James Lane Allen: Then white and heavenly Peace again. Eteocles and Polyneices in America
James Lane Allen
From The Choir Invisible (1897)
And then, just as she was fairly opening into the earliest flower of womanhood, the sudden, awful end of all this half-barbaric, half-aristocratic life – the revolt of the colonies, the outbreak of the Revolution, the blaze of way that swept the land like a forest fire, and that enveloped in its furies even the great house on the James. One of her brothers turned Whig, and already gone impetuously away in his uniform of buff and blue, to follow the fortunes of Washington; the other siding with the “home” across the sea, and he too already ridden impetuously away in scarlet. Her proud father, his heart long torn between these two and between his two countries, pacing the great hall, his face flushed with wine, his eyes turning confusedly, pitifully, on the soldierly portraits of his ancestors; until at last he too was gone, to keep his sword and his conscience loyal to his king.
And then more dreadful years and still sadder times; as when one dark morning toward daybreak, by the edge of a darker forest draped with snow where the frozen dead lay thick, they found an officer’s hat half filled with snow, and near by, her father fallen face downward; and turning him over, saw a bullet-hole over his breast, and the crimson of his blood on the scarlet of his waistcoat; so departed, with manfulness out of this world and leaving behind him some finer things than his debts and mortgages over dice and cards and dogs and wine and lotteries. Then not long after that, the manor-house on the James turned into the unkindest of battlefields; one brother defending at the head of troops within, the other attacking at the head of troops without; the snowy bedrooms becoming the red-stained wards of a hospital; the staircase hacked by swords; the poor little spinet and the slender-legged little mahogany tables overturned and smashed, the portraits slashed, the library scattered. Then one night, seen from a distance, a vast flame licking the low clouds; and afterwards a black ruin where the great house had stood, and so the end of it all forever.
During these years, she, herself, had been like a lily in a lake, never uprooted, but buried out of sight beneath the storm that tosses the waves back and forth.
Then white and heavenly Peace again…But with wounds harder to heal than those of the flesh; with memories that were as sword-points broken off in the body; with glory to brighten more and more, as time went on, but with starvation close at hand…
He was reclining against the trunk, his hat off, his eyes closed; in the heavy shadows he looked white and sick and weak and troubled. Plainly he was buried deep in his own thoughts. If he had broken off those low boughs in order that he might obtain a view of the road, he had forgotten his own purpose; if he had walked all the way out to this spot and was waiting, his vigilance had grown lax, his aim slipped from him.
Perhaps before his eyes the historic vision of the road had risen: that crowded pageant, brute and human, all whose red passions, burning rights and burning wrongs, frenzied fightings and awful deaths had left but the sun-scarred dust, the silence of the woods clothing itself in green. And from this panoramic survey it may have come to him to feel the shortness of the day of his own life, the pitifulness of its earthly contentions, and above everything else the sadness of the necessity laid upon him to come down to the level of the cougar and the wolf.
“All this prosperity, as the mere fruit of my toil, has been less easy than for many. I may not boast the Apostle that I have fought a good fight, but I can say that I fought a hard one. The fight will always be hard for any man who undertakes to conquer life with the few simple weapons I have used and who will accept victory only upon such terms as I have demanded. For be my success small or great, it has been won without inner compromise or other form of self-abasement. No man can look me in the eyes and say I ever wronged him for my own profit; none may charge that I have smiled on him in order to use him, or call him my friend that I might make him do for me the work of a servant.
“Do not imagine I fail to realize that I have added my full share to the general evil of the world: in part unconsciously, in part against my conscious will. It is the knowledge of this influence of imperfection forever flowing from myself to all others that has taught me charity with all the wrongs that flow from others toward me. As I have clung to myself despite the evil, so I have clung to the world despite all the evil that is in the world. To lose faith in men, not humanity; to see justice go down and not believe in the triumph of injustice; for every wrong that you weakly deal another or another deals you to love more and more the fairness and beauty of what is right; and so to turn with ever-increasing love from the imperfection that is in us all to the Perfection that is above us all…”