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Three Oaks

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE countryside lay warm and mellow in the early autumn air. The mountains hung like clouds; the vales cherished the amber light. The maple leaves were turning; out on the edge of climbing fields the sumach was growing scarlet, the gum trees red as blood. The sunlight was as fine as old Canary. Caw ! Caw ! went the crows, wheeling above the unplanted fields.

The Three Oaks' carriage, Tullius driving, climbed the heavy fields, where, nowadays, the roads were never mended. This region, the head of the great main Valley, was a high, withdrawn one. From it men enough had gone to war, but as yet it had not itself become a field for contending armies. No cannon here had roused the echoes of the Blue Ridge, no smoke of musketry drifted through the forest glades. News of the war came by boat up the James, or from the lower towns, — Lexington, Staunton, Charlottesville, — in the old, red, high-swung stages, or brought by occasional horsemen, in saddle-bags filled with newspapers. The outward change in the countryside was to be laid to the door, not of violent commission but of omission — omission less spectacular, but no less assured of results. The roads, as has been said, were untended, fallen into holes, difficult to travel. A scrub of sassafras, of trailing berry-vines, of mullein, was drawing with slender fingers many a field back into the wild. The fences were broken, gaps here and gaps there, trailed over by reddening vines. When the road passed a farmhouse the fences there were a ghastly, speckled, greyish white; innocent of whitewash for now going on three years. The horseblocks showed the same neglect; the spring-houses, too, and the outbuildings and negro cabins. The frame farmhouses looked as dolefully. The brick houses kept more an air of old times, but about these and their gardens there dwelled, too, a melancholy shabbiness. Everywhere was a strange feeling of a desert, of people gone away or sunken in dreams, of stopped clock-hands, of lowered life, of life holding itself very still, yet of a life that knew heavy and painful heart-beats. There were not many cattle in the fields; you rarely saw a strong, mettled horse; those left were old and work-worn and thin. There seemed not so many of anything; the barnyards lacked feathered people, the duck-ponds did not flower in white and gold as of yore, the broods of turkeys were farther between, even the flower gardens seemed lessened in colour, the blooms farther apart. At long intervals the Three Oaks' carriage met or overtook slow travellers on the road. Chiefly they were women. In the same way the fields and gardens, the dooryards and doorsteps of the houses presented to view women and children.

Miriam remarked upon this. "Just women and babies and old Father Time. I have n't seen a young man to-day. I haven't seen a boy — not one over fifteen. All gone. . . . And maybe the cannon balls to-day are playing among them as they played with Will."

"Miriam," said her mother, "be as strong as Will! How shall you be merry with him when you do meet if you go on through life like this ?"

"I don't see that you have any right to say that to me," said Miriam. "I do everything just the same. And it seems to me that I can hear myself laughing all the day. Certainly I don't cry. I never was a cry-baby."

"I had rather you cried," answered Margaret Cleave.

"Well, I'm not going to cry. . . . Look at that calf in the meadow yonder —little brown thing with a mark on the forehead! Does n't it look lonely—usually there are two of them playing together. Here comes an old man with a bucket."

It was an old negro with a great wooden bucket filled with quinces. He put up a beseeching hand and Tullius stopped the horses. "Dey's moughty fine quinces, mistis. Don' yo' want ter buy 'em ? Dey dries fust-rate."

"They're dry already," said Miriam. "They're withered and small."

"Yass 'm. Dar ain' anything dishyer war ain't shrivelled. But I sho does need ter sell 'em, mistis."

"I can't pay much for them," said Margaret. "Money's very scarce, uncle. It's withered, too."

" Yass 'm, dats so ! I ain't er-gwiner ax much, mistis. I jes'erbleeged ter sell 'em, kase de cabin 's bare. Ef ten dollars 'II suit you —"

Mrs. Cleave drew from her purse two Confederate notes. The seller of quinces emptied his freight into the bottom of the roomy equipage. He went on down the road, slow swinging his empty bucket, and the Three Oaks' carriage mounted the last long hill. It was going to the county-seat to do some shopping. The sun-shine lay in dead gold, upon the road and the fields on either hand. There was hardly wind enough to lift the down from the open milk-weed pods. The mountains were wrapped in haze.

"War-shrunk quinces!" said Miriam. "Do you remember the Thunder Run woman with blackberries to sell a month ago ? She said the same thing. I said the berries were small and she said, `Pass, ma'am. The war's done stunt them.'

"I wonder where the army is today! "

"You're thinking of Richard. You're always thinking of Richard."

"Miriam, do you not think of Richard ? Do you not love Richard ? "

"Of course I love Richard. But you're thinking of him all the time! Will's only got me to think of him."

"Miriam!"

Miriam began to shudder. Dry-eyed, a carnation spot in each cheek, she sat staring at the dusty roadside, her slight figure shaking. Her mother leaned across and gathered her into her arms. "O child, child! O third of my children! The one dead, and another perhaps dying or dead, at this moment, and in trouble, with a hidden name — and you, my littlest one, tearing with your hands at your own heart and at mine! And the country. . . . All our men and women, the warring and the warred upon. . . . And the world that wheels so blindly — all, all upon one's heart! It is a deal to think on, in the dead of night —"

"I don't mean to be hard and wicked," said Miriam. "I don't know what is the matter with me. I am mad, I think. I remember that night after the Botetourt Resolutions you said that war was a Cup of Trembling. I did n't believe you then. —I don't believe we're going to find a sheet of letter-paper in town, or shoes or flannel either."

There were three stores in town and the Three Oaks' carriage stopped before each. A blast had passed over the country stores as over the country fields, a sweeping away of what was needed for the armies and a steady depletion of what was left. For three years no new stock had come to the stores, no important-looking boxes and barrels over which the storekeeper beamed, hatchet in hand, around which gathered the expectant small fry. All the gay calicoes were gone, all the bright harness and cutlery. China had departed from the shelves, and all linen and straw bonnets and bright wool. The glass showcases, once the marvel and delight of childish eyes, were barren of ribbons and "fancy soap," of cologne, pictured handkerchief boxes, wonderful buttons, tortoise-shell combs, and what-not. The candies were all gone from the glass jars, the "kisses" and peppermint stick. There were no loaves of sugar in their blue paper. There was little of anything, very little, indeed, — and the merchant could not say as of old, "Just out, madam! — but my new stock is on the way."

They found at last a quire or two of dusty foolscap, paid thirty dollars for it, and thought the price reasonable. Shoes were not to be discovered — "any more than the North Pole!" said the small old man who waited upon them. "Yes, Mrs. Cleave; it's going to be an awful thing, this winter!" They bought a few yards of flannel, and paid twenty dollars the yard; a few coarse handkerchiefs, and paid three dollars apiece for them; a pound of tea, and paid for it twenty-five dollars. When at last Tullius tucked their purchases into corners of the carriage, they had expended five hundred dollars in bright, clean, handsome Confederate notes.

There were other shoppers in a small way in the stores, and, it being a fine morning, people were on the streets. It was the day of the month that was, by rights, court-day. The court-house was opened, and an ancient clerk attended, but there was no court. Out of habit, the few men left in town gathered in the court-house yard or upon the portico between the pillars. Out of habit, too, the few men left in the countryside were in town to-day, their horses fastened at the old racks. Moreover, in this, as in other counties, there was always a sprinkling of wounded sons, men home from the hospital, waiting for strength to go back to the front; now and then, too, though more rarely, an officer or private home on furlough. The little town, in the clutch of adversity as were all little towns through the great range of the South, was not in the main a dolorous or dejected place. The fine, clear, September air this morning carried laughter. And everywhere nowadays there bloomed like a purple flower a sense of the heroic. The stage was not due for hours yet, and so there was no crowd about the post-office where the last bulletin, read and re-read and read again, was yet posted upon a board beside the door.

The ladies from Three Oaks exchanged greetings with many an old friend and country neighbour. Margaret Cleave was honoured by all, loved by many, and her wistful, dark, flower-like daughter had her friends also. Everybody remembered Will, everybody knew Richard. It used to be "Have you heard from Captain Cleave ?" — "Have you heard from Major Cleave ?" "Have you heard from Colonel Cleave ?" — Now it was different. Most people hereabouts believed in Richard Cleave, but they, somewhat mistakenly, did not speak of him to his mother. There was always a silence through which throbbed a query. Margaret Cleave, quiet, natural, unafraid, and unconstrained, never told where was Richard, never spoke of him in the present, but equally never avoided reference to him in the past. It was understood that, wherever he was, he was in health and "not unhappy." His old friends and neighbours asked no more. In the general anxiety, the largeness of all reference, too great curiosity, or morbid interest in whatever strangeness of ill fortune came to individual folk, had little place.

The two moved with naturalness among their fellows, going to and fro on various errands. When all were accomplished they went for dinner to a fair pillared house of old friends on the outskirts of town. Dinner was the simplest of meals and all were women who sat at table. They talked of the last-received letters, the latest papers, the news of recent movements, battles, defeats, victories, hardships, triumphs, — Averell's raid in western Virginia, the cavalry fighting near the White Sulphur, the night attack on Fort Sumter, the fighting in Arkansas, the expected great battle in Tennessee. The one-course dinner over, they sat for an hour in the cool, deep parlour, where they took up baskets and fell to carding lint while they talked — now of prices and makeshift, how to contrive shoes, clothing, warmth, food, medicines, what-not, and how to continue to send supplies to the men in the army. Then, while they carded lint, Miriam was asked to read aloud. She did so, taking the first book that offered from the table. It was "Lana Rookh," and she read from it with a curious, ungirlish brilliancy and finish. When she put the book down she was asked if she would not sing.

"Not if you do not wish to," said her mother.

Miriam got up at once. "I do wish to."

Her mother, following her to the piano sat down and laid her fingers on the keys.

"Sing," said some one, "`Love launched a Fairy Boat."

"Love launched a fairy boat
On a bright and shining river,
And said, `My bark shall float
O'er these sunny waves forever.
The gentlest gales shall fill the sails
That bear me onward cheerily,
And through Time's glass the sand shall pass
From morn till evening merrily,
From morn till evening merrily ...
Love launched a fairy boat —"

Margaret rose quickly. The others with exclamations gathered around as the mother laid the slight figure on the sofa.

"She is frightfully unwell," said Margaret. "Will — Richard — the strain of this war that should never have been!" She loosened the girl's dress at the throat, bathed her temples. "There, my dear, there, my dear —"

Miriam sat up. " What is the matter? The world got all black... . Let us go home, mother."

They only waited for the stage to come in. From the carriage, drawn up near the post-office, they watched it rumble up, within its depths a hurt soldier or two and the usual party of refugeeing women and children. The jaded horses stopped before the post-office; the driver climbed down with the mail-bag, all the town came hurrying. A man standing on a box, beneath the bulletin board, began to read in a loud voice from an unfolded paper: "Cavalry encounters along the Rapidan — General Lee in Richmond conferring with the President — Longstreet's corps taking train at Louisa Court-House. Destination presumably Tennessee. — Cumberland Gap. Tennessee. September ninth. To-day General Frazer, surrounded and cut off by superior force of enemy, surrendered with two thousand men —"

The Three Oaks' carriage went heavily homeward, up and over the long hills. A light from the west was on the Blue Ridge, the sky clear, the winds laid. At last they saw the home hill, and the three giant oaks.

For a long time Miriam kept awake, lying in her narrow bed, her head on her mother's breast, but at last her eyes closed. Presently she was asleep, breathing quietly. Margaret, for the child's more easy lying, slipped her arm from beneath her, then waited until, with a little sigh, she settled more deeply among the pillows, then rose, waited another moment, and stepped lightly from the room. The hall window showed a sky yet red from the sunset. Across was the room that since boyhood had been Richard's. The mother entered it, closed the door, and moving to an old, leather-covered couch, lay upon it face downward.

Outside the dusk closed in; the stars peered through the branches of the poplar without the window. Margaret rose, stood for a moment looking at the sword slung above the mantel, then quit the room, and going downstairs, ate her slender supper while Mahalah discoursed of a ghost the negroes had seen the night before.

It had been a frightful ghost — "Er ha'nt ez tall ez dat ar cedar ob Lebanon, an er part grey an' er part white an' er part black! An' it had n't no mo' touch to hit den de air has, an' whar de eyes was was lak two candles what de wind's blowin', and it kept er-cryin' lak somebody in de mountains - wooh ! — wooh ! — wooh ! — No,'m, Miss Margaret! hit wa'n't 'magination. What we gwine 'magine for, when ever'body could see hit wif their own two eyes?"

Mahalah cleared the table, closed the shutters, and carried the lamp into the wide hall, where she set it on a leaf-table beside her mistress's workbasket. Then, still muttering of the "ha'nt," she threw her apron over her head, and departed for the quarter. Margaret mounted the stair and stood listening at Miriam's half-open door. The girl was sleeping quietly, and the mother, turning, came down again to the hall, and took her low chair beside the table and the basket of lint she was carding. The night was mild and soft, the front door standing open, the scent of the autumn flowers perceptible.

Margaret Cleave, sitting carding lint, the lamplight upon her brown hair, her slender hands, the grave beauty of her face, — Margaret Cleave thought of many things. In the midst of her thinking she heard a step upon the gravel before the house. A man mounted the porch steps and came into the light from the open door. He had raised his hand to the knocker when he saw the mistress of the house sitting in the lamplight by the table.

Margaret rose and came forward. She saw that it was a soldier, an officer.

" Good evening," she said; then as she came closer, — " One moment! . . . Major Stafford!"

With a gesture for silence she took up the lamp and led the way into the parlour. "My daughter is not well and has fallen asleep. But we can talk here without disturbing her."

"I came," said Stafford, "hoping to find Colonel Cleave. I have ridden from Lexington to-day. He is not here ?"

"No."

The two faced each other, her eyes large, enquiring, quietly hostile. Stafford, moving with steadiness upon that changed level, met her gaze with a gaze she could not read. She turned slightly, sank into a great chair, and motioned him to one opposite. He continued to stand, his hand touching the table. There was a bowl of roses on the table, and soft lights and shadows filled the room.

"Mrs. Cleave, will you tell me where I may find him ?"

"No. You must understand that I cannot do that. . . . We heard that you were in prison."

"I have been in prison since Sharpsburg. Latterly I found a friend and four days ago I was exchanged. I have come straight to Three Oaks."

"Yes ? Why ?"

Stafford walked the length of the room and stood a moment at a window, looking out into the night. He had fought his fight; it was all over and done with. Those last weeks in prison he had known where the victory would fall, and that first night out his mind had parted as finally as was possible with one vast country of his past, a dark country of strain and longing, fierce attraction, fierce repulsion. On the starlit road from Prison X, in the quietude of the earth, victory profound and ultimate had come, soft as down. Before he gathered the berries in the by-road, before the soldiers took him, before Marchmont came, he had touched the larger country.

He came back to the table where Margaret sat, a rose in her hand, her eyes upon its petals.

"I came to Three Oaks," he said, "to make retribution." "Retribution!"

Stafford faced her. "Mrs. Cleave, what do you know — what has he told you — of White Oak Swamp ? "

Margaret laid the rose from her hand. "I know that somewhere there was treachery. I know that my son was guiltless of that charge. I know little more except that — except that, either you, also, were strangely misled, involved in that dreadful web of error — or that — or that you swore falsely."

"I swore falsely."

There was a silence. She sat looking at him with parted lips. He kept the quietness with which from his entrance he had moved and spoken, but as he stood there there grew a strange feeling in his face, and suddenly he raised his hand and covered his eyes. The clock in the hall ticked, ticked. Far out in the night a whip-poor-will was calling. The walls of the room seemed to expand. There came a sense of armies, of camp-fires stretching endlessly, of movements here and there beneath the canopy of night, of a bugle's distant shrilling, of the wheels of cannon, of a dim, high-borne flag.

At last it grew intolerable. Margaret broke it with a thrilling voice. "And you come here to tell this to me?"

"I came," said Stafford, "to tell it to Richard Cleave. I have written it to General Lee and my brigade commanders — and to others. By now it is in their hands."

The silence fell again, while the mother's heart and brain dealt with the action and its consequences. At last she put her hands before her face.

"I am joyful," she said, and her voice was thrillingly so, "but I am sorrowful too —" and her voice veiled and darkened. "Unhappy man that you are —I"

"If you will believe me," said Stafford, "I am not unhappy. It was not, I think, until I ceased to be unhappy that I could see clearly either the way that I had travelled or the way that I am to travel. I will not speak of what is past, nor of remorse for what is past. I am not sure that what I feel is remorse. I have seen the ocean when, lashed by something in itself or out of itself, it wrecked and ruined, and I have seen the ocean when it carried every bark in safety. It was the same ocean, and what is the use of words? But I will take now the blame and double blame of White Oak Swamp. I wished to say this to him, face to face —"

"He took another name, and rejoined before Second Manassas. He joined Pelham's Battery, of the horse artillery. He called himself Philip Deaderick."

"Deaderick! The rain and Pelham's guns . . . I remember."

"He is tonight wherever his battery is. Somewhere on the Rapidan. He would not let — what happened — ruin his life. He went back to the army that he loved. He has done his duty there. More-over, no friend that knew him believed him guilty. Moreover, the woman that he loves has kept the steadiest faith — not less steady than mine, who am his mother. . . . I will tell you this because it. should be told you."

"Yes," he said, "it should be told me. I have loved Judith Cary. But I want her happiness now. I wrote to her last night. I could n't do it before."

The clock ticked, ticked. The whip-poor-will cried. Whip-poorwill I whip-poor-will ! Margaret sat very still, her elbow on the table, her hand shading her eyes.

The quiet held a moment longer in the Three Oaks' parlour, then he broke it. "I have said all, I think, that needed to be said. It does not seem to me to be a case for words. You understand that the machinery has been set in motion, and that the weight will be lifted and laid where it belongs. I shall try when I reach the army to see Colonel Cleave. You will understand that I wish to do that, and why I wish it. Had he been here to-night I should have said to him little more, I think, than I have said to you. I should have said that the old, unneeded hatred had died from within me, and that I asked his forgiveness."

He took his hat from the chair beside him. "I'll ride to town and sleep there to-night. In the morning I'll turn toward the Rapidan —"

Margaret rose. "It is late. You have been riding all day. You are tired and thin and pale —you have been in prison." Suddenly as she looked at him the tears came. "Oh, the world, the world that it is! Oh, the divided heart of it, the twisted soul, the bitter and the sweet and the dark and the light —" She dashed the tears away and came over to him with her hand held out. "See! it is all over now. It is far to town, and late. Stay at Three Oaks to-night. — Tullius shall put your horse up, and I will call Mahalah to see to your room —"

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