For the young people themselves it may be doubted if there had yet awakened the passion of genuine, personal love. They met, but, under the strict code of that land and time, they never met alone. They rode together under the trees along the winding country roads, but never without the presence of some older relative whose supervision was conventional if careless. They met under the honeysuckles on the gallery of the Beauchamp home, where the air was sweet with the fragrance of the near-by orchards, but with correct gallantry Henry Fairfax paid his court rather to the mother than to the daughter. The hands of the lovers had touched, their eyes had momentarily encountered, but their lips had never met. Over the young girl’s soul there sat still the unbroken mystery of life; nor had the reverent devotion of the boy yet learned love’s iconoclasm.

For two years Colonel Fairfax had been with his regiment, fighting for what he considered the welfare of his country and for the institutions in whose justice he had been taught to believe. There remained at the old Fairfax home in Louisburg only the wife of Colonel Fairfax and the son Henry, the latter chafing at a part which seemed to him so obviously ignoble. One by one his comrades, even younger than himself, departed and joined the army hastening forward toward the throbbing guns. Spirited and proud, restive under comparisons which he had never heard but always dreaded to hear. Henry Fairfax begged his mother to let him go, though still she said, “Not yet.”

But the lines of the enemy tightened ever about Louisburg. Then came a day—a fatal day—fraught with the tidings of what seemed a double death. The wife of Colonel Henry Fairfax was grande dame that day, when she buried her husband and sent away her son. There were yet traditions to support.

Henry Fairfax said good-bye to Mary Ellen upon the gallery of the old home, beneath a solemn, white-faced moon, amid the odours of the drooping honeysuckle. Had Mary Ellen’s eyes not been hid beneath the lids they might have seen a face pale and sad as her own. They sat silent, for it was no time for human speech. The hour came for parting, and he rose. His lips just lightly touched her cheek. It seemed to him he heard a faint “good-bye.” He stepped slowly down the long walk in the moonlight, and his hand was at his face. Turning at the gate for the last wrench of separation, he gazed back at a drooping form upon the gallery. Then Mrs. Beauchamp came and took Ellen’s head upon her bosom, seeing that now she was a woman, and that her sufferings had begun.

 

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