- Historic Sites
Of Noble Warriors And Maidens Chaste
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
But—and she, poor child, must see it now—there was scarcely recognition in the stern gaze which met her own, and what there was was like the light which momentarily flashes across the rain-clouds, and leaves them again as dark and forbidding as before.
The situation looks hopeless indeed when Agnes, no longer able to nurse Harold (who has been taken away by the retreating Confederate forces), flees to the North, certain that her love will never relent:
Her eyes are fixed upon the spires of the church under whose shadow she had glided—oh, so joyously! —from childhood into womanhood. … a film covers the lady’s eye, coming between her and this fading vision. The ship has gone out upon the broad ocean, and Agnes Saumur has bidden adieu to home, to love, and to David Dalton.
Eventually, of course, everything falls into place. In rapid succession the brothers are reunited, the South surrenders, and so does Agnes. Nichols really lets himself go in the lushly romantic scene of the lovers’ reunion. Let us not go into the twists and turns of plot that finally bring the lovers together, but the meeting finally does occur— at a performance of an opera in New York City. As they sit absorbed in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots , Agnes sees her beloved, who remains unaware of her presence:
And when the curtain rose upon the final scene, and the two lovers, kneeling in the presence of Death, with exquisite melody sang the last sad song of love, Dalton, with his own sad longings, could bear no more, and turned his moistened eyes from the scene. And Agnes, at the same instant, animated by the same emotion, unmindful of the place, conscious only that Dalton was there, and that he sincerely loved her, half rose from her seat, turned, and the lovers were face to face.
Electrified, each gazed in the other’s eyes. In the moment of silence which followed, there was sanctified between David Dalton and Agnes Saumur that perfect marriage of the soul, all-comprehending, eternal.
But Nichols is not content with a two-handkerchief ending. He goes for three handkerchiefs and a resounding anticlimax by having Agnes murmur a place of rendezvous for the morrow before she flees into the night. The final, the grand, reconciliation takes place at an estate on the banks of the Hudson where Agnes is staying with relatives, and—believe it or not—as David clasps her in his arms, the sun sinks slowly in the west!
David’s comrade-in-arms, Major Alfred Horton, and the blue-blooded Bostonian, Kate Noble, are the Supporting Lovers. While Alfred serves with Sherman in Georgia, Kate loyally resists the blandishments of Harry Gray, who stays at home to do a spot of war profiteering. At length the villain is foiled and true love rewarded when Alfred returns, a conquering hero, and kisses away “the tears of joy which filled Kate’s eyes.”
But love does not always conquer, as the Tragic Lovers, Zimri and Charlotte, discover. Zimri, a handsome and intelligent slave, is the natural son of his owner and a quadroon slave woman. Zimri has good reason to hate his white half brother, General Ralph Buford, who lusts after Charlotte, Zimri’s beautiful quadroon wife. Zimri courageously assists Sherman’s soldiers whenever he can, his hatred of Ralph becoming a passionate desire for revenge when his half brother abducts Charlotte. In a spectacularly melodramatic episode that, nevertheless, contains more genuine emotion than any other scene in the book, Zimri sets fire to the cabin where Ralph has spent the night with Charlotte. Though the girl dies, her seducer escapes. In due course Zimri has his chance for revenge, but even as the slave chokes the life out of his half brother, the author cannot resist a small oration:
This was more than the struggle for life as between man and man—more than that between the seducer and the betrayed husband. The spirit of Freedom had the spirit of Slavery by the throat, and meant to strangle it to death. It was that kind of equality which does not require special legislation, but has its abiding power in the fact that it asserts itself. It was that terrible power which, with the consciousness of newborn freedom, springs into life full armed, and woe be to him who menaces that liberty, and seeks to re-enslave.
If Nichols seems to sound here like an advocate of black power, he more frequently patronizes or even caricatures the Negro. In general he depicts the slaves as simple-minded, deeply religious creatures, bowing to their godlike white saviors and even, according to the stereotype, possessing to a man a strong sense of rhythm. At one point he describes a group of Negroes as “sable disciples of Terpsichore.” Only Zimri, who has far more white than Negro blood, seems to have real initiative and intelligence.