THE MANY-MANSIONED HOUSE
AND OTHER POEMS


By
EDWARD WILLIAM THOMSON




 

WHEN LINCOLN DIED



ALREADY Appomattox day
Seemed to our hearts an age away,
Although the April-blossomed trees
Were droning with the very bees
That bumbled round the conference

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Where Lee resigned his long defence,
And Grant’s new gentleness subdued
The iron Southern fortitude.

From smouldering leaves the smoky smell
Wreathed round Virginian fields a spell

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Of homely aromatic haze,
So like New Hampshire springtime days
About the slopes of Moosilauke
It numbed my homesick heart to talk,
And when the bobolinks trilled “Rejoice!”

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My comrade could not trust his voice.

We were two cavalrymen assigned
To safeguard Pinckney womankind,
Whose darkies rambled Lord knows where
In some persuasion that they were

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Thenceforth, in ease, at public charge
To live as gentlemen at large—
A purpose which, they’d heard, the war
Was made by “Massa Linkum” for.

The pillared mansion, battle-wrecked,

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Yet stood with ivied front erect,
Its mossy gables, shell-fire-torn,
Were still in lordliness upborne
Above the neighboring barns, well stored
With war-time’s rich tobacco hoard;

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But on the place, for food, was naught
Save what our commissary brought [Page 60]
To keep the planter’s folk alive
Till Colonel Pinckney might arrive
Paroled from northward, if his head

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Lay not among the prisoner dead.

We’d captured him ten days before,
When Richard Ewell’s veteran corps,
Half-naked, starving, fought amain
To save their dwindling wagon-train.

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Since they were weak and we were strong,
The battle was not overlong.
Again I see the prisoners stare
Exultant at the orange glare
Of sunlit flame they saw aspire

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Up from the train they gave to fire.
They’d shred apart their hero flags
To share the silk as heart-worn rags.
The trampled field was strewn about
With wreckage of the closing rout—

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Their dead, their wounded, rifles broke,
Their mules and horses slain in yoke;
Their torn-up records, widely spread,
Fluttered around the muddy dead—
So bitter did their hearts condemn

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To ruin all we took with them.

Ten days before!  The war was past,
The Union saved, Peace come at last,
And Father Abraham’s words of balm
Gentling the war-worn States to calm.

60

Of all the miracles he wrought
That was the sweetest.  Men who’d fought
So long they’d learned to think in hate,
And savor blood when bread they ate,
And hear their buried comrades wail,

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How long, O Lord, doth wrong prevail?
List’ning alike, in blue or gray,
Felt war’s wild passions soothed away. [Page 61]

By homely touches in the air
That morning was so sweet and rare

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That Father Abraham’s soul serene
Seemed brooding over all the scene;
And when we found the plough, I guess
We were so tired of idleness
Our farmer fingers yearned to hold

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The handles, and to sense the mould
Turning the earth behind the knife.

Jim gladdened as with freshened life;—
“Say, John,” said he, “I’m feeling beat
To know what these good folks will eat

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When you and I are gone.  Next fall
They’re sure to have no crop at all.
All their tobacco’s confiscate
By Washington—and what a state
Of poverty they’re bound to see!

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Say, buddy, what if you and me
Just hitch our cavalry horses now
Up to this blamed Virginia plough,
And run some furrows through the field?
With commissary seed they’d yield

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A reasonable crop of corn.”
“They will,” said I, “as sure’s you’re born!”

Quickly we rigged, with rope and straps
And saddle leathers—well, perhaps
The Yankiest harness ever planned

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To haul a plough through farming land.
It made us kind of happy, too,
Feeling like Father Abraham knew.

The Pinckney place stood on a rise,
And when we’d turned an end, our eyes

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Would see the mansion war had wrecked,—
Such desolation!  I suspect
The women’s hearts were mourning sore; [Page 62]
But not one tear we saw—they bore
Composed the fortune fate had sent—

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But, O dear Lord, how still they went!
I’ve seen such quiet in a shroud,
Inscrutably resigned and proud.

Yet, when we’d worked an hour or two,
And plain was what we meant to do,

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Mother and daughters came kind-eyed,—
“Soldiers—my soldier husband’s pride
Will be to thank you well—till then
We call you friendly, helpful men—”
It seemed she stopped for fear of tears.

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She turned—they went—Oh, long the years
Gone by since that brave lady spoke—
And yet I hear the voice that broke.

We watched them climb the lilac hill,
Again the spring grew strangely still

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Ere, far upon the turnpike road,
Across a clattering bridge, where flowed
Through sand the stream of Pinckney Run,
We heard the galloping of one
Who, hidden by the higher ground,

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Pounded as fast as horse could pound.
Then—all again was still as death—
Till up the slope, with laboring breath,
A white steed rose—his rider gray
Spurring like mad his staggering way.

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The man was old and tall and white,
His glooming eyes looked dead to light,
He rode with such a fateful air
I felt a coldness thrill my hair,
He rode as one hard hit rides out

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In horror from some battle rout,
Bearing a cry for instant aid—
That aspect made my heart afraid. [Page 63]

The death-like rider drew no rein,
Nor seemed to note us on the plain,

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Nor seemed to know how weak in stride
His horse strove up the long hillside;
When down it lurched, on foot the man
Up through the fringing lilacs ran,
His left hand clutching empty air

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As if his sabre still hung there.

’T was plain as day that human blast
Was Colonel Pinckney home at last,
And we were free, since ordered so
That with his coming we might go;

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Yet on we ploughed—the sun swung high,
Quiet the earth and blue the sky—
Silent we wrought, as men who wait
Some half-imagined stroke of fate,
While through the trembling shine came knells

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Tolling from far-off Lynchburg bells.

The solemn, thrilling sounds of gloom
Bore portents of tremendous doom,
On smoky zephyrs drifted by
Shadows of hosts in charging cry,

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In fields where silence ruled profound
Growling musketry echoed round,
Pale phantom ranks did starkly pass
Invisible across the grass,
Flags ghosted wild in powder fume

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Till, miracled in memory’s room,
Rang the old regiment’s rousing cheer
For Father Abraham, smiling queer.

’T was when we turned a furrow’s end
We saw a martial form descend

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From Mansion Hill the lilac way,
Till in our field the veteran gray
Stood tall and straight as at parade, [Page 64]
And yet as one with soul dismayed.
That living emblem of the South

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Faced us unblenching, though his mouth
So quivered with the spoken word
It seemed a tortured heart we heard;—
“Soldiers”—he eyed us nobly when
We stood to “attention”—“Soldiers—men,

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For this good work my thanks are due—
But—men—O God—men, if you knew,
Your kindly hands had shunned the plough—
For hell comes up between us now!—
Oh, sweet was peace—but gone is peace—

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Murder and hate have fresh release!—
The deed be on the assassin’s head!—
Men—Abraham Lincoln’s lying dead!

He steadied then—he told us through
All of the tale that Lynchburg knew,

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While dumbly raged my anguished heart
With woe from pity wrenched apart,
For, in the fresh red furrow, bled
’Twixt us and him the martyred dead.

That precious crimson ran so fast

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It merged in tinge with battles past,—
Hatcher’s, Five Forks, The Wilderness,
The Bloody Angle’s maddened stress;
Down Cemetery Hill there poured
Torrents that stormed to Kelly’s Ford,

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And twice Manassas flung its flood
To swell the four years’ tide of blood,
And Sumter blazed, and Ellsworth fell,
While memory flashed its gleams of hell.

The colonel’s staring eyes declared

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In visions wild as ours he shared,
Until—dear Christ—with Thine was blent
The death-transfigured President. [Page 65]

Strange—strange—the crown of thorns he wore,
His outspread hands were piercèd sore,

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And down his old black coat a tide
Flowed from the javelin-wounded side;
Yet ’t was his homely self there stood,
And gently smiled across the blood,
And changed the mystic stream to tears

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That swept afar the angry years,
And flung me down as falls a child
Whose heart breaks out in weeping wild.


•      •      •      •      •      •      •      •


Yet in that field we ploughed no more,
We shunned the open Southern door,

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We saddled up, we rode away,—
It’s that that troubles me to-day.

Full thirty years to dust were turned
Before my pondering soul had learned
The blended vision there was sent

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In sign that our Belovèd meant;—
Children who wrought so mild my will,
Plough the long furrow kindly still,
’T  is sweet the Father’s work to see
Done for the memory of me. [Page 66]

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