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The house stood upon a gentle slope, from which you might look down a broad, sandy avenue into the forests which lined the creek. Two-storied, with double porticos upon three sides and great white pillars about which a man's arms would scarcely go, it was hidden in a grove of pecans and magnolias which had the depth and stillness of cathedral archways. The ground beneath was soft and glossy, and one wondered if the deep, rich green had ever been trod by a foot.
It was March, and Southern springtime. The great magnolias, some of them a hundred feet high, were in the full tide of their splendor, their crisp, polished leaves scarcely visible for the snow-white flowers which covered them. Here and there about the lawn were rose trees of twice a man's height, flashing like beacons with their weight of cloth-of-gold roses a span across, crimson and orange, and with petals soft and heavy as velvet. About the lawn were scattered banana and fig trees, pomegranates, china trees, and huge flaming scarlet lobelias. Tall hedges of jasmine and sweetbrier ran around the house and along the sides of the lawn, while beyond them on one side stretched a grove of orange trees in full blossom, a sea of flowers which loaded the breeze with sweetness and brought a drunkenness to every sense. Upon the other side was the flower garden, whose riot of color and perfume had gathered the bees and humming-birds from miles around, filling the air with a sound as of distant machinery.
It was high noon, and the sultry air was heavy with sunlight. In front of the mansion everything wasstillness, save for the slowly moving old negro who was tending the trees, and for a deer which browsed upon the lawn now and then nibbling at the rose trees and bringing down showers of petals upon the grass.
Through the open doorway there came into view a group of figures, an aged, white-haired gentleman, an almost equally aged negro, and four young children; they descended the steps slowly and came across the lawn. The first-named towered above the group, a striking figure; he moved with trembling step, foot by foot, and leaning heavily upon the others, yet holding his spare frame stiffly erect. His hair was snow-white and his face withered with age, but still full of power with high forehead, prominent nose, and alert expression of countenance. He carried his head high, and seemed to snuff the air as he went, learning thus of the springtide about himfor he was blind.
The old negro tottered beside him, carrying his shawl and cane. The two oldest boys supported him with their shoulders, taking step for step.
"Grandfather," said the child in advance, a little girl, "let us go to the orange tree."
"I will try," he responded. "Are you tired, Allan?"
"No," panted the younger of his two supporters, "I don't mind. Let's go to the tree." He was only eight years old, and his face was very red and his hands clenched tightly in his pockets, but he made no sound.
A few rods farther on was a great gnarled orange tree, with rustic seats about it. "I'll spread your shawl, grandfather," said the little girl, running ahead.
They reached the seats, and he sank down with a sigh; the old negro sat near him, and the children gathered about his knee.
"Now!" the girl exclaimed, "and what are you going to tell us?"
"Breath, dear!" smiled the other. "Play awhile first. How are the oranges, Plato?"
"Mos' ready, Marse 'Dolph," said Plato, gazing up at the golden fruit left from the year before to ripen, and shining like jewels amid the blossoms. "Few mo' days in de sun, Marse 'Dolph."
"Grandfather, the new governess is coming to-morrow," put in the boy called Allan. "Did they tell you? She wrote from New Orleans."
"Tell us about King's Mountain!" broke in the girl.
"No, no, about Sir Leslie!" said the boy.
"I say General Coffee!" cried another.
There was a debate, above which the little girl kept crying insistently, "King's Mountain!"
"But, Ethel dear," said the old man, "I told you all that only three days ago."
"It was a week ago, grandfather; and I've forgotten all of it."
"It was Friday wasn't it Friday, Plato?"
"Thursday, Marse 'Dolph the day Marse Ben was hyar."
The grandfather hesitated. "Did you ever meet Sevier before?" asked Allan, suddenly.
"Not until the day before the battle, my son."
"Did he know you?"
"No, indeed, Allan. How should he have heard of me? I was only a boy of eighteen. But I was on guard when he and his men rode up to the camp."
"How did they look, grandfather?"
"I thought they were Indians," answered the old man; "they wore belts of beads, and fringed hunting-shirts and leggings, and tomahawks. Ah me, but they were fighters, wild, gaunt men, with grim faces that promised a battle!"
The children sat silent, being familiar with this method of starting a story. "And Sevier?" asked Allan.
"Sevier?" said the grandfather. "He was the handsomest man I ever saw, you had only to hear him laugh once and you would follow him forever. Think of a man who fought thirty-five battles and never lost a victory, and never got a wound!"
Marse 'Dolph paused a moment; all seemed to know that he was safely started. "I think," he began suddenly, "that was the blackest hour our country ever saw. God grant it may never see another such I It was blackest of all in the South the British had conquered Georgia and captured Charleston. When I left home, Cornwallis had swept through all North Carolina with his Tories and his bloodthirsty Indians; he had overwhelmed General Gates at Camden, and Tarleton had wiped out Sumter. But over in the mountains in Tennessee were the Holston settlements, where the backwoods fighters lived, and the British sent them a threat that if they took part in the war they would burn their homes. And ah, you should hear men tell of the fury that message roused I It was the brutal Ferguson who sent it, a man who had been burning and hanging through three states. And Sevier and Shelby passed the word, and the Holston men flew to arms; and two thousand of them, facing the cold on the snow-covered mountains, without tents or baggage, marched for a week over into North Carolina. There it was that our party met them and told them where Ferguson had camped. They were almost exhausted, but they picked nine hundred of their best, and we marched all night. The next day we came upon the regulars and Tories a thousand of them at King's Mountain."
Here, before the great event, the story-teller always paused, and raising one knee upon the other, he would say with slow preciseness: "Now here is the mountain, and here is the North Carolina border, and here is the way we approached. They outnumbered us, but we meant to beat them, and surrounded the hill. Here, by Allan, is where Sevier was, and here were Shelby's Kentuckians. Colonel Cleavland's men were to get round the mountain, but somehow the British discovered us too soon, so they had to ride like fox-hunters, headlong through the forests and the thickets, over rocks and ravines. But they got there, I tell you!"
All these things the children knew quite by heart; but they never failed to listen spellbound. Gradually the old man's memory would kindle, as scene by scene the panorama unrolled itself before his spirit's eye. The passion of the battle would seize hold of him; he would hear the music and the storm, "the thunder of the captains and the shouting." Once more he was shoulder to shoulder with these heroic men, striding to their heroic deed; weakness and old age fled away and a new world leaped into being, a world to which he belonged, and in which he was not blind. So as with swift words he poured out his eager tale, to the little group around him it was like the waving of an enchanter's wand. They sat lost to all things about them, tense and trembling, clutching each other's arms when he made a gesture, crying aloud when he gripped his hands.
For now the British have discovered the approach; their pickets are firing and dashing up the hill; and Sevier, lifting himself up in his stirrups, is shouting the word, and the mountaineers are bounding up the slope, making the forest echo with their war-whoops. Far ahead one can see the redcoats forming their line, dragging out wagons to make defences and hear above all the din the shrill silver whistle which tells that the hated Ferguson is there. Now and then one of the backwoodsmen stops, and, crouching low, takes aim; until, as the firing grows faster and the fight hotter, the crashing volleys thunder from the British lines, and the combat is swallowed in rolling clouds of smoke.
But still the men press on, firing as they can, hurling their tomahawks before falling back to reload. When the red-coated lines sweep forward, as again and again they do, the frontiersmen turn and flee, for, being without bayonets, they cannot meet a charge. Every time the British halt they are after them again, however, banging to their very heels. "No troops in the world ever fought like that before," says Grandfather Montague; "but these are Americans, and every man of them is there to win or die."
There was a story which the old man told of a boy who, assailed by a redcoat, had shot him dead, just as the latter's bayonet had transfixed his hand and his thigh. "Do you remember that, Plato?" he would cry; and Plato would answer excitedly, "I 'members it, Marse 'Dolph I does!" And when the more matter-of-fact Ethel would exclaim, "Why Plato, how you do talk; you don't remember it, for you weren't even born then!" Plato would protest, "It doan' make no diff'nce, Miss Ethel, I 'members it jes' de same!"
"There were terrible things happened in that battle," the grandfather would continue; "you would go groping up the hill through the smoke, and suddenly it would break away and bayonets leap at you out of it. But it was not an hour before their fire began to slacken, and our men seemed to find it out all at once; they yelled and went over the summit and at them, teeth and claws, just tore 'em all up! I saw Sevier, his horse bad been shot, and as a British officer rode by be sprang at him and spitted him through, slammed him off his horse, and broke his sword in him. I saw Ferguson, too, black and bloody, and howling like mad; I shot at him, and half a dozen more shot at him, and down he went, and his silver whistle, too. They had raised a white flag then, but it was a long time before we saw it, in all that smoke and din. When we did see it at last and knew it was victory oh, children, what a yell there was!"
There were many other stories of battle which Grandfather Montague could tell; to go no farther back, there was the first Sir Leslie Montague, who had defended his king so bravely at Marston Moor, and had none the less been captured by a plain Commonwealth soldier, who called himself Captain Otis, but was nothing but a Shropshire miller for all that. Quite wonderful it was to hear how Sir Leslie had broken loose in the night-time, and, freeing two of his companions, had seized the captain, flung him on to a horse, and dashed out of camp with him; also how the gay cavalier had let him go again, out of pure devilment, or because, as he declared, be had so sturdily refused to go back to his mill and call himself a captain no more.
There was also a second Sir Leslie, who had come to Virginia to better his fortune and had been a famous Indian fighter and afterward a judge. His picture stood in the main hall of the house, and made the children shiver with its glare. The picture of the first Sir Leslie they had never seen, but they hoped some day to see it, when they visited the plantation which belonged to the sons of Grandfather Montague's elder brother, and which he had left forever as a boy when he shouldered his musket and strode away to join Captain Campbell's patriot band. His heart had been drawn after the Holston men and the wild, new country. He had settled there when the war was over, and he had earned wealth and reputation as a lawyer; but later he had moved to the far South, into lower Mississippi, and had bought ten thousand acres of the swampy bottomlands of Wilkinson County, which were to be had for a song in those days, but were now far beyond the range of most men's voices. It was here that he had brought his negroes and cleared his plantation Valley Hall; and from here he had raised his company when war broke out with England again and when the men of Wilkinson County had to be drafted to stay at home.
And so to New Orleans! This was a battle that Plato did remember in fact, for Marse 'Dolph had bought him only two months before (from a French barber in Natchez, who beat him) and had made him his body-servant for life. Plato Plato Anaximenes was his full name could describe every incident of the conflict, and had doubtless in the course of thirty years forgotten that he had never seen a bit of it, having all the time been lying flat on his belly behind the breastworks, quaking with terror and crying out for mercy to the various French saints whom the barber bad taught him to respect.
But Marse 'Dolph had not seen Plato, for he had been striding up and down the lines, exhorting his men; so whenever their grandfather was not to be found, the children would besiege Plato, and the old darkey would thrill them with many details not in the histories of "de gin'erl" galloping back and forth behind the lines upon a horse ten feet high, and roaring in a voice which the cannon could not equal; and of his wild leap over the cotton bales, and his charge that had thrown the redcoats into confusion.
This was early in '46, and General Jackson had just died at the Hermitage; the children would gaze at his picture which stood in the dining room, sword in hand, and imagine him swearing his furious "By the Eternal!" and locking up the judge who had resisted his efforts to keep the city under martial law until the British were quite gone home. When General Jackson was a wild Irish emigrant boy, their grandfather told them, the British had captured him and his brother, and beaten them over the head, and starved them, and turned them out to die of smallpox; one of them did, but Andrew didn't, and he kept the memory for thirty-five years. And first he lay for them at Mobile, and pounded them to pieces there ; and then he rode over to New Orleans like a yellow skeleton with illness, having to be tied on his horse and fed on boiled rice, but oh with what a fire inside of him! And when the British landed and marched toward the city, he went out that very night and flung his troops at them, hurled them back, and gave them such a fright they took a week to get over it!
Sometimes, after long dwelling upon these things, the deeps of the old man's soul would break open, and the children would sit trembling. For his journey was almost done; he gazed into the face of death, and about him there hung a touch of awe. When he told of these heroes that he had known: "Some of them trod this very spot," he, would say, "and laughed and sang here, in their pride. And their lives were precious to them, they loved the world; they had wives and children, and hopes unuttered; and yet they marched out into battle and died for their country to make her, and to keep her, free. Sometimes at night I seem to see them, and to hear their voices crying out to me that it must not all be for nothing! When I am gone, too, the lives that they lived, and the dreams that they dreamed, will be gone forever. And yet it was all for you, that you might reap where they had sowed and be happy where they lay dying. So I wonder sometimes if I have told you enough, if I have done all I can to make you love your country, to make you realize how precious it is. My children, you may live ever so nobly, you may die ever so bravely, but you will do nothing too good for your country! All the hope and all the meaning of the ages is in it, and if it fails there will never be any success. Tens upon tens of thousands have laid down their lives to win its freedom; and freedom is first of all things, and best. And so it is that you may dream your noblest dream and hope your noblest hope and your country will be greater than that! You may dare any peril, you may suffer any pain, but you will not do too much for your country. There is nothing that can ever take the place of it, not friendship, nor love, nor anything else in life can be so precious."
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Journeys through Mobile
By ROY HOFFMAN
Copyright © 2001 Roy Hoffman. All rights reserved.