Road To Winnsboro
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
SHE was a wise as well as a fair woman, and yet, the day after the burning of Columbia, she took a road that led northward from the smoking ruins. In the cold morning sunlight Sherman himself had come to the churchyard, and hat in hand had spoken to the Mother Superior. He regretted the accidental burning of the convent. Any yet standing house in town that she might designate should be reserved for her, her nuns and pupils. She named a large old residence from which the family had gone, and walking between files of soldiers the nuns and their charges came here. "We learned," says the Mother Superior, "from the officer in charge that his orders were to fire it unless the Sisters were in actual possession of it, but if even `a detachment of Sisters' were in it, it should be spared on their account. Accordingly we took possession of it, although fires were already kindled near and the servants were carrying off the bedding and furniture, in view of the house being consigned to the flames."
All morning the burning, the looting and shouting went on. Smoke rolled through the streets, the wind blew flames from point to point. The house was crowded to oppression; there came a question of food for so many. Some one was needed to go to the mayor with representations, which might in turn be brought before the Federal commander. Désirée volunteered and the distance not being great, went and returned in safety. Not far from the door that would open to receive her was a burned house and before it an ancient carriage, and in the carriage two ladies and a little girl. There were soldiers in the street and to be seen through smoke beyond the fallen house, but here beside the carriage was an officer high in command and order prevailed. The officer was speaking to the ladies. "If there is any trouble, show your pass. I won't say that you are wise to leave this place, sad as it is! These are wild times, and there are more marauders than I like. Even if you make your way to your brother's house, you may find it in ashes. And if you overtake the rear of your army, what can that help? We will be sweeping on directly and the rebels — I beg your pardon, General Beauregard's army — will have to fall back before us or surrender. I think you had better stay. General Sherman will surely issue rations to the place."
"We prefer to go on," said the eldest of the two women. "We may find friends somewhere, and somewhere to lay our heads. We do thank you for the pass."
"Not at all!" said the officer. "As I told you, your father and my father were friends."
As he moved from the carriage door Désirée saw that there was an empty seat. "Oh," she thought, "if I might have it!"
Her face, turned toward the carriage, showed from out her hood. The younger of the women saw her, started and uttered an exclamation. "Désirée Gaillard!" she cried.
Lo ! it was an acquaintance, almost a friend, a girl who had been much in New Orleans, with whom she had laughed at many a party. "Go with them! — yes, indeed, she might go with them." She ran to the house that was now the convent, gave the Mayor's message and thanked the Sisters for the help they would have given, then out she came to the smoke-filled street and took her place in the carriage. It had a guard out of town; the officer had been punctilious to do his best. It was understood that there were Federal troops on the Camden road, but they were going toward Winnsboro'. When the burning city lay behind them and the quiet winter fields around, when the guard had said a gruff "You're safe enough now! Good-day!" and turned back, when the negro driver said, "Git up, Lance ! Git up, France!" to the horses, and the carriage wheels turned and they passed a clump of cedars, they were on the road that the grey troops had travelled no great chain of hours before.
They drove on and on, and now they overtook and passed or kept company with for a while mournful folk, refugees, people with the noise of falling walls in their ears. They had tales to tell and some were dreadful enough. Then for a time the road would be bare, a melancholy road, much cut to pieces, with ruts and hollows. Now and then in dropped haversack, or broken bayonet, or torn shoe, or blood-stained rag were visible tokens that soldiers had passed.
They had a little food and they ate this, and now and then they talked in low voices, but for the most part they sat silent, looking out on the winter landscape. The little girl was restless, and Désirée told her French fairy stories, quaint and fragrant. At last she slept, and the three women sat in silence, looking out. In the late after-noon, turning a little from the main road, they came to the country house for which they were bound.
The welcome was warm, with a clamour for news. "Columbia burned 1— oh, well-a-way! . . . No Yankees in this part as yet. Our troops went by yesterday on the Winnsboro' road. It's said they'll wait there until General Hardee gets up from Charleston and they can make junction. There 's a rumour that General Johnston will be put in command. Oh, the waiting, waiting! One's brain turns, looking for the enemy to come, looking for the South to fall — worse and worse news every day! If one were with the Army it would not be half so bad. Waiting, waiting here's the worst!"
In this Désirée agreed. It was away in a wood and upon a creek like the Fusilier place. The army was no great distance further on, and halted. In a day or two it would move, away, away! Her whole being cried out, `I cannot stay here! If it comes to danger, this lonely place will be burned like the others. I were safer there than here. And what do I care for danger ? Have I not travelled with danger for two years? "
That night when, exhausted, she fell asleep, she had a dream. She was back in Dalton, in the house with the lace-handkerchief dooryard. She was on her knees, cording a hair trunk, and the old negro Nebuchadnezzar and his horse Julius Caesar were waiting. Somebody — it was not the two sisters who lived in the house — but somebody, she could not make out who it was — was persuading her to stay quietly there, not to take the road to Resaca. At first she would not listen, but at last she did listen and said she would stay. And then at once she was at Cape Jessamine and the house was filled with people and there was dancing. Everything was soft and bright and a myriad of wax candles were burning, and the music played and they talked about going to New Orleans for Mardi-gras and what masks they should wear. And she was exceedingly happy, with roses in her hair and an old gold-gown. But all the time she was trying to remember something or somebody, and it troubled her that she could not bring whatever it was to mind. And then, though she still danced, and though there stayed a gleaming edge of floor and light and flowers and moving people, the rest rolled away into darkness and a battlefield. She saw the stars above it and heard the wind, and then she left the dancers and the lights and they faded away and she walked on the battlefield, but still there was something she could not remember. She was unhappy and her heart ached because she could not. And then she came to a corner of the field where were dark vines and broken walls, and a voice came to her out of it, "Désirée! Désirée!" She remembered now and knew that Edward lay there, and she cried, "I am coming!" But even so the dream turned again, and she was back in the house with the lace-handkerchief yard, and the hair trunk was being carried back into the house and up the stairs, and the wagon at the gate turned and went away without her. Then there was darkness again, and the cave at Vicksburg, and a cry in her ears, "Désirée I Désirée ! "
She waked, and, trembling, sat up in bed. "If I had not gone from Dalton," she said, "he would have died." She rose, crossed the room to a window and set it wide. It looked across the wood toward the road they had left, the Winnsboro' road. She stood gazing, in the night wind, the winter wind. There was a faint far light upon the horizon. Rightly or wrongly, she thought it was the campfires of the grey army. Another night and they would be further away perhaps, another night and further yet! Sooner or later there would be the battle, and the dead and the wounded left on the field. The wind blew full upon her, wrapping her white gown closely about her limbs, lifting her dark hair. "Désirée! Désirée!" The dream cry was yet in her ears, and there on the horizon flamed his camp-fires.
When morning came she begged a favour of her new friends in this place. Could they let her have a cart and a horse, anything that might take her to Winnsboro'? They said that if she must go she should have the carriage and horses and the old driver of yesterday, but surely it was not wise to go at all ! News was here this morning that the ravage north of Columbia had begun. All this country would be unsafe — was perhaps unsafe at this moment and henceforth! No one expected this house to be spared — why should it be, more than another? — but at least it was not burned yet, and it was better to face what might come in company than alone! "Stay with us, my dear, stay with us!" But when she would go on, they understood. It was a time of wandering and of much travel under strange and hard conditions. As for danger — when it was here and there and everywhere what use in dwelling on it? No one could say with any knowledge, "Here is safety," or "There is danger." The shuttle was so rapid! What to-day seemed the place of safety was to-morrow the very centre of danger. What was to-day's field of danger might become to-morrow, the wave rushing on, quiet of foes as any desert strand! — Désirée kissed her friends and went away in the old carriage toward the Winnsboro' road.
The morning was dull and harsh with scudding clouds. The side road was as quiet as death, but when they came upon the broader way there grew a difference. The old negro looked behind him. "Dere's an awful fuss, mistis, ener dust! des lak de debbil got loose!"
"Drive fast," said Désirée. "If you come to a lane turn into it."
But the road went straight between banks of some height, with-out a feasible opening to either hand. Moreover, though the driver used the whip and the horses broke into something like a gallop, the cloud of dust and the noise behind steadily gained. There came a round of pistol shots. " They are firing at us," said Désirée. "Check the horses and draw the carriage to the side of the road."
Dust and noise enveloped them. A foraging party, twenty jovial troopers, drew rein, surrounded the carriage, declined to molest or trouble the lady, but claimed the carriage-horses in the name of the Union.
They cut the traces and took them, Désirée standing by the road-side watching. These men, she thought, were much like schoolboys, in wild spirits, ready for rough play but no malice. She was so used to soldiers and used to seeing in them such sudden, rough and gay humour as this that she felt no fear at all. When a freckled, humorous-faced man came over and asked her if she had far to travel, and if she really minded walking, she answered with a wit and composure that made him first chuckle, then laugh, then take off his cap and make her a bow. The troop was in a hurry. When it had the horses and had joked and laughed and caracoled enough, off it prepared to go in another cloud of dust. But the freckled man came back for a moment to Désirée. "If I may make so bold, ma'am," he said, "I'd suggest that you don't do much walking on this road, and that as soon as you come to a house you ask the people to let you take pot-luck with them for a while! The army 's coming on, and we've got plenty of bands out that don't seem ever to have had any good womenfolk to teach them manners. If you'll take a friend's advice you'll stop at the nearest house - though of course, in these times, that ain't very safe neither!"
The carriage had the forlornest air, stranded there in the road, beneath a sky so cloudy that now there threatened a storm. The negro driver was old and slightly doddering. Moreover, when she said, "Well, Uncle, now we must walk!" he began to plain of his rheumatism. She found that it was actual enough; he would be able to walk neither fast or far. She looked behind her. A league or two back lay the turning that would lead to the house she had quitted. . . . But she shook her head. She had made her choice.
A mile from where they left the carriage they found at a cross-roads the cabin of some free negroes — a man and a woman and many children. Here Désirée left her companion. If she took the narrower road, where, she asked, would it lead her? Could she reach Winnsboro' that way? — Yes, if she went on to a creek and a mill, and if then she took the right-hand road. No, it wasn't much out of the way — three or four miles.
"And a quiet, safe road?"
"Yaas, ma'am. Jus' er-runnin' along quiet by itself. Hit ain't much travelled."
"But it will bring me to Winnsboro' ?"
"Yaas, ma'am. Quicker 'n de main road wif all dese armies hollerin' down it."
"Those men who went by a little while ago — were they the first to pass to-day?"
"No, ma'am, dat dey was n't! En dey was sober, Lawd!" "And they've all kept on the main road?"
"Yaas, ma'am. All taken de main road."
She looked down the road she had come — the main road. Here was another cloud of dust; she heard a faint shouting. She had with her some Confederate notes, and now she put one of a large denomination into the hand of the old driver, nodded good-bye, and turned into the narrow way, that seemed merely a track through the forest. Almost immediately, as she came beneath the arching trees, the cabin, the negro family, the gleaming, wider road sank away and were lost.
She walked lightly and swiftly. She might have been wearied. For a month now she had known that she carried life beneath her heart. But she did not feel wearied. She felt strong and well and deathless. The miles were not many now before her. With good luck she might even reach her goal to-night. If not to-night then she would sleep where she might and go forward at dawn. Before another sun was high it would be all right — all right. The clouds began to lift, and though it was cold it did not seem so cold to her as it had been. At long intervals she passed, set back from the road, small farmhouses or cabins in ragged gardens. Most of these houses looked quite deserted; others had every shutter closed, huddling among the trees with a frightened air. As the afternoon came on the houses grew further apart. The road was narrow, untravelled of late — it seemed a lonely country. . . . At last she came to the promised creek and the mill. The mill-wheel was not turning, no miller and his men stood about the door, no horses with sacks thrown across waited without. There was no sign of life. But the miller's house was behind the mill, and here she saw a face at a window. She went and knocked at the door. An old woman opened to her. "Be the Yankees coming ?" she said.
Désirée asked for a bit of bread, and to warm herself beside the fire. While she ate it, crouched in the warm corner of the kitchen hearth, the old woman took again her post at the window. "I keep a-watching and a-watching for them to come!" she said. "They've got a spite against mills. My father built this one, and when he died my husband took it, and when he died my boy John. The wheel turned when I was little, and when I was grown and had a lover, and when I was married and when there were children. It turned when there was laughing and when there was crying. The sound of the water over it and the flashing is the first thing I can remember. I used to think it would be the last thing I'd hear when I came to die, and I kind of hoped it would. I liked it. It was all mixed up with all kinds of things. But now I reckon before this time tomorrow it'll be burned. They've got a spite against mills. — Won't you stay the night ?"
But there was an hour yet before sunset. The road to Winnsboro' ? Yes, that was it, and it was only so many miles. The army ? Yes, she thought the army was still there. Yesterday there had been what they called a reconoissance this way. A lot of grey soldiers had passed, going down to the Columbia road and back.
Désirée rose refreshed, gave her thanks and went her way. A wind bent the trees and tore and heaped the clouds. The low sun shone out and turned the clouds into purple towers, fretted and crowned with gold. The rays came to Désirée like birds and flowers of hope. For all the woe of the land her heart began to sing. She walked on and on, not conscious of weariness, moving as though she were on air, drawn by a great magnet. The clouds were enchanted towers, the sky between, a waveless sea; the wind at her back, driving her on, was welcome, the odour of woods and earth was welcome. On and on she went, steady and swift, an arrow meaning to pierce the gold.
Suddenly, with a shock, the enchantment went. The wind, blowing with her, brought a distant, confused sound. She turned. It was sunset, the earth was suddenly stern and dark. Above the woods, back the way she had come, rose thick smoke. She knew it for what it was, knew that some one of Sherman's roving bands was there at the mill, burning it down. She stood with knit brows, for now she heard men upon the road. The ground here rose slightly, the road running across a desolate, open field, covered with sedge, from which rose at intervals tall, slender pines. Their trunks and bushy heads outlined against the sky, that was now all flushed with car-mine, gave them a curious resemblance to palm trees. West of the road, half way across the sedgy stretch, ran a short and ruined wall of stones, part of some ancient enclosure. Behind it showed again the darker, thicker wood. Désirée, leaving the road, went toward this, but she had hardly stepped from the trodden way into the sedge when behind her at the turn of the road appeared a man in uniform. She was above him, clear against the great suffusion of the sunset sky. He stared a moment, then turned his head and whooped, whereupon there appeared half â dozen of his fellows.
They caught up with her just as she reached the broken wall.
She saw that without exception they were drunk, and she set her back against the stones and prepared to fight.
Five thousand men could not meet in battle sixty thousand, but they could and did send out reconnoitring bodies that gathered news of Sherman, tarrying yet upon the Congaree, and gave some sense of protection to the country people and gave sharp lessons to the marauding parties that now and again they met with. By moving here and there they made a rumour, too, of gathering grey troops and larger numbers, of reinforcements perhaps from North Carolina, of at any rate grey forces and some one to play now protector, now avenger. So it was that on this winter afternoon the th Virginia, three or four hundred muskets, with a small detachment of cavalry going ahead, found itself marching down the main road, fifteen miles toward Columbia. It knew by now of the burning of Columbia. "Everything in ashes — houses and stores and churches and a convent. The people with neither food nor shelter — going where they can." Grey cavalry and infantry asked nothing better than to meet its foes to-day. So great, around the blue army, was the fringe of foragers and pillagers and those engaged in "making the country untenable for the enemy," that the grey did meet to-day various bands of plunderers. When they did they gave short shrift, but charged, firing, cut them down and rode them over and chased them back toward Columbia and their yet stationary great force. The grey's humour to-day was a grim and furious humour.
The Virginia passed a cross-roads, and a little later came to something that aroused comment among the men. It was an empty, old-fashioned carriage, standing without horses, half on the road, half over the edge. "Looks," said the men, "like the ark on Ararat!" — "Forlorn, ain't it?" — "Where's the horses and the people who were in it?" — "Reckon those Yanks before us took the horses. As for the people — I'd rather be a humming-bird in winter than the people in this State! "
Edward Cary rode across and checking his horse, leaned from the saddle and looked into the carriage — why, he hardly knew, unless it was that once in Georgia they had found a carriage stranded like this, and in it a child asleep. There was in this one nothing living. ... Just as he straightened himself he caught a glint of something small and golden lying in a corner. He dismounted, drew the swinging door further open and picked it up. It was a locket, and he had had it in his hands before.
He remembered passing, a little way back, a negro cabin. After a word to the commanding officer he galloped back to this place. Yes, they could tell him, and did. "She took this road ?" "Yaas, sah. Long erbout midday. We done tol' her erbout de creek en de mill en de right-han' road —"
"Has any one else gone by this road ? Any soldiers ?"
"Yaas, sah. Right smart lot ob soldiers. Dey ax where dat road go, en I say hit go to de mill. Den dey say dey gwine burn de mill, en dey goes dat way. I reckon hits been mo 'n three hours ergo, sah.'It was dusk when Edward Cary and twenty cavalrymen turned into this road, and it had been night for some time when they came to the reddened place where had stood the mill. It was all down now, though the flames were yet playing through the mass of fallen timbers. The mill-wheel was a wreck, the miller's house behind was burned. There were no soldiers here: they had destroyed and were gone. But out from some hiding-place came an old woman who seemed distraught. She stood in the flickering glow and said, "Yankees! Yankees!" and "They took an axe and killed the mill-wheel!"
Edward spoke to her, soothed her, and at last she drew her wits together, talked to him, and answered his questions. "Yes, a woman had been there and had left a little before sunset. Yes, dressed so and so — a beautiful woman. Yes, she had gone by that road, walking away alone. She said good-bye and then she had seen and heard nothing more of her. Then, in a little, little time, came the Yankees. Some of them were drunk, and she had run out of the house and hid within a brush heap. . . . And now the mill-wheel would never turn again."
"Which road did they take when they left—the Winnsboro' road or that one running south?"
She was not sure. She thought the one running south — but maybe some went one way, some another. She did not know how many there were of them. They were on foot and horseback, too. Her eyes strayed to where the wheel had been, and she fell again to plucking at her apron.
Cary and his men took the right-hand road. It lay quiet as death beneath the winter stars. They travelled it slowly, looking from side to side, but if there were signs that an enemy had been that way, in the darkness they could not read them. Neither did they see any sign of a solitary traveller. All was quiet, with only the sighing of the wind. At last, nearing Winnsboro', they came to their own picket-line. Camped by the road was a cavalry post. Edward spoke with the men here. "No. A quiet night — nothing seen and nothing heard out of the way. No one had passed — no, no woman."
Cary turned in his saddle and looked behind him. Clear night, and dark and still through all the few miles between this place which she had not passed and the mill which she had. . . The men with him had been in the saddle since dawn. They were weary enough, and under orders to report that night at Winnsboro'. At the end he sent on upon the road well-nigh all the troop, then turned himself and with but three or four horsemen behind him, began to retrace the road to the mill. Light and sound of the picket post died behind him, there came only the quiet miles of a lonely country and the stars above.
The night was old when, suddenly, near again to the burned mill, there burst out of a by-path the men who had burned it. They had taken the southward running road, had burned two houses that lay that way, then encountering rough country and a swollen river, had elected, horse and foot, to march back the way they came. Now, emerging suddenly upon the wider road, they saw before them four horsemen, divined that they were grey, and with a shout joined battle.
"They are six to one, men!" cried Cary. "Save yourselves!"
There came the crash. He fired twice, emptying a saddle and giving a ball in the shoulder to the half-drunken giant who seemed to be leading. Then with oaths three pushed against him. His horse reared, screamed and fell, pierced by bullets. He leaped clear of the saddle and fired again, breaking a man's raised sabre arm. There was a blinding flash, a deafening sound — down, down he went into blackness and silence, into night deep as the nadir. . . .
When he came slowly, slowly back to feeling and consciousness he was alone. It was dawn, he saw that. For a long time there seemed nothing but the fact of dawn. Then he suddenly rested his hand on the earth and tried to lift himself. With the vain effort and the pain it brought came a troubled memory. He put his hand to his side and felt the welling blood. The wound, he presently saw, was deep and hopeless, deep enough to let death in. His head fell back against the bank behind him and he faced the dawn. He was lying at the edge of the road, his dead horse near. All noise and war and strife were gone, the three or four men who had been with him cut down, or taken prisoner, or fled, the blue triumphant band gone its way. There was an utter stillness, and the dawn coming up cool and pure like purple lilies. He slightly turned his head. About him was a field of sedge with scattered pines. The wind was laid, and it was not cold. He knew that his hurt was mortal. . . . Suddenly, as from another world, there came to him a very faint cry — half cry for help, half plaint to a heaven blind and deaf. He dragged himself to his knees, with his hand cleared the mist from his eyes and gazed across an half acre of sedge to a heap of ruined stones like a broken wall. The voice rose again, faintly. With a vast, illuminating rush came fully memory and knowledge, and like a dying leap of the flame, strength. He rose and crossed the sedge.
She was lying where her murderers had left her, beneath the ruined wall. She was dying, but she knew him when, with a cry, he fell beside her, stretched his arms above her. "Yes," she said. "I believed that you would come." Then, when she saw the blood upon him, "Are you going with me?"
"Yes, Love," he said. "Yes, Love."
The great dawn climbed stealthily, from tint to deeper tint, from height to height. The pine trees stood like dreaming palms, and the sedge spread like a floor of gold. "The river!" she said, "the great river that is going to eat us up at last! How it beats against Cape Jessamine!"
"When I saw Cape Jessamine go down, I thought only ` If I were there! If I were with her, together in the wave!'"
Their voices died to whispers. With a vague and fluttering hand she touched his brow and lips. "I wanted the child to live — I wanted that. But it was not to be — it was not to be —"
A smile was on her lips — almost of derision. " War is so stupid," she said.
Upon the purple wall of the east a finger began to write in gold. The mist was stirring in the woods, the wind beginning. It lifted her dark, loosened hair, that was so wildly spread. It brought a drift of dead leaves across them where they lay. They lay side by side, like wreathed figures on a tomb. "Is it light?" she asked. "Can you see the light ?"
"I can see it faintly. It is like the sound of the sea."
"It is very cold," she breathed. "Dark and cold."
"Yes. . . . Dark and cold."
" Give me your hand," she said. "Kiss me. We have been happy, and we will be so again. Now I am going. . . . Dark, dark — dark —"
"I see light like a star. . . . Good-bye."
She died. With a last effort he moved so that his arms were around her body and his head upon her breast, and then, as the sun came up, his spirit followed hers.