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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » My Day Reminiscences of a Long Life » CHAPTER XXV
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My condition during the military occupation of Petersburg was extremely unpleasant. I was alone with my children when General Sheridan demanded my house for an adjutant's office. Such alarming rumors had reached us of outrages committed by marauding parties in the neighboring counties that my husband had obtained an extension of his parole to visit his sisters in Nottoway County. His first information of them was from finding their garments in a wagon driven by German soldiers, who, challenged by the barrel of a pistol, made good their escape, leaving their plunder behind them. The fate of his sisters was not discovered for some time. They had found means to hide when the thieves appeared.

General Sheridan, meanwhile, kept me prisoner in two rooms for ten days, and very trying was the experience of those days. He called to "make his respects" to me the day he left, and although I received him courteously he was fully aware that I appreciated the indignity he had put upon me and the record he had made before I met him. He thanked me for the patience with which I had endured the ceaseless noise, tramping, and confusion, night and day, of the adjutant's office, and apologized for the policy he had adopted all through the war. 260 "It was the best thing to do," he informed me. "The only way to stamp out this rebellion was to handle it without gloves."

I made no answer. "The mailed hand might crush the women and babes," I thought, "but never, never kill the spirit!"

However, they departed at last—leaving me a huge gas-bill to pay and a house polluted with dirt and dust. My husband, still a paroled prisoner, at the end of his leave of absence returned to me and reported to the authorities.

We had made the acquaintance of General Warren, who had been superseded by Sheridan and was now without a command. We grew very fond of him. He spent many hours with us. Tactful, sympathetic, and kind, he never grieved or offended us. One evening he silently took his seat. Presently he said:—

"I have news which will be painful to you. It hurts me to tell you, but I think you had rather hear it from me than from a stranger—General Lee has surrendered."

It was an awful blow to us. All was over. All the suffering, bloodshed, death—all for nothing!

General Johnston's army was surrendered to General Sherman in North Carolina on April 26. The banner which had led the armies of the South through fire and blood to victory, to defeat, in times of starvation, cold, and friendlessness; the banner that many a husband and lover had waved aloft on a forlorn hope until it fell from his lifeless hands; the banner found under the dying boy at Gettysburg, 261who had smilingly refused assistance lest it be discovered,—the banner of a thousand histories was furled forever, with none so poor to do it reverence.

My dear general was not free until Johnston surrendered. His flag was still in the field, but he was allowed to go to Richmond, twenty miles away, to seek work of some kind to meet our present necessities. My servants came in from Cottage Farm, and every one begged to remain and serve me "for the good" I had "already done them," but this, of course, I could not permit. My faithful John protested passionately against accepting his freedom, but I was firm in demanding he should return to his father in Norfolk. He had earned five dollars in United States money; I had five more which my little boys had gained in a small cigar speculation. This I gave him.

"Now don't let me see you here to-morrow, John. Write to me from Norfolk."

The next morning he was gone, and I had a grateful letter from his old father, who expressed, however, some anxiety about his "army habits."

We had soon occasion to regret the absence of the protecting soldiers. Almost immediately a tall, lantern-jawed young fellow with a musket on his shoulder marched in. I was alone, and he walked up to me with a threatening aspect.

"What do you want here?" I demanded.

"I want whiskey—d'ye hear? Whiskey!"

"You'll not get it!"

"Wall, I rayther guess you'll have to scare it up! I'll search the house." 262 "Search away," I blithely requested him. "Search away, and I'll call the provost guard to help you!"

He turned and marched out. At the door he sent me a Parthian arrow.

"Wall! You've got a damned tongue in yer head ef you ain't got no whiskey."

I repeat this story because my husband has always considered it a good one—too good to be forgotten!

The time now came when I must draw rations for my family. I could not do this by proxy. I was required to present my request in person. As I walked through the streets in early morning, I thought I had never known a lovelier day. How could nature spread her canopy of blossoming magnolia and locust as if nothing had happened? How could the vine over the doorway of my old home load itself with snowy roses, how could the birds sing, how could the sun rise, as if such things as these could ever again gladden our broken hearts?

My dear little sons understood they were to escort me everywhere, so we presented ourselves together at the desk of the government official and announced our errand.

"Have you taken the oath of allegiance, madam?" inquired that gentleman.

"No, sir." I was quite prepared to take the oath.

The young officer looked at me seriously for a moment, and said, as he wrote out the order:—

"Neither will I require it of you, madam!"

I was in better spirits after this pleasant incident, and calling to Alick, I bade him arm himself with 263the largest basket he could find and take my order to the commissary.

"We are going to have all sorts of good things," I told him, "fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, and everything."

When the boy returned, he presented a drooping figure and a woebegone face. My first unworthy suspicion suggested his possible confiscation of my stores for drink,—for which my poor Alick had a weakness,—but he soon explained.

"I buried that ole stinkin' fish! I wouldn't bring it in your presence. An' here's the meal they give me."

Hairy caterpillars were jumping through the meal! I turned to my table and wrote:—

"Is the commanding general aware of the nature of the ration issued this day to the destitute women of Petersburg?

[Signing myself] "Mrs. Roger A. Pryor."

This I gave to Alick, with instructions to present it, with the meal, to General Hartsuff.

Alick returned with no answer; but in a few minutes a tall orderly stood before me, touched his cap, and handed me a note.

"Major-General Hartsuff is sorry he cannot make right all that seems so wrong. He sends the enclosed. Some day General Pryor will repay.

"George L. Hartsuff,
"Major-General Commanding."

The note contained an official slip of paper:— 264

"The Quartermaster and Commissary of the Army of the Potomac are hereby ordered to furnish Mrs. Roger A. Pryor with all she may demand or require, charging the same to the private account of

"George L. Hartsuff,
"Major-General Commanding."

Without the briefest deliberation I wrote and returned the following reply:—

"Mrs. Roger A. Pryor is not insensible to the generous offer of Major-General Hartsuff, but he ought to have known that the ration allowed the destitute women of Petersburg must be enough for

"Mrs. Roger A. Pryor."

As I sat alone, revolving various schemes for our sustenance,—the selling of the precious testimonial service (given by the democracy of Virginia after my husband's noble fight against "Know-nothing-ism"), the possibility of finding occupation for myself,—the jingling of chain harness at the door arrested my attention. There stood a handsome equipage, from which a very fine lady indeed was alighting. She bustled in with her lace-edged handkerchief to her eyes, and announced herself as Mrs. Hartsuff. She was superbly gowned in violet silk and lace, with a tiny fanchon bonnet tied beneath an enormous cushion of hair behind, the first of the fashionable chignons I had seen,—an arrangement called a "waterfall," an exaggeration of the plethoric, distended "bun" of the Englishwoman of a few years ago. 265 I found myself, all at once, conscious that I must, in this lady's eyes, resemble nothing so much as the wooden Mrs. Noah, who presides over the animals in the children's "Noah's arks." Enormous hoops were then in fashion. I had long since been abandoned by mine, and never been able to get my own consent to borrow, as others did, from a friendly grape-vine. My gown was of chocolate-colored calico with white spots. My hair! I had torn it out by the roots when I was delirious at the time of the fierce battle of Port Walthall (six miles from Petersburg), which I had heard, my senses being quickened by fever.

Mrs. Hartsuff began hurriedly: "Oh, my dear lady, we are in such distress at headquarters! George is in despair! You won't let him help you! Whatever is he to do?"

"I really am grateful to the general," I assured her; "but you see there is no reason he should do more for me than for others."

"Oh, but there is reason. You have suffered more than the rest. You have been driven from your home! Your house has been sacked. George knows all about you. I have brought a basket for you—tea, coffee, sugar, crackers."

"I cannot accept it, I am sorry."

"But what are you going to do? Are you going to starve?"

"Very likely," I said, "but somehow I shall not very much mind!"

"Oh, this is too utterly, utterly dreadful!" said the lady as she left the room. 266 The next day the ration was changed. Fresh meat, coffee, sugar, and canned vegetables were issued to all the women of Petersburg. The first morning they were received I met the wife of General Weisiger trudging along with a basket. "Going for your rations?" I asked her. "No indeed! I'm going, with the only five dollars I have in the world, to the sutler's! I shall buy, as far as it goes, currants, citron, raisins, sugar, butter, eggs, brandy, spice—"

"Mercy! Are you to open a grocery?"

"Not a bit of it"—solemnly—"I'm going to make a fruit cake!"

Less, one might think, should have contented a starving woman! The little incident is characteristic of the Southern woman's temperament. She can lie as patiently as another under the heel of a hard fate, but the moment the heel is lifted she is ready for a festival.

All the citizens who had been driven away now began to return—among them the owners of the house I was occupying, and I was compelled to return to Cottage Farm. General Hartsuff, to whom I applied for a guard, said at once:—

"It is impossible for you to go to Cottage Farm; there are fifty or more negroes on the place. You cannot live there."

"I must! It is my only shelter."

"Well, then, I'll allow you a guard, and Mrs. Hartsuff had better take you out herself, that is, if you can condescend to accept as much."

I was not aware that Mrs. Hartsuff had entered and stood behind me. 267 "And I think, George," she said, "you ought to give Mrs. Pryor a horse and cart in place of her own that were stolen." Before my conscience could strengthen itself to protest that I had not owned a horse and cart, the general exclaimed: "All right, all right! Madam, you will find the guard at your door when you arrive. You go this evening? All right—good morning."

Mrs. Hartsuff duly appeared in the late afternoon with an ambulance and four horses, and we departed in fine style. She was very cheery and agreeable, and made me promise to let her come often to see me. As we were galloping along in state, we passed a line of weary-looking dusty Confederate soldiers, limping along, on their way to their homes. They stood aside to let us pass. I was cut to the heart at the spectacle. Here was I, accepting the handsome equipage of the invading commander—I, who had done nothing, going on to my comfortable home; while they, poor fellows, who had borne long years of battle and starvation, were mournfully returning on foot, to find, perhaps, no home to shelter them. "Never again," I said to myself, "shall this happen! If I cannot help, I can at least suffer with them."

But when I reached Cottage Farm, I found a home that no soldier, however forlorn, could have envied me. A scene of desolation met my eyes. The earth was ploughed and trampled, the grass and flowers were gone, the carcasses of six dead cows lay in the yard, and filth unspeakable had gathered in the corners of the house. The evening air 268was heavy with the odor of decaying flesh. As the front door opened, millions of flies swarmed forth.

"If this were I," said Mrs. Hartsuff, as she gathered her skirts as closely around her as her hoops would permit, "I should fall across this threshold and die."

"I shall not fall," I said proudly; "I shall stand in my lot."

Within was dirt and desolation. Pieces of fat pork lay on the floors, molasses trickled from the library shelves, where bottles lay uncorked. Filthy, malodorous tin cans were scattered on the floors. Nothing, not even a tin dipper to drink out of the well, was left in the house, except one chair out of which the bottom had been cut and one bedstead fastened together with bayonets. Picture frames were piled against the wall. I eagerly examined them. Every one was empty. One family portrait of an old lady was hanging on the wall with a sabre cut across her face.

To my great joy Aunt Jinny appeared, full of sympathy and resource. She gathered us into her kitchen while she swept the cleanest room for us and spread quilts upon the floor. Later in the evening an ambulance from Mrs. Hartsuff drove up. She had sent me a tin box of bread and butter sandwiches, some tea, an army cot, and army bedding.

The guard, a great tall fellow, came to me for orders. I felt nervous at his presence and wished I had not brought him. I directed him to watch all night at the road side of the house, while I would 269sit up and keep watch in the opposite direction. The children soon slept upon the floor.

As the night wore on, I grew extremely anxious about the strange negroes. Aunt Jinny thought there were not more than fifty. They had filled every outhouse except the kitchen. Suppose they should overpower the guard and murder us all!

Everything was quiet. I had not the least disposition to sleep—thinking, thinking of all the old woman had told me: of the sacking of the house, of the digging of the cellar in search of treasure, of the torch that had twice been applied to the house and twice withdrawn because some officer wanted the shaded dwelling for a temporary lodging. Presently I was startled by a shrill scream from the kitchen, a door opened suddenly and shut, and a voice cried: "Thank Gawd! Thank Gawd A'mighty!" Then all was still.

Was this a signal? I held my breath and listened, then softly rose, closed the shutters and fastened them, crept to the door, and bolted it inside. I might defend my children till the guard could come.

Evidently he had not heard! He was probably sleeping the sleep of an untroubled conscience on the bench in the front porch. And with untroubled consciences my children were sleeping. It was so dark in the room I could not see their faces, but I could touch them, and push the wet locks from their brows, as they lay in the close and heated atmosphere.

I resumed my watch at the window, pressing my 270face close to the slats of the shutters. A pale half-moon hung low in the sky, turning its averted face from a suffering world. At a little distance I could see the freshly made soldier's grave which Alick had discovered and reported. A heavy rain had fallen in the first hours of the night, and a stiff arm and hand now protruded from the shallow grave. To-morrow I would reverently cover the appealing arm, be it clad in blue or in gray, and would mark the spot. Now, as I sat with my fascinated gaze upon it, I thought of the tens of thousands, of the hundreds of thousands of upturned faces beneath the green sod of old Virginia. Strong in early manhood, grave, high-spirited men of genius, men whom their country had educated for her own defence in time of peril,—they had died because that country could devise in her wisdom no better means of settling a family quarrel than the wholesale slaughter of her sons by the sword. And now? "Not until the heavens be no more shall they awake nor be raised out of their sleep."

And then, as I sorrowed for their early death in loneliness and anguish, I remembered the white-robed souls beneath the altar of God,—the souls that had "come out of great tribulation," and because they had thus suffered "they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;... and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."

And then, as the pale, distressful moon sank behind the trees, and the red dawn streamed up from the east, the Angel of Hope, who had "spread her white wings and sped her away" for a little season, 271returned. And Hope held by the hand an angel stronger than she, who bore to me a message: "In the world ye have tribulations; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

The sun was rising when I saw my good old friend emerge from her kitchen, and I opened the shutters to greet her. She had brought me a cup of delicious coffee, and was much distressed because I had not slept. Had I heard anything?

"'Course I know you was bleeged to hear," said Aunt Jinny, as she bustled over the children. "That was Sis' Winny! She got happy in the middle of the night, an' Gawd knows what she would have done if Frank hadn't ketched hold of her and pulled her back in the kitchen! Frank an' me is pretty nigh outdone an' discouraged 'bout Sis' Winny. She prays constant all day; but Gawd A'mighty don't count on being bothered all night. Ain't He 'ranged for us all to sleep, an' let Him have a little peace? Sis' Winny must keep her happiness to herself, when folks is trying to git some res'."

The guard now came to my window to say he "guessed" he'd "have to put on some more harness. Them blamed niggers refused to leave. They might change their minds when they saw the pistols."

"Oh, you wouldn't shoot, would you?" I said in great distress. "Call them all to the back door and let me speak with them." I found myself in the presence of some seventy-five negroes, men, women, and children, all with upturned faces, keenly interested in what I should say to them. 272 I talked to them kindly and explained my presence, asking them to remain, if they would help clean the yard, with the result that Abram and Beverly, two old men who had known my general in his boyhood, pledged themselves to stay with me on the terms I suggested.

To my great joy, my dear husband returned from Richmond. There was no hope there for lucrative occupation. He had no profession. He had forgotten all the little law he had learned at the university. He had been an editor, diplomat, politician, and soldier, and distinguished himself in all four. These were now closed to him forever! There seemed to be no room for a rebel in all the world.


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