The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/My Little Boy
MY LITTLE BOY.
There were nine of us, all told, when mother died; myself, the eldest, aged twenty, a plain and serious woman, well fitted by nature and circumstance to fill the place made vacant by death.
I cannot remember when I was young. Indeed, when I hear other women recount the story of their early days, I think I had no childhood, for mine was like no other.
Mother was married so young, that at the age when most women begin to think seriously of marriage she had around her a numerous brood, of which I was less the elder sister than the younger mother. She was delicate by nature, and peevish by reason of her burdens, and I think could never have been a self-reliant character; so she fretted and sighed through life, and when death came, unawares, she seemed not sorry for the refuge.
She called me to her bed one day in a tone so cheerful that I wondered, and when I saw the calm and brightness in her face, hope made me glad, "Margaret," she said, "you have been a good daughter. I never did you justice until this illness opened my eyes. You have shamed me by your patience and your sacrifices so gently borne. You are more fit to be a mother than I ever was; and I leave the children to your care without a fear. It is not likely you will ever marry, and I die content, knowing that you will do your duty."
After this came many sad days,—the parting, the silent form which death had made majestic, the funeral hymns, the tolling bell, the clods upon the coffin-lid; and when the sun shone out and the birds sang again, it seemed to me I had dreamed it all, and that the sun could not shine nor the birds sing above a grave on which the grass had not yet had time to grow. But I had not dreamed, nor had I time for dreaming. Mother was dead, and eight children claimed from me a mother's care,—the youngest a wailing babe but seven days old, whom I came to cherish and love as my little boy.
When I had settled down, and grown accustomed to the vacuum which never could be filled for me, I thought a great deal upon mother's last words. I was proud of the trust she reposed in me, and I meant to be faithful to it. I wondered much why she had thought it likely I should never marry; for I was a woman with strong instincts, and, amid all the toil and care of my barren life, I had seen afar, through gleaming mists, the mountains of hope arise, and beyond the heat and dust and labor of duty caught glimpses of green ways made pleasant by quiet waters.
I do not think my burden seemed heavier now that mother no longer helped me to bear it; for my sense of responsibility had been increased by her complaining spirit. Her discouraging views of life held in check the reins of my eager fancy: it seemed wrong to enjoy a happiness I could not share with her. Now I no longer felt this restraint; but, knowing that somehow she had missed this happiness for which I waited, the knowledge invested her memory with a tender pity, and tempered my pleasure with a feeling akin to pain.
I was never idle. Behind the real work of life, my fancy wrought on, unknown and unsuspected by the world; my lamp of joy, fed by the sweet oil of hope, was ready for the lighting, and I was content to wait.
My little boy throve bravely. Every morning I awoke him with a kiss; and, perhaps because each day seemed but a continuation of the other, time stood still for him. He was for me the incarnation of all loveliness. The fair face, and blond hair, and brown, brooding eyes, were beautiful as an angel's, and goodness set its seal on his perfections. He gave me no trouble: grief brings age, joy confirms youth, and I and my little boy grew young together. He was with me everywhere, lightening my labor with his prattling tongue, helping me with his sweet, hindering ways; and when the kisses had been many that had waked him many morns, he stood beside me, my little boy, hardly a hand's breadth lower than myself.
The world had changed for all but him and me. My father had wandered off to foreign parts; sisters and brothers, one by one, had gone forth to conquer kingdoms and reign in their own right, and one young sister, just on the border-land of maiden fancies, (O friends, I write this line with tears!) turned from earth and crossed the border-land of heaven.
But he and I remained alone in the old homestead, and walked together sweetly down the years.
If I came upon disappointment, I had not sought it, neither did I fall by it; but that which was my future slid by me and became the past, so gently that I scarce remember where one ended or the other began; and though all other lovers failed me, one true remained, to whom I ever would be true. The future did not look less fair; nay, I deemed it more full of promise than ever. It was as though I had passed from my old stand-point of observation to a more easterly window; and the prospect was not the less enchanting that I looked upon it over the shoulder of my little boy. We talked much of it together; and though he had the nearer view, it was my practised vision that saw pathways of beauty not yet suspected by him.
But we were still happy in the present, and did not speculate much upon the future. The rolling years brought him completeness, and to the graces of person were added the gifts of wisdom and knowledge. The down that shaded his cheek, like the down upon a ripe peach, had darkened and strengthened to the symbol of manhood, and his words had the clear ring of purpose. For there was a cloud upon the horizon which at first was no bigger than a man's hand, but it grew until it filled the land with darkness, and the fair prospect on which I had so loved to gaze was hidden behind the storm. My little boy and I looked into each other's faces, and he cried, "Margaret, I must go!"
I did not say nay,—for the tears which were not in my eyes were in my voice, and to speak was to betray them,—but I turned about to make him ready.
In these days my little boy's vision was finer than my own; and when we stood together, looking from our orient window, he saw keener and farther than I had ever done; for my eyes now looked through a veil of tears, while his, like the eagle's, penetrated the cloud to the sunshine behind it. He was full of the dream of glory; and his words, fraught with purpose and power, stirred me like a trumpet. I caught the inspiration that thrilled his soul; for we had walked so long together that all paths pursued by him must find me ever at his side.
One day I was summoned to meet a visitor; and going, a tall figure in military dress gave me a military salute. It was my little boy, who, half abashed at his presumption, drew himself up, and sought refuge from shyness in valor. It was not a sight to make me smile, though I smiled to please my warrior, who, well pleased, displayed his art, to show how fields were won. Won! He had no thought of loss; for youth and hope dream not of defeat, and he talked of how the war was to be fought and ended, and all should be well.
I kissed my little boy good night; and he slept peacefully, dreaming of fields of glory, as Jacob dreamed and saw a heavenly vision.
He went; and then it seemed as if there had been with him one fair long summer day, and this was the evening thereof; and my heart was heavy within me.
But many letters reached me from the distant field,—long and loving letters, full of hope, portraying all the poetry and beauty of camp-life, casting the grosser part aside; and to me at home, musing amid peaceful scenes, it seemed a great, triumphant march, which must crush, with its mere display of power, all wicked foes. But the sacrifice of blood was needed for the remission of sin, and these holiday troops—heroes in all save the art of war—lost the day, and, returning, brought back with their thinned ranks my little boy unharmed. Unharmed, thank God! but bronzed and bearded like the pard, and tarnished with the wear and burnished with the use of war.
How he talked and laughed, making light of danger, and, growing serious, said the fight had but begun,—the business of the nation must, for years, be war,—and that his strength and manhood, nay, his life if need be, should be given to his country. Then his words made me brave, and his looks made me proud. I blessed him with unfaltering lips; and above the hills of promise, which my little boy and I saw looking from our orient window, rose higher yet the mountains of truth, with the straight path of duty leading to the skies. But when he was gone again,—gone,—there fell a shadow of the coming night, and the evening and the morning were the second day.
His frequent letters dissipated the sense of danger, and brought me great comfort. War is not a literary art, and letters from the "imminent deadly breach," made it seem less deadly. His self-abnegation filled me with wonder. "It is well that few should be lost, that many may be saved," he wrote. In what school had this tender youth learned heroism, I asked myself, as I read his noble words and trembled at his courage.
My dreams and my gaze turned southward. No eastern beams lured me to that lookout so long endeared; for the eyes through which I once gazed looked through the smoke of battle, and hope and faith had fled with him, and left me but suspense.
Now came hot work. The enemy pressed sorely, and men's—ay, and women's—souls were tried. Long days of silence passed, days of sickening doubt, and then came the news of victory,—victory bought with precious blood and heavy loss. Over the ghastly hospital lists I hung, fearing and dreading to meet the name of my little boy, taking hope, as the list shortened, from the despair of others, and no mention. Thank God, who giveth us the victory!
And later, when details come in, I see in "official report" my little boy's name mentioned for meritorious and gallant conduct, and recommended for promotion. Ah! the groans of the dying are lost in the shouts of the victor; and, forgetting the evil because of this good, a woman's heart cried, Laus Deo!
After the battle, hardly fought and dearly purchased, my hero came home on furlough. War had developed him faster than the daily kisses of love had done; for my little boy—crowned with immortal youth for me—for all the world came from this rude embrace a man in stature and wisdom, a hero in valor and endurance, a leader beloved and revered.
But for all this I tucked him in o' nights, and shut off harmful draughts from him who oft had lain upon the sod, and for covering had but the cloudy sky.
These were blissful days,—marked in the past by white memories,—in which we talked of future plans, the future so near, yet to our vision so remote, and purposed this and that, not considering that Heaven disposes all things.
And when he must be off, I kissed him lightly; for success brings security, and I was growing accustomed to these partings; but he drew me to his breast, struck by some pang of coming evil, and called me mother. Ah! then my heart yearned over my little boy, and I would fain have stayed his going; but, dashing the tears from his eyes, he hurried away, nor looked behind him once.
All through the winter, which for him was summer, my heart lay lightly in its place, and I waited calmly the coming of the end. The struggle was almost over; the storm-cloud had rolled back, after deluging the land in blood; in this consecrated soil slavery was forever buried; the temple of freedom was reared in the name of all men, and the dove of peace sat brooding in its eaves.
All this my little boy had said must come to pass before he sheathed his sword; and this had come to pass.
He had marched "to the sea," my conquering hero, and was "coming up," crowned with new laurels. I was waiting the fulness of time, lulled with the fulness of content. Sherman had gathered his hosts for another combat,—the last,—and then the work would be done, and well done. Thus wrote my little boy; and my heart echoed his words, "well done."
This battle-day I worked out of doors from morning until night, seeking to bring order and beauty out of confusion and decay, striving to have all things ready when he came. My sleep was sweet that night, and I awoke with these words in my mind:—
"Lord, in the morning Thou shall hear
My voice ascending high."
The sun streamed in through the eastern window, and all the hills beyond were bathed in glory; the earth was fair to look upon, and happiness, descending from the skies, nestled in my heart.
I planted all this day, covering precious seed, thinking on their summer beauty; and, as the evening fell, I stood at the garden gate watching the way he must come for whose coming I longed with a longing that could not be uttered.
As I looked, idly speculating on his speed, a horseman dashed up in mad haste, his steed spent and flecked with foam. Men do not ride so hot with good tidings,—what need to make such haste with evil?
Still, no sense of loss, no shadow of the coming night. Peace covered my heart, and would not be scared away. Blind infatuation! that could not see.
"Was it not then a victory?" I cried; for sadness and defeat were written in his face.
"Nay, not that." The outstretched hand turned white with pity. "But this—"
Too kind to speak the words, at sight of which I fell, struck by a bolt that, riving his heart, through leagues of space had travelled straight to mine.
Months later, when the long night had passed away, and the dawn brought patience and resignation, one who saw him fall, gloriously, told me the story. I could bear it then; for in my soul's eclipse I had beheld him walking on the heavenly hills, and knew that there he was waiting for me.
He lies buried, at his own request, where he fell, on Southern soil.
O pilgrim to those sacred shrines, if in your wandering ye come upon a nameless grave, marked by a sunken sword, tread lightly above the slumbers of my little boy!