Dead! Dead! Both dead! O my brothers! What have we lived for except you? We, who would have so gladly laid down our lives for yours, are left desolate to mourn over all we loved and hoped for, weak and helpless; while you, so strong, noble, and brave, have gone before us without a murmur. God knows best. But it is hard — O so hard! to give them up. . . .
If we had had any warning or preparation, this would not have been so unspeakably awful. But to shut one’s eyes to all dangers and risks, and drown every rising fear with “God will send them back; I will not doubt His mercy,” and then suddenly to learn that your faith has been presumption—and God wills that you shall undergo bitter affliction — it is a fearful awakening! What glory have we ever rendered to God that we should expect him to be so merciful to us? Are not all things His, and is not He infinitely more tender and compassionate than we deserve?
We have deceived ourselves wilfully about both. After the first dismay on hearing of Gibbes’s capture, we readily listened to the assertions of our friends that Johnson’s Island was the healthiest place in the world; that he would be better off, comfortably clothed and under shelter, than exposed to shot and shell, half fed, and lying on the bare ground during Ewell’s winter campaign. We were thankful for his safety, knowing Brother would leave nothing undone that could add to his comfort. And besides that, there was the sure hope of his having him paroled. On that hope we lived all winter — now confident that in a little while he would be with us, then again doubting for a while, only to have the hope grow surer afterwards. And so we waited and prayed, never doubting he would come at last. He himself believed it, though striving not to be too hopeful lest he should disappoint us, as well as himself. Yet he wrote cheerfully and bravely to the last. Towards the middle of January, Brother was sure of succeeding, as all the prisoners had been placed under Butler’s control. Ah me! How could we be so blind? We were sure he would be with us in a few weeks! I wrote to him that I had prepared his room.
On the 30th of January came his last letter, addressed to me, though meant for Lavinia. It was dated the 12th — the day George died. All his letters pleaded that I would write more frequently —he loved to hear from me; so I had been writing to him every ten days. On the 3d of February I sent my last. Friday the 5th, as I was running through Miriam’s room, I saw Brother pass the door, and heard him ask Miriam for mother. The voice, the bowed head, the look of utter despair on his face, struck through me like a knife. “Gibbes! Gibbes!” was my sole thought; but Miriam and I stood motionless looking at each other without a word. “Gibbes is dead,” said mother as he stood before her. He did not speak; and then we went in.
We did not ask how, or when. That he was dead was enough for us. But after a while he told us Uncle James had written that he had died at two o’clock on Thursday the 21st. Still we did not know how he had died. Several letters that had been brought remained unopened on the floor. One, Brother opened, hoping to learn something more. It was from Colonel Steadman to Miriam and me, written a few hours after his death, and contained the sad story of our dear brother’s last hours.
He had been in Colonel Steadman’s ward of the hospital for more than a week, with headache and sore throat, but it was thought nothing; he seemed to improve, and expected to be discharged in a few days. On the 21st he complained that his throat pained him again. After prescribing for him, and talking cheerfully with him for some time, Colonel Steadman left him surrounded by his friends, to attend to his other patients. He had hardly reached his room when some one ran to him saying Captain Morgan was dying. He hurried to his bedside, and found him dead. Captain Steadman, sick in the next bed, and those around him, said he had been talking pleasantly with them, when he sat up to reach his cup of water on the table. As soon as he drank it he seemed to suffocate; and after tossing his arms wildly in the air, and making several fearful efforts to breathe, he died.
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“Hush, mother, hush,” I said when I heard her cries. “We have Brother and George and Jimmy left, and Lydia has lost all!” Heaven pity us! George had gone before — only He in mercy kept the knowledge of it from us for a while longer.
On Thursday the 11th, as we sat talking to mother, striving to make her forget the weary days we had cried through with that fearful sound of “Dead! Dead!” ringing ever in our ears, some one asked for Miriam. She went down, and presently I heard her thanking somebody for a letter. “You could not have brought me anything more acceptable! It is from my sister, though she can hardly have heard from us yet!” I ran back, and sitting at mother’s feet, told her Miriam was coming with a letter from Lydia. Mother cried at the mention of her name. O my little sister! You know how dear you are to us! “Mother! Mother!” a horrible voice cried, and before I could think who it was, Miriam rushed in, holding an open letter in her hand, and perfectly wild. “George is dead!” she shrieked, and fell heavily to the ground.
O my God! I could have prayed Thee to take mother, too, when I looked at her. I thought — I almost hoped she was dead, and that pang spared! But I was wild myself. I could have screamed! —laughed! “It is false! Do you hear me, mother? God would not take both! George is not dead!” I cried, trying in vain to arouse her from her horrible state or bring one ray of reason to her eye. I spoke to a body alive only to pain; not a sound of my voice seemed to reach her; only fearful moans showed she was yet alive.
Miriam lay raving on the ground. Poor Miriam! her heart’s idol torn away. God help my darling! I did not understand that George could die until I looked at her. In vain I strove to raise her from the ground, or check her wild shrieks for death. “George! only George!” she would cry; until at last, with the horror of seeing both die before me, I mastered strength enough to go for the servant and bid her run quickly for Brother.
How long I stood there alone, I never knew. I remember Ada coming in hurriedly and asking what it was. I told her George was dead. It was a relief to see her cry. I could not; but I felt the pain afresh, as though it were her brother she was crying over, not mine. And the sight of her tears brought mine, too. We could only cry over mother and Miriam; we could not rouse them; we did not know what to do.
Some one called me in the entry. I went, not understanding what I was doing. A lady came to me, told me her name, and said something about George; but I could not follow what she said. It was as though she was talking in a dream. I believe she repeated the words several times, for at last she shook me and said, “Listen! Rouse yourself! the letter is about George!” Yes, I said; he is dead. She said I must read the letter; but I could not see, so she read it aloud. It was from Dr. Mitchell, his friend who was with him when he died, telling of his sickness and death. He died on Tuesday the 12th of January, after an illness of six days, conscious to the last and awaiting the end as only a Christian, and one who has led so beautiful a life, could, with the Grace of God, look for it. He sent messages to his brothers and sisters, and bade them tell his mother his last thoughts were of her, and that he died trusting in the mercy of the Saviour. George! our pride! our beautiful, angel brother! Could he die? Surely God has sent all these afflictions within these three years to teach us that our hopes must be placed Above, and that it is blasphemy to have earthly idols!
The letter said that the physicians had mistaken his malady, which was inflammation of the bowels, and he had died from being treated for something else. It seemed horrible cruelty to read me that part; I knew that if mother or Miriam ever heard of it, it would kill them. So I begged Mrs. Mitchell never to let them hear of it. She seemed to think nothing of the pain it would inflict; how could she help telling if they asked? she said. I told her I must insist on her not mentioning it; it would only add suffering to what was already insupportable; if they asked for the letter, offer to read it aloud, but say positively that she would not allow any one to touch it except herself, and then she might pass it over in silence. I roused Miriam then and sent her to hear it read. She insisted on reading it herself, and half dead with grief held out her hands, begging piteously to be suffered to read it alone. I watched then until I was sure Mrs. Mitchell would keep her promise. Horrible as I knew it to be from strange lips, I knew by what I experienced that I had saved her from a shock that might cost her her life; and then I went back to mother.
No need to conceal what I felt there! She neither spoke nor saw. If I had shrieked that he died of ill treatment, she would not have understood. But I sat there silently with that horrible secret, wondering if God would help me bear it, or if despair would deprive me of self-control and force me presently to cry it aloud, though it should kill them both.
At last Brother came. I had to meet him downstairs and tell him. God spare me the sight of a strong man’s grief! Then Sister came in, knowing as little as he. Poor Sister! I could have blessed her for every tear she shed. It was a comfort to see some one who had life or feeling left. I felt as though the whole world was dead. Nothing was real, nothing existed except horrible speechless pain. Life was a fearful dream through which but one thought ran —” Dead — Dead!”
Miriam had been taken to her room more dead than alive — Mother lay speechless in hers. The shock of this second blow had obliterated, with them, all recollection of the first. It was a mercy I envied them; for I remembered both, until loss of consciousness would have seemed a blessing. I shall never forget mother’s shriek of horror when towards evening she recalled it. O those dreadful days of misery and wretchedness! It seems almost sacrilege to refer to them now. They are buried in our hearts with our boys — thought of with prayers and tears.
How will the world seem to us now? What will life be without the boys? When this terrible strife is over, and so many thousands return to their homes, what will peace bring us of all we hoped? Jimmy! Dear Lord, spare us that one!