( Originally Published Early 1900's )
VIRGINIA Military Institute cadets were younger than they used to be. To suit the times the age of admittance had been dropped. Even so, steadily from the beginning there was a road of travel from the V. M. I. to the battle-fields. Out upon it went many a cadet in his trig white and grey, never to return. In May, 1864, the entire two hundred and fifty had travelled it, travelled down the Valley to New Market to help Breckinridge fight and win that battle. In dead and wounded, V. M. I. lost sixty boys. Now after a time of wild and blissful excitement the lessened corps was back in Lexington, back at the V. M. L, back to the old barracks, the old parade ground, the old studying. To the cadets it seemed hard lines.
Hunter and his eighteen thousand came up the pike from Staunton, thirty-five miles away. McCausland and a cavalry brigade, drawn across his front at Midway, did all that could be done in the way of skirmishes for delay. Breckinridge was guarding Lynch-burg, an important centre of communications, a place of military stores and hospitals, and filled with refugees. Early and the Second Corps were yet in Tidewater Virginia. There was no help anywhere. V. M. I. received orders to withdraw from Lexington.
McCausland had the bridge across North River lined with hay, saturated with turpentine. An alley through was left for his men when, at the last, they must fall back before the blue advance. The night of the eleventh passed, the people of Lexington sleeping little, the cadets under arms all night. Dawn came up in rose and silver. House Mountain had a roof of mist; all the lovely Rockbridge country was as fresh and sweet as any Eden. Out the Staunton road came a burst of firing; then with a clattering of hoofs, with shouts,. with turning in saddles and emptying of pistols and carbines, Mc-Causland and his troopers appeared, pressed back upon the bridge. They crossed, horsemen and a section of artillery, then struck a torch into the turpentine-soaked hay. Up roared a pillar of flame, reddening the water. With a great burst of noise Hunter's van-guard appeared. They galloped up and down the north bank of the river shouting and firing. McCausland answered from the hills across. The bridge burned with a roaring noise and a great cloud of smoke. A Federal battery coming up got into position on a great rise of ground commanding the town, and from it began to shell the most apparent mass of buildings. This was the Virginia Military Institute.
The grey and white cadets were drawn up on the parade ground. They stood there with their colours, with their tense young faces. The first shell struck the hall of the Society of Cadets, struck and exploded, working ruin. After this there began a bombardment of the corner towers, and a heavy rain upon the parade ground.
"Attention ! Right face! Forward ! March!"
Drum and fife played "Dixie." Away from the old V. M. I., coming down in ruin about them, marched the cadets. They marched to a fierce bright music, but their faces were flushed and quivering. It needed all their boy pride to keep the tears away. Lexington, anxious-hearted, saw them go. Behind them the batteries were thundering, and Hunter's thousands were gathering like locusts. Colonel Shipp and the cadets took the Balcony Falls road Balcony Falls first and then Lynchburg, and active service some-where if not at Lexington... .
They came to a high hill, several miles south of the town." Halt !" and the two hundred and fifty halted, and resting on their pieces looked back. The Virginia Military Institute was on fire. Tower and turret, arsenal, mess hall, barracks, houses of the professors, all were burning down.
Hunter made no long tarrying in Lexington. He waited but to burn the house of the Governor of Virginia and swept on toward the pass in the Blue Ridge he had in mind. His line of march brought him and his thousands into a country as yet uncharred by war.
At Three Oaks there was a wounded soldier a kinsman of Margaret Cleave's, wounded in a skirmish in southwest Virginia and brought in an ambulance by his servant back to his native county. Here he found his own home closed; his mother gone to Richmond to nurse another son, his sister in Lynchburg with her husband. The ambulance took him on to Three Oaks, and here he had been for some days. Exposure and travel had not been good for him, and though his wound was healing, he lay in a low fever. He lay in Richard's room, nursed by Margaret and an old, wrinkled, coloured woman.
Tullius was at Three Oaks. Cleave had sent him back, months before, to be a stay to the place. Now Margaret, coming through the hall, found him on the back porch, standing on the step between the pillars like a grave old Rameses. It was a hot June day, with clouds that promised a storm.
"What is it, Tullius ?" asked Margaret. She took an old cane-seat chair and faced him. There were threads of grey in her hair. The old man noticed them this morning.
"Miss Miriam ain' nowhere 'roun', is she ?"
"No. She is out with her book under the oaks. What is it?"
"They've flowed over Buchanan, Miss Margaret. I done took the horse an' went down as far as Mount Joy. I met a man an' he say they tried to cross by the bridge, but General McCausland done bum the bridge. Hit did n't stop 'em. They marched up the river to the ford an' crossed, an' come hollerin' an' firin' down on the town. An' a house by the mouth of the bridge caught an' a heap of houses were burnin', he say, when he left. An' he say that some of the Yankees were those foreigners that can't understand a word you say, an' a lot of them were drunk. I saw the smoke an' fire an' heard the shoutin'. An' then I come right home."
"Do you think that they will march this way ? "
"There ain't any tellin', Miss Margaret. They've got bands out, 'flictin' the country."
Margaret rested her forehead upon her hands. "Captain Yeardley it will put his life in danger to move him . . . and then, move him where ? Where, Tullius, where ?"
"Miss Margaret, I don' know. Less 'n 't was somewhere in the woods or up on the mountain-side."
Margaret rose. "Get the wagon, then. We'll make a bed for him, and do all we can, and then pray to God. . . . You'd better go by the old Thunder Run road and turn off up one of the ravines."
"Miss Margaret, Jim's got a good head, an' he kin tek the Captain away an' tek care of him. I 'se gwine stay at Three Oaks. I 'se gwine stay with you an' Miss Miriam."
Miriam's startled voice came through the hall from the front porch. "Mother! mother, come here! Here's a boy who says the Yankees are burning Mount Joy!"
She did not wait for her mother, but came down the hall, at her heels a white-lipped, wild-eyed youngster of twelve. News came from him in gulps, like water from a bottle. He had been taking his father's horse to be shod, and down near Mount Joy he had seen the Yankees coming up the road in time to get out of their way. He had gone through a gate into an orchard and had got down and hid-den with the horse below a bank with elder growing over it. From there he had seen how the Yankees came through the big gate and over the garden and to the house After a while, when it was all on fire and there was a lot of noise and he could n't see much for the smoke, a little coloured girl had come creeping through the orchard grass. She told him the Yankees said they were going to bum every house in the country they could get at. And she said he had a horse, and why did n't he go and tell people, so's they could get their things out and he thought he'd better, and so he had been telling them
How long since he had left the orchard ?
He did n't know he thought about three hours.
Mahalah came running in. "O my Lawd, Miss Margaret! O my Lawd, de Yankees comin' up de big road lak er swarm o' bees! O my Lawd, dey kills an' eats you!"
"Nonsense, Mahalah! Be quiet! Tullius, go upstairs to the east room window and see how near they are."
Tullius returned. "They've got a mile an' a half yit, Miss Margaret, an' they ain't marchin' fast. Just kind o' strollin'." "How many?"
"Hundred or two."
"Get the wagon as quickly as you can. If Jim can get down the farm road to the woods without their seeing him, the rest may be done. Tell Jim to hurry. Then you and he come and lift Captain Yeardley."
She turned and went upstairs toward Richard's room. Going, she spoke over her shoulder to her daughter. "Miriam, get everybody together and make them take it quietly. Tell them no one's going to harm them!"
"Everybody" was not hard to get together. Counting out Tullius and Jim, there were only Aunt Ailsey and Mahalah, old Peggy, Martha and young Martha, William and Mat and Rose's Husband. They were already out of cabin and kitchen and in from the home fields. Miriam gathered them on the side porch. They all adored her and she handled them with genius. Her thin cheeks had in each a splash of carmine, her eyes were unearthly large, dark and liquid. All that she said to them was that it was good manners to do so and so or not to do so and so in a contingency like the present. Ladies and gentlemen keep very quiet and dignified and we are ladies and gentlemen and that is all there is about it. "And here is the wagon, and now we'll see Captain Yeardley off, and wish him a good journey, and then we'll forget that he has ever been here. That's manners that every one of us must show!"
Tullius and Jim brought the wounded officer downstairs on his mattress and laid him in the wagon. Old Patsy followed to nurse him, and they placed beside him, too, his uniform and hat and sword. He was flushed with fever and light-headed.
"This is no way to do it!" he insisted. "Inconsiderate brutes to take advantage! Ladies, too! Must stay and protect. Lovely day for a drive! See the country at its best! New fashion, driving lying down! driving in bed! Time for new fashions, had old fashions long enough! Bring the ladies home something pretty scarf or feather! saw a man once show the white feather it was n't pretty. Pretty, pretty
`Pretty Polly Watkins '"
Jim drove him away, trying to sing. It was not far to where the farm road dipped into a heavy woodland. The rumble of the wagon died from the air.
Mother and daughter turned and looked at each other. Margaret spoke. "The hair trunk with Will's things in it, and the portraits and silver and your great-grandfather's books and letters we might hide them in the hollow behind the ice-house. No one can see it for the honeysuckle."
"Very well. I'll get the books and papers."
Tullius and Mat carried out the small hair trunk and took down the two or three oil portraits and the Saint Memin. Miriam, with Peggy to help, laid a sheet on the floor and heaped into it a treasured shelf of English poetry, essay, philosophy, and drama, old and mellow of binding, with quaint prints, and all annotated in her great-grandfather's clear, firm writing. To them she added a box filled with old family, Revolutionary, and Colonial letters. William and Rose's Husband took up the bundle, Martha and young Martha and Mahalah filled their aprons with the silver. All hurried through the flower garden, between the sweet william and canterbury bell and hermosa roses, to the mossy-roofed ice-house and a cavity, scooped by nature in the bank behind and veiled by a mass of vines. Will and Miriam had always used it when they played Swiss Family Robinson. Now they leaned the portraits against its damp walls and set the hair trunk and the silver and the books and papers on the earth that glistened where snails had traversed it. The honey-suckle did not hide the place perfectly, but it would take a deliberate search and sharp eyes to discover it, and beggars must not be choosers. The movements of all had been swift; they were back through the flower garden to the house in the shortest of times. As mother and daughter reλntered the hall they heard through the open front door a hum of voices and a sound of oncoming feet.
"We had best meet them here," said Margaret.
"I am going upstairs to get my amethysts," said Miriam. "I am going to put them around my neck, inside my dress."
Three Oaks was burned. Porch and pillars, doors and windows, hall and chambers, walls and chimneys submitted, since they could not help it, to a shroud of fire, and crumbled within it. The family was allowed to take nothing out. Matters that they prized were taken out, indeed, but not by them nor for them. At the eleventh hour soldiers, searching the garden, found the little cavern and its contents. The silver was reserved, but the hair trunk, the portraits, books and papers were thrown into the flames.
Margaret Cleave and her daughter and the coloured people watched destruction from the knoll beneath the three oaks. It was home that was burning home that had been long lived in, long loved. The outdoor kitchen and the cabins also caught all Three Oaks was burning down. In the glare moved the band of the foe sent out to do the work. The sun had set and the night was at hand at hand with storm. Already the lightnings were playing, the thunder pealing. Three soldiers came up to the cluster beneath the oaks. They rolled in their gait like sailors.
"Look here! Rebel women ain't got any need of watches and rings! If you've got any on, hand them over!"
"Miss Margaret," demanded Tullius, "what'll I do ?"
Margaret looked at him with her beautiful, friendly eyes. "No-thing in the world, Tullius. Stay perfectly still!" She explained to the soldiers. "I gave my watch and some rings that I had to the Confederacy long ago. My daughter has neither."
"She's got a chain around her neck this minute. If you don't want "
"Exactly. Give the gentleman the necklace, Miriam."
Miriam unclasped and gave it. The three looked at Mahalah's hoop earrings, but at that moment an officer came up and they per-force fell back. "The men are er exhilarated, and not well in hand," he said. "I would advise you ladies to leave the place."
They went, Margaret and Miriam leading, Tullius and the others pressing behind them. Save for the lightnings it was dark when they passed through the big gate out upon the open road. Behind them the three oaks stood up like giant sea fans in an ocean of fire. A moment later the storm broke in a wild clamour of wind and rain.