A Silhouette

— ’T was deep in the afternoon. The sun still hung high in the heavens, yet we had not reached the pause between noon and night when, in Virginia, the air blows softer, the fleecy clouds grow more dense, as with accumulated snow, and a foretaste of evening comes in the hue of earth and sky.

We were halted at a high river-bank opposite the town of Lexington. Not the Lexington of our Revolution, nigh a century ago, but, as a Virginian told us, with flashing eyes, the Lexington of theirs !

We had paused by the river-bank for the excellent reason that the bridges which spanned the stream had been burned by the enemy. This disaster our gallant engineers were striving to remedy with axe and saw and pontoon. The air about us was alive with sound,—the heavy tread of marching cavalry deploying into position, the lighter cadence of the infantry, the ponderous movement of the artillery, intermingled with the hoarse word of command and what our boys called the “ neighing ” of many trumpets.

Seated on my horse and looking vacantly at the sky, I became vaguely conscious of an increase of crimson, and recalled what I had been told at a blind asylum, years before, of a strange analogy between colors and sounds,— that the blast of a trumpet conveyed to the minds of those born blind an impression of red. While I thus mused, I saw the drifting snow-bank clouds lighted up with what looked like crimson foam, and for a moment I thought that the tints of sunset had been borne in upon me unawares, sheltered as I was by the penumbra of an enormous oak under which I lingered. Recovering from my revery, I was startled by the hum of many voices, and then I noticed that the trumpets had ceased, and that many men were looking with wondering awe at some object beyond the river. Sure enough, it was a fire. The Virginia Military Institute, the West Point of the South, had been kindled into a conflagration by some unknown hand : it was generally said by the enemy, as our advance guard bad not yet crossed ; others surmised the work of slave incendiaries, for it was evident that in this town white men were few, and temporarily, at least, all slaves must be free. I have seen many remarkable fires, but, whether from greater inflammability of material or from some other cause, this was the most magnificent one I ever beheld. Other buildings, including the residences of the professors and some houses in the town, soon contributed to the burnt offering before us.

Our progress had been almost undisputed ; nevertheless it was deemed prudent by our authorities to throw a few shells into the town, to see if organized valor might not be lurking somewhere within its shadow. Our gallant enemies’ delight in ambuscade, and, sooth to say, their frequent success therein, had made us cautious in all our movements.

The glories of a Southern sunset were beginning to be added to the lurid tints already seen in the sky, when our engineers pronounced the bridges practicable, and the whole army proceeded to cross.

Our advance guard took prompt possession of the town and its public buildings, not forgetting sundry halls of refreshment; and it was during the glowing twilight that we went into camp in a broad held of the suburbs. Everything being made snug for the night, our officers got permission to ride over to the principal hotel of the town for the purpose of dining.

On assembling, after dinner, on the piazza, which in a Southern country hotel serves as drawing-room and club-house, I noticed that a largo dwelling-house directly opposite had been burned. From the charred and dismantled ruin before us, it was easy to infer that the house had belonged to some person of consideration. The grounds had evidently been sumptuous. All the familiar objects of a Southern garden were here strewn in blackened confusion, as though scorched by the flames from the great house which had fallen,— rosetrees of many varieties, box, juniper, and arbor-vibe. At a little distance from the smouldering ruin stood a summer-house, almost intact, which seemed to have escaped the general wreck as by a miracle. This summer-house was constructed of climbingplants—wistaria, clematis, and honeysuckle — woven upon invisible wire to the shape of a pagoda. A few blossoms, frail and white, could be seen through the gathering gloom, as though in gentle defiance of the wreck that had been wrought. Strange, burnt odors were blown to us from across the road,— a grotesque incense of box, rosebush, and charred wood, with other elements as incongruous, all enhancing the desolation of the scene. Whose house it was, or how it came to be burned, we did not certainly know, Gossips of the advance guard informed us that it had been the residence of an eminent official obnoxious to our government, and that the fire had been occasioned by the bursting of a shell.

As our eyes became accustomed to the imperfect light, we saw that the garden was occupied. A lady dressed in black was sitting on a long, low settee, which must have stood in the shadow of the wall before the building was burned. Something in her pose bespoke the pride of the patrician class in that still feudal country. Although her features were indistinguishable in the twilight, there was something in the poise of her head which revealed a consciousness of beauty, while the lines of her graceful figure were seen to be poetical in their symmetry. Her presence at this scene of ruin and the deep mourning evinced in her attire keenly stirred in her behalf the sympathetic feelings and romance imaginings of our younger officers. We all agreed that she must be a lady of rank, an F. F. V., — a grande dame presumably, a beauty undoubtedly. We naturally surmised her to be the now homeless daughter of that burned house, and, moreover, one whose male relatives were not there to protect her, but were fighting in the van of the Southern armies.

A sudden exclamation from one of our young men called attention to another occupant of the garden, and we saw a young officer of the cavalry, who evidently had been placed there on duty, as was shown by his manner of patrolling a weed-grown gravel walk.

The officer turned with eyes of apparent solicitude toward the lady who was seated on the black settee, and inclined more and more his pacing in that direction. But the movement of queenly majesty, of outraged womanhood, the indices of imperishable hate that informed every limb of her quivering body, showed how unwelcome was such intrusion. We, the spectators from the piazza, were unanimous in the opinion that the situation of our comrade was by no means an enviable one, and that we greatly preferred to be where we were.

When, after some interruption which called us indoors, we returned to our seats on the piazza, another scene of the drama which we had beheld was being enacted. The lady was in tears. Burning indignation had been replaced by a helpless sense of wrong, and she was sobbing in pitiful dumbshow which thrilled every fibre of our masculine hearts, and made us wonder why such semblance of warring upon women must be woven into the woof of every conflict. The officer had his back to us, and was murmuring something in a voice far too low for us to hear. He had sheathed his sword, and was absently making marks with the scabbard in the gravel and among the ashes. He appeared profoundly conscious of his unhappy position, and was evidently pleading for some mitigation of beauty’s sentence,— pleading, no doubt, in extenuation, his own sense of soldierly duty, to which appeal she, as a daughter of devoted Virginia, could scarce be insensible.

The last red light of the western sky faintly illumined the scene. The dying embers of the burned building were touched into life by the evening zephyr. The darkness, if it had increased, had so changed its character as to throw a picturesque, if uncertain, clearness over all objects. It seemed to us as if there was a faint flush upon the lady’s cheek, hitherto so pale ; and we fell to wondering whether it was real, or was wrought by the red ruin that smouldered near, or was aided by the passion that still held the sky.

And now the twilight had died in the horizon ; the embers which had been stirred into brief life had fallen back into darkness. Nothing remained to light us on our way except an occasional uncertain flash from the still burning houses on the hill. We looked for our bereaved lady and her cavalry guard of honor, but we looked in vain; and it was not until we had mounted our horses and were slowly riding out to camp that a change in our position brought between us and the sky a silhouette. There, upon the centre of the same seat, we could see two figures sitting so closely together as to make one image ; and by a sportive flash from a burning building beyond we saw for a brief instant that the soldier was holding her hand, while his attitude was one of prayerful intensity. And the lady was listening.