octor Franck came in as I sat sewing up the rents in an old shirt, that Tom
might go tidily to his grave. New shirts were needed for the living, and there
was not wife or mother to "dress him handsome when he went to meet the Lord,"
as one woman said, describing the fine funeral she had pinched herself to give
"Miss Dane, I'm in a quandary," began the Doctor, with that expression of
countenance which says as plainly as words, "I want to ask a favor, but I wish
you'd save me the trouble."
"Can I help you out of it?"
"Faith! I don't like to propose it, but you certainly can, if you please."
"Then give it a name, I beg."
"You see a Reb has just been brought in crazy with typhoid; a bad case every
way; a drunken, rascally little captain somebody took the trouble to capture,
but whom nobody wants to take the trouble to cure. The wards are full, the
ladies worked to death, and willing to be for our own boys, but rather slow to
risk their lives for a Reb. Now you've had the fever, you like queer patients,
your mate will see to your ward for a while, and I will find you a good
attendant. The fellow won't last long, I fancy; but he can't die without some
sort of care, you know. I've put him in the fourth story of the west wing, away
from the rest. It is airy, quiet, and comfortable there. I'm on that ward, and
will do my best for you in every way. Now, then, will you go?"
"Of course I will, out of perversity, if not common charity; for some of these
people think that because I'm an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should
rather like to show them, that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am
willing to take care of them."
"Very good; I thought you'd go; and speaking of abolition reminds me that you
can have a contraband for servant, if you like. It is that fine mulatto fellow
who was found burying his Rebel master after the fight, and, being badly cut
over the head, our boys brought him along. Will you have him?"
"By all means,--for I'll stand to my guns on that point, as on the other; these
black boys are far more faithful and handy than some of the white scamps given
me to serve, instead of being served by. But is this man well enough?"
"Yes, for that sort of work, and I think you'll like him. He must have been a
handsome fellow before he got his face slashed; not much darker than myself;
his master's son, I dare say, and the white blood makes him rather high and
haughty about some things. He was in a bad way when he came in, but vowed he'd
die in the street rather than turn in with the black fellows below; so I put
him up in the west wing, to be out of the way, and he's seen to the captain all
the morning. When can you go up?"
"As soon as Tom is laid out, Skinner moved, Haywood washed, Marble dressed,
Charley rubbed, Downs taken up, Upham laid down, and the whole forty fed."
We both laughed, though the Doctor was on his way to the dead-house and I held
a shroud on my lap. But in a hospital one learns that cheerfulness is one's
salvation; for, in an atmosphere of suffering and death, heaviness of heart
would soon paralyze usefulness of hand, if the blessed gift of smiles had been
In an hour I took possession of my new charge, finding a dissipated-looking boy
of nineteen or twenty raving in the solitary little room, with no one near him
but the contraband in the room adjoining. Feeling decidedly more interest in
the black man than in the white, yet remembering the Doctor's hint of his being
"high and haughty," I glanced furtively at him as I scattered chloride of lime
about the room to purify the air, and settled matters to suit myself. I had
seen many contrabands, but never one so attractive as this. All colored men are
called "boys," even if their heads are white; this boy was five-and-twenty at
least, strong-limbed and manly, and had the look of one who never had been
cowed by abuse or worn with oppressive labor. He sat on his bed doing nothing;
no book, no pipe, no pen or paper anywhere appeared, yet anything less
indolent or listless than his attitude and expression I never saw. Erect he
sat, with a hand on either knee, and eyes fixed on the bare wall opposite, so
rapt in some absorbing thought as to be unconscious of my presence, though the
door stood wide open and my movements were by no means noiseless. His face was
half averted, but I instantly approved the Doctor's taste, for the profile
which I saw possessed all the attributes of comeliness belonging to his mixed
race. He was more quadroon than mulatto, with Saxon features, Spanish
complexion, darkened by exposure, color in lips and cheek, waving hair, and an
eye full of the passionate melancholy which in such men always seems to utter a
mute protest against the broken law that doomed them at their birth. What could
he be thinking of? The sick boy cursed and raved, I rustled to and fro, steps
passed the door, bells rang, and the steady rumble of army-wagons came up from
the street, still he never stirred. I had seen colored people in what they call
"the black sulks," when for days, they neither smiled nor spoke, and scarcely
ate. But this was something more than that; for the man was not dully brooding
over some small grievance; he seemed to see an all-absorbing fact or fancy
recorded on the wall, which was a blank to me. I wondered if it were some deep
wrong or sorrow, kept alive by memory and impotent regret; if he mourned for
the dead master to whom he had been faithful to the end; or if the liberty now
his were robbed of half its sweetness by the knowledge that someone near and
dear to him still languished in the hell from which he had escaped. My heart
warmed to him at that idea; I wanted to know and comfort him; and, following
the impulse of the moment, I went in and touched him on the shoulder.
In an instant the man vanished and the slave appeared. Freedom was too new a
boon to have wrought its blessed changes yet, and as he started up, with his
hand at his temple and an obsequious "Yes, Ma'am," any romance that had
gathered round him fled away, leaving the saddest of all sad facts in living
guise before me. Not only did the manhood seem to die out of him, but the
comeliness that first attracted me; for, as he turned, I saw the ghastly wound
that had laid open cheek and forehead. Being partly healed, it was no longer
bandaged, but held together with strips of that transparent plaster which I
never see without a shiver and swift recollections of the scenes with which it
is associated in my mind. Part of his black hair had been shorn away, and one
eye was nearly closed; pain so distorted, and the cruel sabre-cut so marred
that portion of his face, that, when I saw it, I felt as if a fine medal had
been suddenly reversed, showing me a far more striking type of human suffering
and wrong than Michel Angelo's bronze prisoner. By one of those inexplicable
processes that often teach us how little we understand ourselves, my purpose
was suddenly changed, and though I went in to offer comfort as a friend, I
merely gave an order as a mistress.
"Will you open these windows? this man needs more air."
He obeyed at once, and, as he slowly urged up the unruly sash, the handsome
profile was again turned toward me, and again I was possessed by my first
impression so strongly that I involuntarily said,--
"Thank you, Sir."
Perhaps it was fancy, but I thought that in the look of mingled surprise and
something like reproach which he gave me there was also a trace of grateful
pleasure. But he said, in that tone of spiritless humility these poor souls
learn so soon,--
"I a'n't a white man, Ma'am, I'm a contraband."
"Yes, I know it; but a contraband is a free man, and I heartily congratulate
He liked that; his face shone, he squared his shoulders, lifted his head, and
looked me full in the eye with a brisk--
"Thank ye, Ma'am; anything more to do fer yer?"
"Doctor Franck thought you would help me with this man, as there are many
patients and few nurses or attendants. Have you had the fever?"
"They should have thought of that when they put him here; wounds and fevers
should not be together. I'll try to get you moved."
He laughed a sudden laugh,--if he had been a white man, I should have called it
scornful; as he was a few shades darker than myself, I suppose it must be
considered an insolent, or at least an unmannerly one.
"It don't matter, Ma'am. I'd rather be up here with the fever than down with
those niggers; and there a'n't no other place fer me."
Poor fellow! that was true. No ward in all the hospital would take him in to
lie side by side with the most miserable white wreck there. Like the bat in
AEsop's fable, he belonged to neither race; and the pride of one, the
helplessness of the other, kept him hovering alone in the twilight a great sin
has brought to overshadow the whole land.
"You shall stay, then; for I would far rather have you than my lazy Jack. But
are you well and strong enough?"
"I guess I'll do, Ma'am."
He spoke with a passive sort of acquiescence,--as if it did not much matter, if
he were not able, and no one would particularly rejoice, if he were.
"Yes, I think you will. By what name shall I call you?"
Every woman has her pet whim; one of mine was to teach the men self-respect by
treating them respectfully. Tom, Dick and Harry would pass, when lads rejoiced
in those familiar abbreviations; but to address men often old enough to be my
father in that style did not suit my old-fashioned ideas of propriety. This
"Bob" would never do; I should have found it as easy to call the chaplain "Gus"
as my tragical-looking contraband by a title so strongly associated with the
tail of a kite.
"What is your other name?" I asked. "I like to call my attendants by their last
names rather than by their first."
"I've got no other, Ma'am; we have our master's names, or do without. Mine's
dead, and I won't have anything of his about me."
"Well, I'll call you Robert, then, and you may fill this pitcher for me, if you
will be so kind."
He went; but, through all the tame obedience years of servitude had taught him,
I could see that the proud spirit his father gave him was not yet subdued, for
the look and gesture with which he repudiated his master's name were a more
effective declaration of independence than any Fourth-of-July orator could have
We spent a curious week together. Robert seldom left his room, except upon my
errands; and I was a prisoner all day, often all night, by the bedside of the
Rebel. The fever burned itself rapidly away, for there seemed little vitality
to feed it in the feeble frame of this old young man, whose life had been none
of the most righteous, judging from the revelations made by his unconscious
lips; since more than once Robert authoritatively silenced him, when my gentler
hushings were of no avail, and blasphemous wanderings or ribald camp-songs made
my cheeks burn and Robert's face assume an aspect of disgust. The captain was a
gentleman in the world's eye, but the contraband was the gentleman in mine;--I
was a fanatic, and that accounts for such depravity of taste, I hope. I never
asked Robert of himself, feeling that somewhere there was a spot still too sore
to bear the lightest touch; but, from his language, manner, and intelligence, I
inferred that his color had procured for him the few advantages within the
reach of a quick-witted, kindly treated slave. Silent, grave, and thoughtful,
but most serviceable, was my contraband; glad of the books I brought him,
faithful in the performance of the duties I assigned to him, grateful for the
friendliness I could not but feel and show toward him. Often I longed to ask
what purpose was so visibly altering his aspect with such daily deepening
gloom. But I never dared, and no one else had either time or desire to pry into
the past of this specimen of one branch of the chivalrous "F.F.Vs."
On the seventh night, Dr. Franck suggested that it would be well for some one,
besides the general watchman of the ward, to be with the captain, as it might
be his last. Although the greater part of the two preceding nights had been
spent there, of course I offered to remain,--for there is a strange fascination
in these scenes, which renders one careless of fatigue and unconscious of fear
until the crisis is passed.
"Give him water as long as he can drink, and if he drops into a natural sleep,
it may save him. I'll look in at midnight, when some change will probably take
place. Nothing but sleep or a miracle will keep him now. Good night."
Away went the Doctor; and, devouring a whole mouthful of gapes, I lowered the
lamp, wet the captain's head, and sat down on a hard stool to begin my watch.
The captain lay with his hot, haggard face turned toward me, filling the air
with his poisonous breath, and feebly muttering, with lips and tongue so
parched that the sanest speech would have been difficult to understand. Robert
was stretched on his bed in the inner room, the door of which stood ajar, that
a fresh draught from his open window might carry the fever-fumes away through
mine. I could just see a long, dark figure, with the lighter outline of a face,
and, having little else to do just then I fell to thinking of this curious
contraband, who evidently prized his freedom highly, yet seemed in no haste to
enjoy it. Doctor Franck had offered to send him on to safer quarters, but he
had said, "No, thank yer, Sir, not yet," and then had gone away to fall into
one of those black moods of his, which began to disturb me, because I had no
power to lighten them. As I sat listening to the clocks from the steeples all
about us, I amused myself with planning Robert's future, as I often did my own,
and had dealt out to him a generous hand of trumps wherewith to play this game
of life which hitherto had gone so cruelly against him, when a harsh, choked
It was the captain, and some new terror seemed to have gifted him with
"Yes, here's Lucy," I answered, hoping that by the following fancy I might
quiet him,--for his face was damp with the clammy moisture, and his frame
shaken with the nervous tremor that so often precedes death. His dull eye fixed
upon me, dilating with a bewildered look of incredulity and wrath, till he
broke out fiercely,--
"That's a lie! she's dead,--and so's Bob, damn him!"
Finding speech a failure, I began to sing the quiet tune that had often soothed
delirium like this; but hardly had the line,
"See gentle patience smile on pain,"
passed my lips, when he clutched me by the wrist, whispering like one in mortal
"Hush! she used to sing that way to Bob, but she never would to me. I swore I'd
whip the Devil out of her, and I did; but you know before she cut her throat
she said she'd haunt me, and there she is!"
He pointed behind me with an aspect of such pale dismay, that I involuntarily
glanced over my shoulder and started as if I had seen a veritable ghost; for,
peering from the gloom of that inner room, I saw a shadowy face, with dark hair
all about it, and a glimpse of scarlet at the throat. An instant showed me that
it was only Robert leaning from his bed's-foot, wrapped in a gray army-blanket,
with his red shirt just visible above it, and his long hair disordered by
sleep. But what a strange expression was on his face! The unmarred side was
toward me, fixed and motionless as when I first observed it,--less absorbed
now, but more intent. His eye glittered, his lips were apart like one who
listened with every sense, and his whole aspect reminded me of a hound to which
some wind had brought the scent of unsuspected prey.
"Do you know him, Robert? Does he mean you?"
"Lord, no, Ma'am; they all own half a dozen Bobs: but hearin' my name woke me;
He spoke quite naturally, and lay down again, while I returned to my charge,
thinking that this paroxysm was probably his last. But by another hour I
perceived a hopeful change, for the tremor had subsided, the cold dew was gone,
his breathing was more regular, and Sleep, the healer, had descended to save or
take him gently away. Doctor Franck looked in at midnight, bade me keep all
cool and quiet, and not fail to administer a certain draught as soon as the
captain woke. Very much relieved, I laid my head on my arms, uncomfortably
folded on the little table, and fancied I was about to perform one of the feats
which practice renders possible,--"sleeping with one eye open," as we say: a
half-and-half doze, for all senses sleep but that of hearing; the faintest
murmur, sigh, or motion will break it, and give one back one's wits much
brightened by the brief permission to "stand at ease." On this night, the
experiment was a failure, for previous vigils, confinement, and much care had
rendered naps a dangerous indulgence. Having roused half a dozen times in an
hour to find all quiet, I dropped my heavy head on my arms, and, drowsily
resolving to look up again in fifteen minutes, fell fast asleep.
The striking of a deep-voiced clock woke me with a start. "That is one,"
thought I, but, to my dismay, two more strokes followed; and in remorseful
haste I sprang up to see what harm my long oblivion had done. A strong hand put
me back into my seat, and held me there. It was Robert. The instant my eye met
his my heart began to beat, and all along my nerves tingled that electric flash
which foretells a danger that we cannot see. He was very pale, his mouth grim,
and both eyes full of sombre fire,--for even the wounded one was open now, all
the more sinister for the deep scar above and below. But his touch was steady,
his voice quiet, as he said,--
"Sit still, Ma'am; I won't hurt yer, nor even scare yer, if I can help it, but
yer waked too soon."
"Let me go, Robert,--the captain is stirring,--I must give him something."
"No, Ma'am, yer can't stir an inch. Look here!"
Holding me with one hand, with the other he took up the glass in which I had
left the draught, and showed me it was empty.
"Has he taken it?" I asked, more and more bewildered.
"I flung it out o'winder, Ma'am; he'll have to do without."
"But why, Robert? why did you do it?"
"Because I hate him!"
Impossible to doubt the truth of that; his whole face showed it, as he spoke
through his set teeth, and launched a fiery glance at the unconscious captain.
I could only hold my breath and stare blankly at him, wondering what mad act
was coming next. I suppose I shook and turned white, as women have a foolish
habit of doing when sudden danger daunts them; for Robert released my arm, sat
down upon the bedside just in front of me, and said, with the ominous quietude
that made me cold to see and hear,--
"Don't yer be frightened, Ma'am; don't try to run away, fer the door's locked
an' the key in my pocket; don't yer cry out, fer yer'd have to scream a long
while, with my hand on yer mouth, before yer was heard. Be still, an' I'll tell
yer what I'm goin' to do."
"Lord help us! he has taken the fever in some sudden, violent way, and is out
of his head. I must humor him till someone comes"; in pursuance of which swift
determination, I tried to say, quite composedly,--
"I will be still and hear you; but open the window. Why did you shut it?"
"I'm sorry I can't do it, Ma'am; but yer'd jump out, or call, if I did, an' I'm
not ready yet. I shut it to make yer sleep, an' heat would do it quicker 'n
anything else I could do."
The captain moved, and feebly muttered, "Water!" Instinctively I rose to give
it to him, but the heavy hand came down upon my shoulder, and in the same
decided tone Robert said,--
"The water went with the physic; let him call."
"Do let me go to him! he'll die without care!"
"I mean he shall;--don't yer interfere, if yer please, Ma'am."
In spite of his quiet tone and respectful manner, I saw murder in his eyes, and
turned faint with fear; yet the fear excited me, and, hardly knowing what I
did, I seized the hands that had seized me, crying,--
"No, no, you shall not kill him! it is base to hurt a helpless man. Why do you
hate him? He is not your master?"
"He's my brother."
I felt that answer from head to foot, and seemed to fathom what was coming,
with a prescience vague, but unmistakable. One appeal was left to me, and I
"Robert, tell me what it means? Do not commit a crime and make me accessory to
it. There is a better way of righting wrong than by violence;--let me help you
My voice trembled as I spoke, and I heard the frightened flutter of my heart;
so did he, and if any little act of mine had ever won affection or respect from
him, the memory of it served me then. He looked down, and seemed to put some
question to himself; whatever it was, the answer was in my favor, for when his
eyes rose again, they were gloomy, but not desperate.
"I will tell you, Ma'am; but mind, this makes no difference; the boy is mine.
I'll give the Lord a chance to take him fust; if He don't, I shall."
"Oh, no! remember, he is your brother."
An unwise speech; I felt it as it passed my lips, for a black frown gathered on
Robert's face, and his strong hands closed with an ugly sort of grip. But he
did not touch the poor soul gasping there behind him, and seemed content to let
the slow suffocation of that stifling room end his frail life.
"I'm not like to forget that, Ma'am, when I've been thinkin' of it all this
week. I knew him when they fetched him in, an' would 'a' done it long 'fore
this, but I wanted to ask where Lucy was; he knows,--he told to-night,--an' now
he's done for."
"Who is Lucy" I asked hurriedly, intent on keeping his mind busy with any
thought but murder.
With one of the swift transitions of a mixed temperament like this, at my
question Robert's deep eyes filled, the clenched hands were spread before his
face, and all I heard were the broken words,--
"My wife,--he took her"---
In that instant every thought of fear was swallowed up in burning indignation
for the wrong, and a perfect passion of pity for the desperate man so tempted
to avenge an injury for which there seemed no redress but this. He was no
longer slave or contraband, no drop of black blood marred him in my sight, but
an infinite compassion yearned to save, to help, to comfort him. Words seemed
so powerless I offered none, only put my hand on his poor head, wounded,
homeless, bowed down with grief for which I had no cure, and softly smoothed
the long neglected hair pitifully wondering the while where was the wife who
must have loved this tender-hearted man so well.
The captain moaned again, and faintly whispered, "Air!" but I never stirred.
God forgive me! just then I hated him as only a woman thinking of a sister
woman's wrong could hate. Robert looked up; his eyes were dry again, his mouth
grim. I saw that, said, "Tell me more," and he did,--for sympathy is a gift the
poorest may give, the proudest stoop to receive.
"Yer see, Ma'am, his father,-- I might say ours, if I warn't ashamed of both of
'em,--his father died two years ago, an' left us all to Marster Ned,--that's
him here, eighteen then. He always hated me, I looked so like old Marster: he
don't,--only the light skin an' hair. Old Marster was kind to all of us, me
'specially, an' bought Lucy off the next plantation down there in South
Car'lina, when he found I liked her. I married her, all I could, Ma'am; it
warn't much, but we was true to one another till Marster Ned come home a year
after an' made hell fer both of us. He sent my old mother to be used up in his
rice-swamp in Georgy; he found me with my pretty Lucy, an' though young Miss
cried, an I prayed to him on my knees, an' Lucy run away, he wouldn't have no
mercy; he brought her back, an'--took her, Ma'am."
"Oh! what did you do?" I cried, hot with helpless pain and passion.
How the man's outraged heart sent the blood flaming up into his face and
deepened the tones of his impetuous voice, as he stretched his arm across the
bed, saying with a terribly expressive gesture,--
"I half murdered him, an' to-night I'll finish."
"Yes, yes,--but go on now; what came next?"
He gave me a look that showed no white man could have felt a deeper degradation
in remembering and confessing these last acts of brotherly oppression.
"They whipped me till I couldn't stand, an' then they sold me further South.
Yer thought I was a white man once;--look here!"
With a sudden wrench he tore the shirt from neck to waist, and on his strong
brown shoulders showed me furrows deeply ploughed, wounds which, though healed,
were ghastlier to me than any in that house. I could not speak to him, and,
with the pathetic dignity a great grief lends the humblest sufferer, he ended
his brief tragedy by simply saying,--
"That's all, Ma'am. I've never seen her since, an' now I never shall in this
world,--maybe not in t'other."
"But, Robert, why think her dead? The captain was wandering when he said those
sad things; perhaps he will retract them when he is sane. Don't despair; don't
give up yet."
"No, Ma'am, I guess he's right; she was too proud to bear that long. It's like
her to kill herself. I told her to, if there was no other way; an' she always
minded me, Lucy did. My poor girl! Oh, it warnt' right! No, by God, it
As the memory of this bitter wrong, this double bereavement, burned in his sore
heart, the devil that lurks in every strong man's blood leaped up; he put his
hand upon his brother's throat, and, watching the white face before him,
muttered low between his teeth,--
"I'm lettin' him go too easy; there's no pain in this; we a'n't even yet. I
wish he knew me. Marster Ned! it's Bob; where's Lucy?"
From the captain's lips there came a long faint sight, and nothing but a
flutter of the eyelids showed that he still lived. A strange stillness filled
the room as the elder brother held the younger's life suspended in his hand,
while wavering between a dim hope and a deadly hate. In the whirl of thoughts
that went on in my brain, only one was clear enough to act upon. I must prevent
murder, if I could,--but how? What could I do up there alone, locked in with a
dying man and a lunatic?--for any mind yielded utterly to any unrighteous
impulse is mad while the impulse rules it. Strength I had not, nor much
courage, neither time nor wit for stratagem, and chance only could bring me
help before it was too late. But one weapon I possessed,--a tongue,--often a
woman's best defense; and sympathy, stronger than fear, gave me power to use
it. What I said Heaven only knows, but surely Heaven helped me; words burned on
my lips, tears streamed from my eyes, and some good angel prompted me to use
the one name that had power to arrest my hearer's hand and touch his heart. For
at that moment I heartily believed that Lucy lived, and this earnest faith
roused in him a like belief.
He listened with the lowering look of one in whom brute instinct was sovereign
for the time,--a look that makes the noblest countenance base. He was but a
man,--a poor, untaught, outcast, outraged man. Life had few joys for him; the
world offered him no honors, no success, no home, no love. What future would
this crime mar? and why should he deny himself that sweet, yet bitter morsel
called revenge? How many white men, with all New England's freedom, culture,
Christianity, would not have felt has he felt then? Should I have reproached
him for a human anguish, a human longing for redress, all now left him from the
ruin of his few poor hopes? Who had taught him that self-control,
self-sacrifice, are attributes that make men masters of the earth and lift them
nearer heaven? Should I have urged the beauty of forgiveness, the duty of
devout submission? He had no religion, for he was no saintly "Uncle Tom," and
Slavery's black shadow seemed to darken all the world to him and shut out God.
Should I have warned him of penalties, of judgments, and the potency of law?
What did he know of justice, or the mercy that should temper that stern virtue,
when every law, human and divine, had been broken on his hearthstone? Should I
have tried to touch him by appeals to filial duty, to brotherly love? How had
his appeals been answered? What memories had father and brother stored up in
his heart to plead for either now? No,--all these influences, these
associations, would have proved worse than useless, had I been calm enough to
try them. I was not; but instinct, subtler than reason, showed me the one safe
clue by which to lead this troubled soul from the labyrinth in which it groped
and nearly fell. When I paused, breathless, Robert turned to me, asking, as if
human assurances could strengthen his faith in Divine Omnipotence,--
"Do you believe, if I let marster Ned live, the Lord will give me back my
"As surely as there is a Lord, you will find her here or in the beautiful
hereafter, where there is no black or white, no master and no slave."
He took his hand from his brother's throat, lifted his eyes from my face to the
wintry sky beyond, as if searching for that blessed country, happier even that
the happy North. Alas, it was the darkest hour before the dawn!--there was no
star above, no light below but the pale glimmer of the lamp that showed the
brother who had made him desolate. Like a blind man who believes there is a
sun, yet cannot see it, he shook his head, let his arms drop nervelessly upon
his knees, and sat there dumbly asking that question which many a soul whose
faith is firmer fixed than his had asked in hours less dark than this,--"Where
is God?" I saw the tide had turned, and strenuously tried to keep this
rudderless life-boat from slipping back into the whirlpool wherein it had been
so nearly lost.
"I have listened to you, Robert; now hear me, and heed what I say, because my
heart is full of pity for you, full of hope for your future, and a desire to
help you now. I want you to go away from here, from the temptation of this
place, and the sad thoughts that haunt it. You have conquered yourself once,
and I honor you for it, because the harder the battle, the more glorious the
victory; but it is safer to put a greater distance between you and this man. I
will write you letters, give you money, and send you to good old Massachusetts
to begin your new life a freeman,--yes, and a happy man; for when the captain
is himself again, I will learn where Lucy is, and move heaven and earth to find
and give her back to you. Will you do this, Robert?"
Slowly, very slowly, the answer came; for the purpose of a week, perhaps a
year, was hard to relinquish in an hour.
"Yes, Ma'am, I will."
"Good! Now you are the man I thought you, and I'll work for you with all my
heart. You need sleep, my poor fellow; go, and try to forget. The captain is
still alive, and as yet you are spared that sin. No, don't look there; I'll
care for him. Come, Robert, for Lucy's sake."
Thank Heaven for the immortality of love! for when all other means of salvation
failed, a spark of this vital fire softened the man's iron will until a woman's
hand could bend it. He let me take from him the key, let me draw him gently
away and lead him to the solitude which now was the most healing balm I could
bestow. Once in his little room, he fell down on his bed and lay there as if
spent with the sharpest conflict of his life. I slipped the bolt across his
door, and unlocked my own, flung up the window, steadied myself with a breath
of air, then rushed to Doctor Franck. He came; and till dawn we worked
together, saving one brother's life, and taking earnest thought how best to
secure the other's liberty. When the sun came up as blithely as if it shone
only upon happy homes, the Doctor went to Robert. For an hour I heard the
murmur of their voices; once I caught the sound of heavy sobs, and for a time
reverent hush, as if in the silence that good man were ministering to soul as
well as sense. When he departed he took Robert with him, pausing to tell me he
should get him off as soon as possible, but not before we met again.
Nothing more was seen of them all day; another surgeon came to see the captain,
and another attendant came to fill the empty place. I tried to rest, but could
not, with the thought of poor Lucy tugging at my heart, and was soon back at my
post again, anxiously hoping that my contraband had not been too hastily
spirited away. Just as night fell there came a tap, and, opening, I saw Robert
literally "clothed and in his right mind." The Doctor had replaced the ragged
suit with tidy garments, and no trace of that tempestuous night remained but
deeper lines upon the forehead and the docile look of a repentant child. He did
not cross the threshold, did not offer me his hand,--only took off his cap,
saying with a traitorous falter in his voice,--
"God bless you, Ma'am! I'm goin'."
I put out both my hands, and held his fast.
"Good bye, Robert! Keep up good heart, and when I come home to Massachusetts
we'll meet in a happier place than this. Are you quite ready, quite comfortable
for your journey?"
"Yes, Ma'am, yes; the Doctor's fixed everything; I'm goin' with a friend of
his; my papers are all right, an' I'm as happy as I can be till I find"----
He stopped there; then went on, with a glance into the room,--
"I'm glad I didn't do it, an' I thank yer, Ma'am, fer hinderin' me,--thank yer
hearty; but I'm afraid I hate him jest the same."
Of course he did; and so did I; for these faulty hearts of ours cannot turn
perfect in a night, but need frost and fire, wind and rain, to ripen and make
them ready for the great harvest-home. Wishing to divert his mind, I put my
poor mite into his hand, and, remembering the magic of a certain little book, I
gave him mine, on whose dark cover whitely shone the Virgin Mother and the
Child, the grand history of whose life the book contained. The money went into
Robert's pocket with a grateful murmur, the book into his bosom with a long
look and a tremulous--
"I never saw MY baby, Ma'am."
I broke down then; and though my eyes were too dim to see, I felt the touch of
lips upon my hands, heard the sound of departing feet, and knew my contraband
When one feels an intense dislike, the less one says about the subject of it
the better; therefore I shall merely record that the captain lived,--in time
was exchanged; and that, whoever the other party was, I am convinced the
Government got the best of the bargain. But long before this occurred, I had
fulfilled my promise to Robert; for as soon as my patient recovered strength of
memory enough to make his answer trustworthy, I asked, without any
"Captain Fairfax, where is Lucy?"
And too feeble to be angry, surprised or insincere, he straightway
"Dead, Miss Dane."
"And she killed herself, when you sold Bob?"
"How the Devil did you know that?" he muttered, with an expression
half-remorseful, half-amazed; but I was satisfied, and said no more.
Of course, this went to Robert, waiting far away there in a lonely
home,--waiting, working, hoping for his Lucy. It almost broke my heart to do
it; but delay was weak, deceit was wicked; so I sent the heavy tidings, and
very soon the answer came,--only three lines; but I felt that the sustaining
power of the man's life was gone.
"I thought I'd never see her any more; I'm glad to know she's out of trouble. I
thank yer, Ma'am; an' if they let us, I'll fight fer yer till I'm killed, which
I hope will be 'fore long."
Six months later he had his wish, and kept his word.
Every one knows the story of the attack on Fort Wagner; but we should not tire
yet of recalling how our Fifty-Fourth, spent with three sleepless nights, a
day's fast, and a march under the July sun, stormed the fort as night fell,
facing death in many shapes, following their brave leaders through a fiery rain
of shot and shell, fighting valiantly for "God and Governor Andrew,"--how the
regiment that went into action seven hundred strong came out having had nearly
half its number captured, killed, or wounded, leaving their young commander to
be buried, like a chief of earlier times, with his body-guard around him,
faithful to the death. Surely, the insult turns to honor, and the wide grave
needs no monument but the heroism that consecrates it in our sight; surely, the
hearts that held him nearest see through their tears a noble victory in the
seeming sad defeat; and surely, God's benediction was bestowed, when this loyal
soul answered, as Death called the roll, "Lord, here am I, with the brothers
Thou has given me!"
The future must show how well that fight was fought; for though Fort Wagner
still defies us, public prejudice is down; and through the cannon-smoke of that
black night the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would
not see, rings in many ears that would not hear, wins many hearts that would
not hitherto believe.
When the news came that we were needed, there was none so glad as I to leave
teaching contrabands, the new work I had taken up, and go to nurse "our boys,"
as my dusky flock so proudly called the wounded of the Fifty-Fourth. Feeling
more satisfaction, as I assumed my big apron and turned up my cuffs, than if
dressing for the President's levee, I fell to work on board the hospital-ship
in Hilton-Head harbor. The scene was most familiar, and yet strange; for only
dark faces looked up at me from the pallets so thickly laid along the floor,
and I missed the sharp accent of my Yankee boys in the slower, softer voices
calling cheerily to one another, or answering my questions with a stout, "We'll
never give it up, Ma'am, till the last Reb's dead," or, "If our people's free,
we can afford to die."
Passing from bed to bed, intent on making one pair of hands do the work of
three, at least, I gradually washed, fed, and bandaged my way down the long
line of sable heroes, and coming to the very last, found that he was my
contraband. So old, so worn, so deathly weak and wan, I never should have known
him but for the deep scar on his cheek. That side lay uppermost, and caught my
eye at once; but even then I doubted, such an awful change had come upon him,
when, turning to the ticket just above his head, I saw the name, "Robert
That both assured and touched me, for, remembering that he had no name, I knew
that he had taken mine. I longed for him to speak to me, to tell how he had
fared since I lost sight of him, and let me perform some little service for him
in return for many he had done for me; but he seemed asleep; and as I stood
reliving that strange night again, a bright lad, who lay next him softly waving
an old fan across both beds, looked up and said,--
"I guess you know him, Ma'am?"
"You are right. Do you?"
"As much as any one was able to , Ma'am."
"Why do you say 'was,' as if the man were dead and gone?"
"I s'pose because I know he'll have to go. He's got a bad jab in the breast an'
is bleedin' inside, the Doctor says. He don't suffer any, only gets weaker 'n'
weaker every minute. I've been fannin' him this long while, an' he's talked a
little; but he don't know me now, so he's most gone, I guess."
There was so much sorrow and affection in the boy's face, that I remembered
something, and asked, with redoubled interest,--
"Are you the one that brought him off? I was told about a boy who nearly lost
his life in saving that of his mate."
I dare say the young fellow blushed, as any modest lad might have done; I could
not see it, but I heard the chuckle of satisfaction that escaped him, as he
glanced from his shattered arm and bandaged side to the pale figure opposite.
"Lord, Ma'am, tha's nothin'; we boys always stan' by one another, an' I warn't
goin' to leave him to be tormented any more by them cussed Rebs. He's been a
slave once, though he don't look half so much like it as me, an' I was born in
He did not; for the speaker was as black as the ace of spaces,--being a sturdy
specimen, the knave of clubs would perhaps be a fitter representative,--but the
dark freeman looked at the white slave with the pitiful, yet puzzled expression
I have so often seen on the faces of our wisest men, when this tangled question
of Slavery presents itself, asking to be cut or patiently undone.
"Tell me what you know of this man; for, even if he were awake, he is too weak
"I never saw him till I joined the regiment, an' no one 'peared to have got
much out of him. He was a shut-up sort of feller, an' didn't seem to care for
anything but gettin' at the Rebs. Some say he was the fust man of us that
enlisted; I know he fretted till we were off, an' when we pitched into old
Wagner, he fought like the Devil.
"Were you with him when he was wounded? How was it?"
"Yes, Ma'am. There was somethin' queer about it; for he 'peared to know the
chap that killed him, an' the chap knew him. I don't dare to ask, but I rather
guess one owned the other some time,--for, when they clinched, the chap sung
out, 'Bob!' an' Dane, 'Marster Ned!'--then they went at it."
I sat down suddenly, for the old anger and compassion struggled in my heart,
and I both longed and feared to hear what was to follow.
"You see, when the Colonel--Lord keep an' send him back to us!--it a'n't
certain yet, you know, Ma'am, though it's two days ago we lost him--well, when
the Colonel shouted, 'Rush on, boys, rush on!' Dane tore away as if he was
goin' to take the fort alone; I was next him, an' kept close as we went through
the ditch an' up the wall. Hi! warn't that a rusher!" and the boy flung up his
well arm with a whoop, as if the mere memory of that stirring moment came over
him in a gust of irrepressible excitement.
"Were you afraid?" I said,--asking the question women often put, and receiving
the answer they seldom fail to get.
"No, Ma'am!"--emphasis on the "Ma'am,"--"I never thought of anything but the
damn' Rebs, that scalp, slash, an' cut our ears off, when they git us. I was
bound to let daylight into one of 'em at least, an' I did. Hope he liked it!"
"It is evident that you did, and I don't blame you in the least. Now go on
about Robert, for I should be at work."
"He was one of the fust up; I was just behind, an' though the whole thing
happened in a minute, I remember how it was, for all I was yellin' an' knockin'
round like mad. Just where we were, some sort of an officer was wavin' his
sword an' cheerin' on his men; Dane saw him by a big flash that come by; he
flung away his gun, give a leap, an' went at that feller as if he was Jeff,
Beauregard, an' Lee, all in one. I scrabbled after as quick as I could, but was
only up in time to see him git the sword straight through him an' drop into the
ditch. you needn't ask what I did next, Ma'am, for I don't quite know myself;
all I'm clear about is, that I managed somehow to pitch that Reb into the fort
as dead as Moses, git hold of Dane, an' bring him off. Poor old feller! we said
we went in to live or die; he said he went in to die, an' he's done it."
I had been intently watching the excited speaker; but as he regretfully added
those last words I turned again, and Robert's eyes met mine,--those melancholy
eyes, so full of an intelligence that proved he had heard, remembered, and
reflected with that preternatural power which often outlives all other
faculties. He knew me, yet gave no greeting; was glad to see a woman's face,
yet had no smile wherewith to welcome it; felt that he was dying, yet uttered
no farewell. He was too far across the river to return or linger now; departing
thought, strength, breath, were spent in one grateful look, one murmur of
submission to the last pang he could ever feel. His lips moved, and, bending to
them, a whisper chilled my cheek, as it shaped the broken words,--
"I would have done it,--but it's better so,--I'm satisfied."
Ah! well he might be,--for, as he turned his face from the shadow of the life
that was, the sunshine of the life to be touched it with a beautiful content,
and in the drawing of a breath my contraband found wife and home, eternal
liberty and God.
Copyright © 1995 The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.