Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LVI

With His Own Sword

“What a most wonderful letter!” cried the Major, when, after several careful perusals, I thought it my duty to show it to him. “He calls me a ‘worthy old fool,’ does he? Well, I call him something a great deal worse — an unworthy skulk, a lunatic, a subverter of rank, and a Radical! And because he was a bastard, is the whole world base? And to come and live like that in a house of mine, and pay me no rent, and never even let me see him! Your grandfather was quite right, my dear, in giving him the cold shoulder. Of course you won’t pay him a farthing.”

“You forget that he is dead,” I answered, “and his poor mother with him. At least he behaved well to his mother. You called him a hero — when you knew not who he was. Poor fellow, he is dead! And, in spite of all, I can not help being very sorry for him.”

“Yes, I dare say. Women always are. But you must show a little common-sense, Erema. Your grandfather seems to have had too much, and your father far too little. We must keep this matter quiet. Neither the man nor the woman must we know, or a nice stir we shall have in all the county papers. There must be an inquest, of course, upon them both; but none of the fellows read this direction, for the admirable reason that they can not read. Our coming forward could do no good, and just now Bruntsea has other things to think of; and, first and foremost, my ruin, as they say.”

“Please not to talk of that,” I exclaimed. “I can raise any quantity of money now, and you shall have it without paying interest. You wanted the course of the river restored, and now you have more — you have got the very sea. You could float the Bridal Veil itself, I do believe, at Bruntsea.”

“You have suggested a fine idea,” the Major exclaimed, with emphasis. “You certainly should have been an engineer. It is a thousand times easier — as every body knows — to keep water in than to keep it out. Having burst my barricade, the sea shall stop inside and pay for it. Far less capital will be required. By Jove, what a fool I must have been not to see the hand of Providence in all this! Mary, can you spare me a minute, my dear? The noblest idea has occurred to me. Well, never mind, if you are busy; perhaps I had better not state it crudely, though it is not true that it happens every hour. I shall turn it over in my mind throughout the evening service. I mean to be there, just to let them see. They think that I am crushed, of course. They will see their mistake; and, Erema, you may come. The gale is over, and the evening bright. You sit by the fire, Mary, my dear; I shall not let you out again; keep the silver kettle boiling. In church I always think more clearly than where people talk so much. But when I come home I require something. I see, I see. Instead of an idle, fashionable lounging-place for nincompoops from London, instead of flirtation and novel-reading, vulgarity, show, and indecent attire, and positively immoral bathing, we will now have industry, commerce, wealth, triumph of mechanism, lofty enterprise, and international good-will. A harbor has been the great want of this coast; see what a thing it is at Newport! We will now have a harbor and floating docks, without any muddy, malarious river — all blue water from the sea; and our fine cliff range shall be studded with good houses. And the whole shall be called ‘Erema-port.’”

Well, Erema must be getting very near her port, although it was not at Bruntsea. Enough for this excellent man and that still more excellent woman that there they are, as busy and as happy as the day is long — which imposes some limit upon happiness, perhaps, inasmuch as to the busy every day is short. But Mrs. Hockin, though as full of fowls as ever, gets no White Sultans nor any other rarity now from Sir Montague Hockin. That gentleman still is alive — so far, at least, as we have heard of; but no people owning any self-respect ever deal with him, to their knowledge. He gambled away all his father’s estates, and the Major bought the last of them for his youngest son, a very noble Captain Hockin (according to his mother’s judgment), whom I never had the honor of seeing. Sir Montague lives in a sad plight somewhere, and his cousin still hopes that he may turn honest.

But as to myself and far greater persons, still there are a few words to be said. As soon as all necessary things were done at Bruntsea and at Castlewood, and my father’s memory cleared from all stain, and by simple truth ennobled, in a manner strictly legal and consistent with heavy expenses, myself having made a long deposition and received congratulations — as soon as it was possible, I left them all, and set sail for America.

The rashness of such a plan it is more easy for one to establish than two to deny. But what was there in it of peril or of enterprise compared with what I had been through already? I could not keep myself now from going, and reasoned but little about it.

Meanwhile there had been no further tidings of Colonel Gundry or Firm, or even Martin of the Mill himself. But one thing I did which showed some little foresight. As soon as my mind was made up, and long before ever I could get away, I wrote to Martin Clogfast, telling him of my intention, and begging him, if he had any idea of the armies, or the Sawyer, or even Firm, or any thing whatever of interest, to write (without losing a day) to me, directing his letter to a house in New York whose address Major Hockin gave me.

So many things had to be done, and I listened so foolishly to the Major (who did his very best to stop me), that it came to be May, 1862 (nearly four years after my father’s death), before I could settle all my plans and start. For every body said that I was much too young to take such a journey all by myself, and “what every body says must be right,” whenever there is no exception to prove the rule. “Aunt Marys” are not to be found every day, nor even Major Hockins; and this again helped to throw me back in getting away from England. And but for his vast engineering ideas, and another slight touch of rheumatic gout (brought upon herself by Mrs. Hockin through setting seven hens in one evening), the Major himself might have come with me, “to observe the new military tactics,” as well as to look for his cousin Sampson.

In recounting this I seem to be as long as the thing itself was in accomplishing. But at last it was done, and most kindly was I offered the very thing to suit me — permission to join the party of a well-known British officer, Colonel Cheriton, of the Engineers. This gentleman, being of the highest repute as a writer upon military subjects, had leave from the Federal government to observe the course of this tremendous war. And perhaps he will publish some day what seems as yet to be wholly wanting — a calm and impartial narrative of that unparalleled conflict. At any rate, he meant to spare no trouble in a matter so instructive, and he took his wife and two daughters — very nice girls, who did me a world of good — to establish them in Washington, or wherever the case might require.

Lucky as this was for me, I could not leave my dear and faithful friends without deep sorrow; but we all agreed that it should be only for a very little time. We landed first at New York, and there I found two letters from Martin of the Mill. In the first he grumbled much, and told me that nothing was yet known about Uncle Sam; in the second he grumbled (if possible) more, but gave me some important news. To wit, he had received a few lines from the Sawyer, who had failed as yet to find his grandson, and sadly lamented the misery he saw, and the shocking destruction of God’s good works. He said that he could not bring himself to fight (even if he were young enough) against his own dear countrymen, one of whom was his own grandson; at the same time he felt that they must be put down for trying to have things too much their own way. About slavery, he had seen too much of niggers to take them at all for his equals, and no white man with any self-respect would desire to be their brother. The children of Ham were put down at the bottom, as their noses and their lips pronounced, according to Divine revelation; and for sons of Japheth to break up the noblest nation in the world, on their account, was like rushing in to inherit their curse. As sure as his name was Sampson Gundry, those who had done it would get the worst, though as yet they were doing wonders. And there could be no doubt about one thing — which party it was that began it. But come what would of it, here he was; and never would Saw-mills see him again unless he brought Firm Gundry. But he wanted news of poor Miss ‘Rema; and if any came to the house, they must please to send it to the care of Colonel Baker, headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.

This was the very thing I wished to know, and I saw now how stupid I must have been not to have thought of it long ago. For Colonel Baker was, to my knowledge, an ancient friend of Uncle Sam, and had joined the national army at the very outbreak of the war. Well known not only in California, but throughout the States, for gallantry and conduct, this officer had been a great accession to the Federal cause, when so many wavered, and so he was appointed to a good command. But, alas! when I told Colonel Cheriton my news, I learned from him (who had carefully watched all the incidents of the struggle) that Uncle Sam’s noble friend had fallen in the battle of Ball’s Bluff, while charging at the head of his regiment.

Still, there was hope that some of the officers might know where to find Uncle Sam, who was not at all a man to be mislaid; and being allowed to accompany my English friends, I went on to Washington. We found that city in a highly nervous state, and from time to time ready to be captured. General Jackson was almost at the gates, and the President every day was calling out for men. The Army of Virginia had been beaten back to intrenchments before the capital, and General Lee was invading Maryland. Battle followed battle, thick as blows upon a threshing-floor, and though we were always said to be victorious, the enemy seemed none the more to run away. In this confusion, what chance had I of discovering even the Sawyer?

Colonel Cheriton (who must have found me a dreadful thorn in the flank of his strategy) missed no opportunity of inquiry, as he went from one valley to another. For the war seemed to run along the course of rivers, though it also passed through the forests and lakes, and went up into the mountains. Our wonderfully clever and kind member of the British army was delighted with the movements of General Lee, who alone showed scientific elegance in slaying his fellow-countrymen; and the worst of it was that instead of going after my dear Uncle Sam, Colonel Cheriton was always rushing about with maps, plans, and telescopes, to follow the tracery of Lee’s campaign. To treat of such matters is far beyond me, as I am most thankful to confess. Neither will I dare to be sorry for a great man doing what became his duty. My only complaint against him is that he kept us in a continual fright.

However, this went by, and so did many other things, though heavily laden with grief and death; and the one thing we learned was to disbelieve ninety-nine out of every hundred. Letters for the Sawyer were dispatched by me to every likely place for him, and advertisements put into countless newspapers, but none of them seemed to go near him. Old as he was, he avoided feather-beds, and roamed like a true Californian. But at last I found him, in a sad, sad way.

It was after the battle of Chancellorsville, and our army had been driven back across the Rappahannock. “Our army,” I call it, because (although we belonged to neither party) fortune had brought us into contact with these, and knowing more about them, we were bound to take their side. And not only that, but to me it appeared altogether beyond controversy that a man of large mind and long experience (such as Uncle Sam had) should know much better than his grandson which cause was the one to fight for. At the same time Firm was not at all to be condemned. And if it was true, as Martin Clogfast said, that trouble of mind at my absence had driven him into a prejudiced view, nothing could possibly be more ungracious than for me to make light of his judgment.

Being twenty years old by this time, I was wiser than I used to be, and now made a practice of thinking twice before rushing into peril, as I used to do in California, and to some extent also in England. For though my adventures might not have been as strange as many I myself have heard of (especially from Suan Isco), nevertheless they had comprised enough of teaching and suffering also to make me careful about having any more. And so for a long time I kept at the furthest distance possible, in such a war, from the vexing of the air with cannons, till even Colonel Cheriton’s daughters — perfectly soft and peaceful girls — began to despise me as a coward. Knowing what I had been through, I indulged their young opinions.

Therefore they were the more startled when I set forth under a sudden impulse, or perhaps impatience, for a town very near the head-quarters of the defeated General Hooker. As they were so brave, I asked them whether they would come with me; but although their father was known to be there, they turned pale at the thought of it. This pleased me, and made me more resolute to go; and in three days’ time I was at Falmouth, a town on our side of the Rappahannock.

Here I saw most miserable sights that made me ashamed of all trifling fear. When hundreds and thousands of gallant men were dying in crippled agony, who or what was I to make any fuss about my paltry self? Clumsy as I was, some kind and noble ladies taught me how to give help among the sufferers.

At first I cried so at every body’s pain, while asking why ever they should have it, that I did some good by putting them up to bear it rather than distress me so. And when I began to command myself (as custom soon enabled me), I did some little good again by showing them how I cared for them. Their poor weak eyes, perhaps never expecting to see a nice thing in the world again, used to follow me about with a faint, slow roll, and a feeble spark of jealousy.

That I should have had such a chance of doing good, onefold to others and a thousandfold to self, at this turn of life, when I was full of little me, is another of the many most clear indications of a kind hand over me. Every day there was better than a year of ordinary life in breaking the mind from its little selfish turns, and opening the heart to a larger power. And all this discipline was needed.

For one afternoon, when we all were tired, with great heat upon us suddenly, and the flies beginning to be dreadful, our chief being rather unwell and fast asleep, the surgeons away, and our beds as full as they could be, I was called down to reason with an applicant who would take no denial. “A rough man, a very rough old man, and in a most terrible state of mind,” said the girl who brought the message; “and room he would have, or he would know the reason.”

“The reason is not far to seek,” I answered, more to myself than her, as I ran down the stairs to discomfit that old man. At the open door, with the hot wind tossing worn white curls and parching shriveled cheeks, now wearily raising his battered hat, stood my dear Uncle Sam, the Sawyer.

“Lor’ a massy! young lady, be you altogether daft? In my best of days, never was I lips for kissing. And the bootifulest creatur — Come now, I ain’t saved your life, have I now?”

“Yes, fifty times over — fifty thousand times. Uncle Sam, don’t you know Erema?”

“My eyes be dashed! And dashed they be, to forget the look of yours, my dearie. Seven days have I marched without thanking the Lord; and hot coals of fire has He poured upon me now, for His mercy endureth forever. To think of you — to think of you — as like my own child as could be — only of more finer breed — here standing in front of me, like this here! There! I never dreamed to do that again, and would scorn a young man at the sight of it.”

The Sawyer was too honest to conceal that he was weeping. He simply turned his tanned and weathered face toward the door-post, not to hide his tears, but reconcile his pride by feigning it. I felt that he must be at very low ebb, and all that I had seen of other people’s sorrow had no power to assuage me. Inside the door, to keep the hot wind out and hide my eyes from the old man’s face, I had some little quiet sobs, until we could both express ourselves.

“It is poor Firm, the poor, poor lad! — oh, what hath happened him? That I should see the day!”

Uncle Sam’s deep voice broke into a moan, and he bowed his rough forehead on his arm, and shook. Then I took him by the sleeve and brought him in.

“Not dead — poor Firm, your only one — not dead?” as soon as words would come, I asked, and trembled for the opening of his lips.

“Not dead — not quite; but ten times worse. He hath flown into the face of the Lord, like Saul and his armor-bearer; he hath fallen on his own sword; and the worst of it is that the darned thing won’t come out again.”

“Firm — the last person in the world to do it! Oh, Uncle Sam, surely they have told you —”

“No lies — no lie at all, my dear. And not only that, but he wanteth now to die — and won’t be long first, I reckon. But no time to lose, my dear. The Lord hath sent you to make him happy in his leaving of the world. Can ‘e raise a bed and a doctor here? If he would but groan, I could bear it a bit, instead of bleeding inward. And for sartin sure, a’ would groan nicely, if only by force of habit, at first sight of a real doctor.”

“There are half a dozen here,” I said; “or at least close by. He shall have my own bed. But where is he?”

“We have laid ’un in the sand,” he answered, simply, “for to dry his perspiration. That weak the poor chap is that he streameth night and day, miss. Never would you know him for our Firm now, any more than me for Sampson Gundry. Ah me! but the Lord is hard on us!”

Slowly and heavily he went his way to fetch poor Firm to the hospital; while, with light feet but a heavy heart, I returned to arouse our managers. Speedily and well were all things done; and in half an hour Finn lay upon my bed, with two of the cleverest surgeons of New York most carefully examining his wasted frame. These whispered and shook their heads, as in such a case was indispensable; and listening eagerly, I heard the senior surgeon say, “No, he could never bear it.” The younger man seemed to think otherwise, but to give way to the longer experience. Then dear Uncle Sam, having bought a new hat at the corner of the street, came forward. Knowing too well what excitement is, and how it changes every one, I lifted my hand for him to go back; but he only put his great hot web of fingers into mine, and drew me to him softly, and covered me up with his side. “He heareth nort, nort, nort,” he whispered to me; and then spoke aloud:

“Gentlemen and ladies — or ladies and gentlemen, is the more correct form nowadays — have I leave to say a word or two? Then if I have, as your manner to me showeth, and heartily thanking you for that same, my words shall go into an acorn-cup. This lad, laid out at your mercy here, was as fine a young fellow as the West hath ever raised — straight and nimble, and could tell no lie. Family reasons, as you will excoose of, drew him to the arms of rebellion. I may have done, and overdone it myself, in arguing cantrips and convictions, whereof to my knowledge good never came yet. At any rate, off he went anyhow, and the force of nature drew me after him. No matter that to you, I dare say; but it would be, if you was in it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, and no harm can you make out of him. Although he hath fought for the wrong side to our thinking, bravely hath he fought, and made his way to a colonelship, worth five thousand dollars, if ever they pay their wages. Never did I think that he would earn so much, having never owned gifts of machinery; and concerning the handling of the dollars, perhaps, will carry my opinion out. But where was I wandering of a little thing like that?

“It hath pleased the Lord, who doeth all things well, when finally come to look back upon — the Lord hath seen fit to be down on this young man for going agin his grandfather. From Californy — a free State, mind you — he come away to fight for slavery. And how hath he magnified his office? By shooting the biggest man on that side, the almighty foe of the Union, the foremost captain of Midian — the general in whom they trusted. No bullets of ours could touch him; but by his own weapons he hath fallen. And soon as Ephraim Gundry heard it, he did what you see done to him.”

Uncle Sam having said his say — which must have cost him dearly — withdrew from the bed where his grandson’s body lay shrunken, lax, and grimy. To be sure that it was Firm, I gave one glance — for Firm had always been straight, tall, and large — and then, in a miserable mood, I stole to the Sawyer’s side to stand with him. “Am I to blame? Is this my fault? For even this am I to blame?” I whispered; but he did not heed me, and his hands were like hard stone.

After a long, hot, heavy time, while I was laboring vainly, the Sawyer also (through exhaustion of excitement) weary, and afraid to begin again with new bad news, as beaten people expect to do, the younger surgeon came up to him, and said, “Will you authorize it?”

“To cut ’un up? To show your museums what a Western lad is? Never. By the Blue River he shall have a good grave. So help me God, to my own, my man!”

“You misunderstand me. We have more subjects now than we should want for fifty years. War knocks the whole of their value on the head. We have fifty bodies as good as this, and are simply obliged to bury them. What I mean is, shall we pull the blade out?”

“Can he do any thing with that there blade in him? I have heard of a man in Kentucky once —”

“Yes, yes; we know all those stories, Colonel — suit the newspapers, not the journals. This fellow has what must kill him inside; he is worn to a shadow already. If there it is left, die he must, and quick stick; inflammation is set up already. If we extract it, his chance of surviving is scarcely one in a hundred.”

“Let him have the one, then, the one in the hundred, like the ninety and nine lost sheep. The Lord can multiply a hundredfold — some threescore, and some an hundredfold. I will speak to Him, gentlemen, while you try the job.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31