“Do you think God will forgive you on the gallows?” — A St. Elmo excerpt

Guys, I fixed up and published an old favorite from the late 1800s, the third top-selling book of that century — St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans — because I have been a complete nut about this book for decades and I want to bring it out to a new audience. It’s the best love story you’ll ever read, guys! I’m telling you! Here are the first pages, where a young and innocent Edna first comes face to face with sin and death.

From St. Elmo:

“He stood and measured the earth: and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow.”

A slender girl of fourteen years steadied a pail of water on her head, with both dimpled arms thrown up. Pausing a moment beside the spring, Edna Earl stood fronting the great golden dawn – watching for the first level ray of the coming sun and chanting the prayer of Habakkuk. Behind her in silent grandeur towered the huge outline of Lookout Mountain, shrouded at summit in gray mist; while its center and base showed dense masses of foliage, dim and purplish in the distance – a stern cowled monk of the Cumberland brotherhood. Low hills clustered on either side, but a wooded plain stretched before the girl, over which the sunrise brightened into fiery radiance.

Until Edna’s wild song waked echoes among the far-off rocks, the holy hush of early morning had rested like a benediction upon the scene. Morning among the mountains possessed witchery and glories which filled the heart of the girl with adoration, and called from her lips exultant songs of praise.

Her large black eyes held a singular fascination in their mild, sparkling depths, full of love and childish gladness; her lips curled in lines of orthodox Greek perfection, showing remarkable versatility of expression. Her hair, black, straight, hung round her shoulders, and glistened as the water from the dripping bucket trickled through the wreath of purple morning-glories and scarlet cypress that she had twined about her head before lifting the cedar pail to its resting-place. Edna wore a short-sleeved dress of yellow striped homespun that fell nearly to her ankles, and her bare feet gleamed on the green grass and rank dewy creepers that clustered along the margin of the bubbling spring. Her complexion was transparent, and early exercise and mountain air had rouged her cheeks until they glowed.

A few steps ahead of her stood a large yellow dog, with black, scowling face and ears cut close to his head, posed as if prepared to make good his name, Grip.

In the solemn beauty of that summer morning, the girl seemed to have forgotten the mission upon which she came – namely, drawing water for her grandparents’ breakfast preparations – but just then the sun flashed up, kindling diamond fringes on every dew-beaded chestnut leaf and oak-bough, and silvering the misty mantle which enveloped Lookout.

A moment longer that pure-hearted Tennessee girl stood watching the gorgeous spectacle, drinking draughts of joy which mingled no drop of sin or selfishness in its crystal waves. She had grown up alone with nature – utterly ignorant of the roar and strife, the burning hate and cunning intrigue of the great world of men and women, where, “like an Egyptian pitcher of tamed vipers, each struggles to get its head above the other.”

Life stretched before the girl like the sun’s path in that clear sky. As free from care or foreboding as the fair June day, Edna left the spring, her dog trotting ahead.

The chant burst once more from her lips. “He stood and measured the earth: and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills –”

The sudden, almost simultaneous report of two pistol-shots rang out sharply on the cool air.

The girl startled so violently that she sprang forward and dropped the bucket. The sound of voices reached her from the thick wood bordering the path. Without thinking, she followed her dog, who bounded off toward the noise.

At the verge of the forest she paused, looking into a dewy green glade. There she beheld a spectacle which would burn itself upon her memory for the rest of her life.

A group of five gentlemen stood beneath the dripping chestnut and sweet-gum arches. One leaned against the trunk of a tree, two were conversing eagerly in undertones, and two faced each other fifteen paces apart, with pistols in their hands.

Before Edna could comprehend the scene, the brief conference ended. The seconds resumed their places to witness another fire, and like the peal of a trumpet echoed the words:

“Fire! One! – two! – three!”

The flashes and ringing gunshots mingled with the command. One of the men threw up his arm and fell.

With horror in her eyes and pallor on her lips, the girl staggered to the spot and looked on the man twitching in the grass. His hazel eyes stared blankly at the sky as his body stilled. The man’s face, still flushed, made her heart bound with hope – perhaps he would survive! – But then she saw the ball had entered the heart. Shuddering, she saw the warm blood, bubbling from his breast, dripping on the dewy grass.

Two other men came running, but the surgeon was already kneeling beside the man. He took the pistol from his clenched fingers and gently pressed the lids over his glazing eyes. Not a word was uttered as the seconds, choked with grief and anger, knelt next to the stiffening form.

A movement brought the girl’s eyes up from the pool of blood. The surviving man, still standing in the middle of the field, coolly drew out a cigar, lighted it, and placed it between his lips, all while gazing with complete satisfaction at the dead man.

Her shuddering cry broke the silence. “Murderer!”

The men looked around instantly, and for the first time saw her standing there in their midst. Loathing and horror was in the gaze she fixed on the perpetrator of the awful deed.

In great surprise he drew back a step or two, and asked gruffly, “Who are you? What business have you here?”

“Oh! How dared you murder him? Do you think God will forgive you on the gallows?”

He was a man probably twenty-seven years of age – singularly fair, handsome, and hardened in iniquity, and he sneered at Edna. However, before he could reply, his friend came close to him.

“Clinton, you had better be off; you have barely time to catch the Knoxville train, which leaves Chattanooga in half an hour. I would advise you to make a long stay in New York, for there will be trouble when Dent’s brother hears of this morning’s work.”

“Aye! Take my word for that, and put the Atlantic between you and Dick Dent,” added the surgeon, smiling grimly, as if the hope of retributive justice pleased him.

“I will simply put this between us,” replied the murderer, fitting his pistol to the palm of his hand. As he did so, a heavy antique diamond ring flashed on his little finger.

“Come, Clinton, delay may cause you more trouble than we bargained for,” urged his second.

Without even glancing toward the body of the dead man, Clinton scowled at the child. “What are you going to do? Will you arrest me?” Then he turned and went with his second through the trees until they were soon out of sight.

“Oh, sir!” Edna cried. “Will you let him get away? Will you let him go unpunished?”

“He cannot be punished,” answered the surgeon, looking at her with curiosity.

“I thought men were hung for murder.”

“Yes – but this is not murder.”

“Not murder? He shot him dead! What is it?”

“He killed him in a duel, which is considered quite right and altogether proper.”

“A duel?” She had never heard the word before. “To take a man’s life is murder. Is there no law to punish a duel?”

“None strong enough to prohibit the practice. It is regarded as the only method of honorable satisfaction open to gentlemen.”

“Honorable satisfaction?” she repeated, weighing the words as fearfully as she would have handled the bloody garments of the victim.

The surgeon sighed, looking Edna over with kindly eyes. “What is your name?”

“Edna Earl.”

“Do you live near this place?”

“Yes, sir, very near.”

“Is your father at home?”

“I have no father, but grandpa has not gone to the shop yet.”

“Will you show me the way to the house?”

“Do you wish to carry him there?” she asked, glancing at the corpse and shuddering violently.

“Yes, I want some assistance from your grandfather.”

“I will show you the way, sir.”

The surgeon spoke hurriedly to the two remaining gentlemen, then followed Edna.

Slowly she retraced her steps, refilled her bucket at the spring, and walked on before the surgeon. The glory of the morning had passed away; a bloody mantle hung between the splendor of summer sunshine and the chilled heart of the badly shocked girl. The forehead of the radiant, holy June day had been suddenly red-branded like Cain, to be henceforth an occasion of hideous reminiscences. With trembling legs, Edna followed a narrow, beaten path, which soon ended at the gate of a rough, unwhitewashed fence. A low, comfortless looking three-roomed house stood within, and on the steps sat her dear grandfather smoking a pipe and busily engaged in mending a bridle.

The creaking of the gate attracted his attention, and he looked up wonderingly at the advancing stranger.

“Oh, Grandpa! There is a murdered man lying in the grass, under the chestnut trees, down by the spring.”

Her startled grandfather removed his pipe. “Why! How do you know he was murdered?”

“Good morning, sir,” the surgeon said, closing the gate behind him. “Your granddaughter happened to witness a very unfortunate and distressing affair. A duel was fought at sunrise, in the edge of the woods yonder, and the challenged party, Mr. Dent of Georgia, was killed. I came to ask permission to bring the body here until arrangements can be made for its interment, and also to beg your assistance in obtaining a coffin.”

Unwilling to listen further, Edna passed on to the kitchen. As she set the bucket on the table, her tall, muscular, red-haired grandmother, who was stooping over the fire, raised her flushed face.

“What upon earth have you been doing?” she said angrily. “I have been halfway to the spring to call you, and hadn’t a drop of water in the kitchen to make coffee! A pretty time of day Aaron Hunt will get his breakfast! What do you mean by such idleness?”

Her grandmother advanced on Edna but stopped suddenly.

“Edna, what ails you? Have you got an ague? You are as white as that pan of flour. Are you sick?”

Edna could barely speak. “There was a man killed this morning, and the body will be brought here directly. If you want to hear about it, you had better go out on the porch. One of the gentlemen is talking to grandpa.”

Stunned by what she had seen, and indisposed to narrate the horrible details, Edna went to her own room, and seating herself in the window, tried to collect her thoughts. She was tempted to believe the whole affair a hideous dream, which would pass away with vigorous rubbing of her eyes, but the crushed purple and scarlet flowers she took from her forehead, her dripping hair and wet feet assured her of the vivid reality of the vision. Every fiber of her frame had received a terrible shock, and when Mrs. Hunt bustled from room to room, calling on Edna to help put the house in order, she obeyed silently, mechanically, as if sleepwalking.

Mr. Dent’s body was brought up on a rude litter of boards, and temporarily placed on Edna’s bed, to her horror. Toward evening when a coffin arrived from Chattanooga, the body was moved, and the coffin rested on two chairs in the middle of Edna’s room. The surgeon insisted upon an immediate burial near the scene of combat; but the gentleman who had officiated as second for the deceased was determined to carry the unfortunate man’s body back to his home and family. The earliest train on the following day was appointed as the time for their departure.

Late in the afternoon Edna cautiously opened the door of her room which she had hitherto avoided. With her apron full of lilies, white poppies, and sprigs of rosemary, she approached the coffin and looked at the rigid sleeper. Judging from his appearance, not more than thirty years had gone over his handsome head, and a soft, silky brown beard fell upon his pulseless breast. Fearful lest she should touch the icy body, the girl timidly strewed her flowers in the coffin. Tears gathered and dropped with the blossoms as she noticed a plain gold ring on the little finger. Perhaps his death would leave wailing orphans in his home, and a broken-hearted widow at the desolate hearthstone.

Absorbed in her melancholy task, she heard neither the sound of strange voices in the passage, nor the faint creak of the door as it swung back.

A wild, despairing shriek from behind Edna made her bound, terrified, away from the side of the coffin. The light of the setting sun streamed through the window and over the convulsed face of a feeble but beautiful woman, who was supported on the threshold by a venerable, gray-haired man, down whose furrowed cheeks tears coursed rapidly. Struggling to free herself from his restraining grasp, the stranger tottered into the middle of the room.

“O Harry! My husband! My husband!” She threw up her wasted arms and fell forward senseless on the corpse.

They bore the young woman into the adjoining room, where the surgeon administered the usual restoratives. Though finally her pulse stirred and throbbed feebly, no symptom of returning consciousness greeted the anxious friends who bent over her. Hour after hour passed, during which the young woman lay as motionless as her husband’s body.

At length the physician sighed, and pressing his fingers to his eyes, said sorrowfully to the grief-stricken old man beside her, “It is paralysis, Mr. Dent, and there is no hope. She may linger twelve or twenty-four hours, but her sorrows are ended; she and Harry will soon be reunited. Knowing her constitution, I feared as much. You should not have suffered her to come; you might have known that the shock would kill her. For this reason, I wished his body buried here.”

The old man fought back tears as he spoke. “I could not restrain her. Some meddling gossip told her that my poor boy had gone to fight a duel, and she rose from her bed and started to the railroad depot. I pleaded, I reasoned with her that she could not bear the journey, but I might as well have talked to the winds. I never knew her obstinate before, but she seemed to have a presentiment of the truth. God pity her two sweet babes!”

The old man bowed his head upon her pillow and sobbed aloud.

Throughout the night Edna crouched beside the bed, watching the wan face of the young widow, and tenderly chafing the numb, fair hands which lay so motionless on the coverlet. Edna could not believe that death would snatch from the world one so beautiful and so necessary to her fatherless infants. But morning showed no encouraging symptoms; the stupor was unbroken. At noon the wife’s spirit passed gently to the everlasting reunion.

Before sunrise on the following day, a sad group clustered once more under the dripping chestnuts. Where a pool of blood had dyed the sod, a wide grave yawned. The coffins were lowered, the bodies of Henry and Helen Dent rested side by side. As the sextons filled in the grave, the solemn silence was broken by the faltering voice of the surgeon, who read the burial service.

“Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Savior, deliver us not into the pains of eternal death!”

The melancholy rite ended, the party dispersed, the strangers took their departure for their distant homes, and quiet reigned once more in the small, dark cottage. But days and weeks brought to Edna no oblivion of the tragic events which constituted the first great epoch of her monotonous life. A nervous restlessness took possession of her. She refused to occupy her old room and insisted upon sleeping on a pallet at the foot of her grandfather’s bed. She forsook her former haunts about the spring and forest, and started up in terror at every sudden sound, while from each opening between the chestnut trees the hazel eyes of the dead man, and the wan, thin face of the golden-haired wife, looked out beseechingly at her. Frequently, in the warm light of day, before shadows stalked to and fro in the thick woods, she would steal, with an apronful of wild flowers, to the solitary grave, scatter her treasures in the rank grass that waved above it, and hurry away with hushed breath and quivering limbs. Summer waned, autumn passed, and winter came, but the girl recovered in no degree from the shock which had cut short her chant of praise on that bloody June day. Innocent childhood had for the first time stood face to face with Sin and Death and could not forget the vision.

St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans (which I’ve edited and cleaned up) is available on Amazon.

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