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Literary Hearthstones of Dixie Part 12

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Let me introduce to you Augusta Evans Wilson as I first met her when she was a bride, when her soul, like mine, was allied to love, faith and romance, when every day was made perfect with its own contentment and to-morrow's hope, when we were happy because we loved and were loved.

I do not know why, when she clasped my hand and said, "How young you are," I thought of the poem of Lucas, "The land where we lay dreaming," or why those lines should come back to me now when her feet are treading the path where silence is. It may have been because of her sweet voice, "Which did thrill until at eve the whip-poor-will and at noon the mocking-birds were mute and still," or because of the exchange of memories of those days of shot and sh.e.l.l and red meteors, of the camp, of the march, of the sick and wounded to whom she ministered, and of the realization that "All our glorious visions fled and left us nothing real but the dead, in the land where we lay dreaming."

When she remarked upon my youth the fancy drifted through my mind that she was rather old for a bride, or at least looked so, for I was accustomed to seeing very youthful brides, being only half her years when I was one, while she had pa.s.sed through ageing experiences, had written many books, and looked older than she really was. I had not formed the habit of thinking of her as Mrs. Wilson, and in the confusion of the old name and the new could not recall either, so called her "Mrs. Macaria." She laughed and told me that she was accustomed to being called "Beulah," but this was the first time that she had been addressed as "Mrs. Macaria."

She told me of the many adventures of "Macaria" in its early days.

Camp "Beulah," named in honor of her second book, which appeared not long before the opening of the war and brought her at once into prominence as a writer, was near Summerville, the girlhood home of Augusta Evans, and in that camp and its hospital, as well as in the many others which soon sprang up around the Evans residence, she took a Southern woman's share in the work, the darkness and the heartache of the time. Her friend, Mr. Thomas Cooper De Leon, of Mobile, gives a picture of her in those days:

The slim, willowy girl, with ma.s.ses of brown hair coiled in the funnel depths of a poke bonnet, a long check ap.r.o.n and a pair of tin buckets, became the typical guardian angel of the nearby hospitals.

She was amanuensis, as well as nurse, cook and general purveyor of light and comfort, and she sent many a cheering letter to waiting hearts at home, and never was the power of her glowing pen used more n.o.bly and helpfully than when, forced to write the last dread message of all, it wove into the sorrowful words a golden thread of love and faith and hope.

In the pauses of her work she wrote most of her war-novel, "Macaria,"

which, to a great extent, shared the uncertainties and excitements of the period. It was published in 1864 by West & Johnson, of Richmond, being printed on wrapping paper, and soon became a favorite with the Southern soldiers, who probably found in it more human nature and more of the logic of possible events than it revealed to the general reader, their own experience in those days having led them to grave doubts as to the accuracy of the philosophic theory that not all conceivable things are possible. At that time it stood to reason that the kind of literature popular in Southern camps would not appeal forcibly to the approval of the Northern army, and a Federal officer captured and burned all the copies of "Macaria" that he could find.

Miss Evans contrived to slip a copy of her new book across the lines to a publisher friend who, being unable at that time to bring out a new edition, took it to the J.B. Lippincott Company and arranged for its publication. Immediately afterward it was found that another publisher had come into possession of a copy and had an edition of five thousand ready to issue but, upon inquiry, expressed his intention of paying no royalty to the author. Through the efforts of Mr. Lippincott he was induced to allow a royalty. Miss Evans afterward wrote to her friend:

I have always felt profoundly grateful to Mr. Lippincott, but fate has never indulged me in an opportunity of adequately thanking him for his generous and chivalrous action in behalf of an unknown rebel, who at that period was nursing Confederate soldiers in a hospital established near "Camp Beulah."

In telling me of this she said that the kindness of Mr. Lippincott did not surprise her, as she remembered with grat.i.tude the generosity of the Lippincott Company in regard to Southern obligations at the opening of the war.

With the beautiful voice which so enchanted me she once took captive General Bragg's army on Lookout Mountain. With her mother she had gone to visit her brother, Captain Howard Evans, just before the battle of Chickamauga. It chanced that he had been sent to the front before they arrived, but they were hospitably received and given a hut on the slope. At midnight they were awakened by steps and whispers and upon inquiry found that their unexpected visitors were soldiers who had crept through the lines to see Miss Evans and hear her sing. The mother was disposed to object to her appearing at a time and place not conventionally appropriate to artistic performances, but, wrapping her travelling coat and robe about her, she went out into the moonlight with her ma.s.s of hair streaming in the wind like a flying cloud, and sang that thrilling song written by her friend, Randall, "Maryland, my Maryland." As the melodious tones swelled out upon the night and came floating back in echoes from the rugged peaks and mountain walls, they filled the audience with rapt delight. When the song was finished the sobs and cheers that burst from the soldier-hearts formed an encore not to be denied, and again that battle-cry thrilled out upon the air.

The moment of silence that followed was broken by the high, shrill, quavering, penetrating note of the rebel yell.

The singer has pa.s.sed into the land of the higher music and most of those who thrilled to the sound of her battle-song on that war-crowned height have pa.s.sed away from the melodies of earth, but somewhere in this wide land there may be hearts through which yet pulses the music of that midnight song.

Among the most valued possessions of Mrs. Wilson were the rings, bracelets and baskets fas.h.i.+oned from b.u.t.tons and fruit-seeds by her soldiers in hospital, tokens of their grateful remembrance of her. I showed her a little cross cut from a b.u.t.ton in a prison and given to me by my uncle, Colonel Phillips, of the Confederate Army, who had been a captive on Johnson's Island. The prisoners used the cross to certify to the validity of secret messages. It was sent with the message and returned with the answer, carrying conviction of the truthfulness of both.

I told her the story of another cross, connected with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Colonel Aylett, of the Fifty-Third Virginia, a very religious man, was talking with some friends when a letter came bringing the sad tidings. "I do not believe it," he said.

"If it could be true I should not have faith in G.o.d or in prayer." As he talked he took from his pocket a letter folded in the way that was followed when we had no envelopes, and, cutting it, let it fall to the floor. One of his companions took it up, placing the pieces on the table to look for an address, and found that the fragments formed a crucifix, the cross at each side to which the thieves were nailed, the block supporting the crucifix, the block on which the dice were thrown, the sponge and the reed, as if in imitation of a celebrated painting of the Crucifixion.

"And this beautiful cross," said Mrs. Wilson, touching the one I wore, "it must have a story, too." I replied that it had been in my family for nearly three centuries, that General Pickett had worn it at the battle of Gettysburg, and that it had been blessed by the Pope three times. The last time, it was taken to Rome by Father Walter who, in his long service as Rector of Saint Patrick's Church in Was.h.i.+ngton, had by his sweet spirit of kindness and liberality endeared himself to the whole community, regardless of religious differences. Mrs. Wilson said that when she was in Was.h.i.+ngton she went to see Father Walter because of his great kindness to the people of the South. She spoke, too, of the most pathetic and tragic service of his life, his faithful attendance upon Mrs. Surratt to the last awful moment.

In 1868 Augusta Evans was married to Mr. Lorenze M. Wilson, President of the Mobile & Montana Railroad, and became mistress of the beautiful home on the Spring Hill sh.e.l.l road near the picturesque city of Mobile. The house looked toward the road through aisles of greenery across a yard filled with flowers diffusing a perfume blended of geraniums, roses, tropical plants and the blossoms of the North. A chorus of birds filled the air with music. Majestic old live-oaks with twilight veils of gray moss were like tall and stately nuns pausing suddenly to count their beads to the music of vesper bells. Magnolia trees in dense white blossom gave the impression that winter had aroused from his summer sleep and unfolded his blanket of snow to add his most beautiful touch to the charms of the golden days. A handsome driveway led across a lawn to a veranda, vine-wreathed and hidden in a crush of flowers. The house, divided by a wide hall, opened upon broad piazzas. Leading up to it through brilliant blossoming was a white path between sentinel lines of oak trees that reached out friendly hands to clasp each other above the broad footway. Amid such beauty one felt lost in a mystic world of which he had never dreamed and revelled in a vision from which he might hope that there would be no waking.

Augusta Jane Evans was born May 4, 1835, near Columbus, Georgia. "The Queen City of the Chattahoochee" is enthroned in a pine forest amid a range of hills that form a semi-circle about the city with its fine wide streets and magnificent shade trees. The St. Elmo Inst.i.tute for girls, with its great oak grove and its beautiful lake, was the model for the school in the book, "St. Elmo." Sweet memories of the beautiful home in Columbus remained in the heart of Miss Evans and she said in after years that many of the happiest days of her girlhood were spent there. In later years she had here her "White Farm," on which all the animals and fowls were white.

In her childhood the family removed to Galveston, Texas, going afterward to San Antonio. In the two years spent here she studied under the tutors.h.i.+p of her mother, who never gave up her charge to the care of a professional teacher, though the responsibility of seven other children might have furnished her with an excuse for doing so.

In the most enchanting city of Texas the future novelist was surrounded by the romantic myths of Indian lore. On a day long past, the miracle of the San Antonio River and its valley had burst upon the enraptured eyes of Tremanos, the young Apache brave, from the hilltop to which he had climbed with weary footsteps, followed by the gaunt shadow of death, dazed by the phantoms on the distant horizon, lured on by mystic spirit music brought to him on the wings of the scorching winds; and he had gone with glad heart down into the rich and verdant plains of "Tejas, the Beautiful."

Not far from the picturesque old city of San Antonio was the Huisache, one of the three springs which join to form the San Antonio River.

Along its banks the gray dove's sad note was heard. When the two Indian sisters, "Flower of Gladness" and "Flower of Pity," used to come down to drink from the Spring of the Huisache the song of the dove was all of joy. A youthful Indian brave of rare enchantment came into their lives and brought love and treachery, and the a.s.sa.s.sin's knife felled the Indian youth on the brink of the Huisache. "Flower of Pity," coming to the spring, found the lifeless form of the young warrior and s.n.a.t.c.hed the knife from the wound and plunged it into her own heart. A little later "Flower of Gladness" found her sister and the Indian brave dead by the water's edge and straightway went mad.

Manitou graciously allowed the poor lost soul to find a voice for its woes in the note of the dove and henceforth she was the mourning dove.

The lives of the youth and maiden, floating out in white clouds of mist, descended into the earth and became two living springs which united with the Huisache to form the San Antonio River.

In her story of "Inez," founded upon the most tragic event in the history of the Lone Star State, the defence of the Alamo, Miss Evans thus described the scene from the viewpoint of the newly arrived immigrant:

The river wound around the town like an azure girdle, gliding along the surface and reflecting in its deep blue waters the rustling tule which fringed the margin. An occasional pecan or live-oak flung a majestic shadow athwart its azure bosom.

Now and then a clump of willows sigh low in the evening breeze.

Far away to the north stretched a mountain range, blue in the distance; to the south lay the luxuriant valley of the stream.

The streets were narrow and laid out with a total disregard of the points of the compa.s.s.

By this river of romantic beauty and old-time myth Augusta Evans spent two of youth's impressionable years. On Main Plaza, near the Alamo, where the Frost National Bank now stands, was the Evans store, where she, the daughter of the store-keeper, lived. Almost under the shadow of the tragically historic old mission, by the park near which Santa Ana had his headquarters, she received the incentive and gathered the material for her first novel, "Inez," written in her own room at night as a gift with which to surprise her father and mother. The work of a girl of fifteen, it did not appeal to many readers, but it contained a vivid description of the inspired heroism and self-sacrifice of the men whose deeds crowned the history of Texas with the sanct.i.ty of the supreme glory of self-immolation upon the altar of patriotism. We have fallen upon commercial days now, and the traditions of the old Alamo circle around a warehouse. Alamo Plaza is now the scene of the annual "Battle of the Flowers," a joyous and beautiful occasion which throws a fragrant floral veil about the terrible memories that gloom over the place.

At the close of the two years spent in San Antonio, the family returned to Columbus and later found a home in Mobile, Alabama, the town of the "Maubila," Choctaw, Indians. It is a pleasant town of shaded streets, romantic drives and beautiful homes. Its history reaches back through the centuries to a time long before the United States had being, and it is the only American city that has seen five flags wave over it: French, English, Spanish, United States and Confederate.

While in this home Augusta Evans became widely known through the publication in 1859 of her second novel, "Beulah." Then came the war, bringing forth her one war-novel, "Macaria." "Vashti," "St. Elmo,"

"Infelice," "At the Mercy of Tiberius," the latter being her best, followed in quick succession, until her marriage put a close to her work, for Mr. Wilson was unwilling that she should tax her strength by close application. Life in the delightful home furnished interest enough to make resort to fiction unnecessary as an entertainment. In 1879 the death of Mr. Wilson ended the idyllic home life and she returned to her desk, writing "The Speckled Bird" and "Devota," with a pen that had lost much of its charm in the days of happy absorption.

Having no children of her own, Mrs. Wilson gave her devoted affection to the children and grandchildren of her husband, who was a widower at the time of their marriage.

It has been observed that the stories of Augusta Evans have no location. They happen in any place where the people chance to be and, given that kind of people, the story would evolve itself in the same way anywhere else. But for her there was always a place in which flowers grew and trees waved their branches to the breeze and made mystic aisles of purpled glooms, shot through with glimpses of sun amid silences broken happily by the songs of birds. There were always the wide sky and dim reaches of s.p.a.ce and great walls of majestic mountains against the horizon. However gifted might be her maidens in roaming amid the stars or delving in philosophic depths, they, like herself, had always eyes for the beauties which Nature sets in place, and why should all these things be geographically bounded and designated by appellations to be recorded in the Postoffice Guide?

Being in Mobile some years ago, I called upon Mrs. Wilson after her husband had pa.s.sed on and left her alone in the charming home. She was in her work-room, if a place so decoratively enchanting can be connected with a subject so stern and prosaic, so crowded with every-day commonplaceness, as work. It was a bower of beauty, with light, graceful furniture, and pots of plants making cheerful greenery at every available spot. Vases of flowers cut from her garden, tended by her own care and love, were on desk and table and in sunny alcoves, filling the room with a glory of color and a fragrance as of incense from jewelled censers swung in adoration of the G.o.ddess of the exquisite shrine.

Remembering that charming study as I saw it then, blossoming and redolent with the flowers beloved of the heart of its mistress, I wonder at times if all that beauty is still there and if some bright soul, as in the dead days, is sunning itself in that warmth and glow.

The old home has pa.s.sed into stranger hands, as Mrs. Wilson was persuaded to sell it after the death of her husband and her removal to the city.

In Magnolia Cemetery in the home city so dear to her, Augusta Evans Wilson rests beside the brother whom she was seeking when her midnight song thrilled the hearts of the defenders of the Stars and Bars on Look-out Mountain. On her laurel-wreathed monument are the lines written by Mr. De Leon when the dawn of one May morning brought him the sad tidings that his friend of many years had pa.s.sed from earth:

Dead, in her fulness of years and of fame, What has she left?

High on the roll of fair Duty, a name: Love, friends devoted as few mortals claim: A Nation bereft!

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