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AFTER TEN YEARS

One sultry afternoon in August, 1869, I was sitting in my parlor drowsily reading the daily paper, when I heard a quick step upon the porch, followed by the tinkling of the bell. Without waiting for the servant to answer, I stepped into the hall and drew the door open.

I saw standing before me a man in middle life, plainly but neatly dressed, of sandy complexion, smooth, pock-fretten face, pleasing expression and a striking brightness of manner.

"Good-afternoon, sir," he said, with a half military salute; are you Mr. Ellis, Master of Trenton Lodge, No. 5?"

I replied in the affirmative.

"Then I have to say that I am a Mason in distress and have come to you for help."

At that I invited him to enter. Seating myself in front of him, I subjected him to a rigid examination, with the result that I found him one of the brightest Masons I ever met. He could have presided over any lodge and conferred any and all of the degrees without the slightest hitch. Satisfied on this point, I asked him to tell his story.

"It is a long one," he replied with a smile, "but I think I can promise you it is interesting."

"I am sure of that," I said, settling back on a sofa, and placing a large chair at his disposal; "don't omit any particular."

Nearly two-score years have passed since I listened to one of the most remarkable stories I ever heard. I took no notes of what my visitor said, and it is quite possible that I may slip on a few minor points, such as names, but the narrative itself will remain with me as long as I live. I was impressed by the man's candor, his intelligence and his apparent truthfulness. I have never doubted a single thing he told me.

"My name is John Wilkins," he said, "and my home is, or rather was, in Knoxville, Tenn. Having told you that much, I must go back ten years before the breaking out of the Civil War. It was in 1851 that I was a passenger on a steamer going up the Mississippi to my home. I was in good circumstances, being the owner of a prosperous grocery, and was the father of two boys and a daughter. Several years previous I had suffered from small-pox, escaping death by a hair's breadth, but at the time I have in mind I was in superb health, with a natural flow of spirits, and, if I must confess it, not quite fully over a certain wildness of conduct at which I now wonder, though I cannot say that it ever involved me in serious trouble.

"One cold, drizzly afternoon the passengers on the steamer were thrown into a panic by the discovery that a man in one of the cabins had broken out with small-pox. A dozen of the most excited demanded of the captain that he should put the unfortunate fellow ashore and leave him to die in the woods.

"Being immune, I made a stealthy visit to the cabin of the sick man and discovered two important facts. He unquestionably had the disease, but he had had it for several days, and was convalescing. He might be considered out of danger, so far as he himself was concerned, but, as you know, the risk from contagion was as great, if not greater, than before.

"The second truth that came to me was the discovery that the man was a Free Mason. I assured him he should be taken care of, and told him to give himself no anxiety on that score. Promising to come to him again in a short time, I slipped out of his cabin, without attracting notice, and made my way to the deck, where the captain was standing near the pilot house with a score of men, pale, swearing and more excited than ever. He was awed by the display of anger and deadly resolution on the part of the mob. I listened for several minutes before I could get the run of the talk. The men were demanding more fiercely than before that the boat should be turned to land. He was arguing and protesting, for his soul revolted at the unspeakable brutality of the thing, but he could not withstand them.

"'Oh, well,' he exclaimed with an impatient oath, 'you are a set of infernal fools; but since you insist on it, I'll do it.'

"I knew what he meant and my blood boiled.

"'You'll do what?' I shouted above the din and confusion.

'Why, set this poor devil ashore and let him die alone in the woods,' replied the captain, purposely giving this extra twist, as may be said, to his rage.

"'By the Eternal!' I shouted, 'the first motion you make to do that I'll shoot you dead in your tracks!'

"I had my pistol in my hand and brandished it over my head. My words, looks and manner were for the moment like a bombshell. I backed off, weapon in hand, and before the mob could recover and attack me, I shouted:

'The sick man is a Free Mason! Brothers, rally to my support, for never was one of your brothers in sorer need of it.'

"Well, sir, you ought to have seen what followed. Other passengers were swarming on the upper deck, drawn by the magnet of a danger that threatened them all. There must have been nearly a hundred of them. On hearing my appeal, they began breaking apart, pushing away from one another and many of them grouping around me, until two parties, about equal in numbers, faced each other on the deck. I had stepped nearer the captain, and my new friends followed me. He was somewhat bewildered by the suddenness of everything, but he kept his head pretty well.

"I don't believe there was a man in either party who did not own a pistol or bowie knife, and not a few displayed both. There were pale, resolute faces among those merchants, planters, and gamblers, and they glared like tigers at me, my friends and the captain.

"'God! this is awful,' said the captain to me in a scared undertone.

"'Don't you fear,' I assured him; 'this is our fight; you have nothing to do with it; leave everything to us.'

"Now, I think I may take credit to myself for seizing the psychological moment for executing a coup. As sure as the sun shines, there would have been one of the bloodiest and most desperate fights ever known on the Mississippi within the next few minutes had I not faced the scowling mob and raised my hand.

"'Friends,' I called, 'there is a man in one of the cabins who has the small-pox, and the fact that he is getting well won't lessen your danger for several days. You have the right to protect yourselves against that hideous disease, and you can do it better than by dumping the poor fellow on the banks to die like a rabid dog. I have had the small-pox; I am not afraid of it; I will go into his room and nurse him; no one else need come near him; the servants can bring the food to a certain point safely removed from the cabin, and when they are gone I will come out and get the food; no medicine is needed, for the time for that has passed; the man will be completely isolated, and none of you will be in the slightest danger. What do you say?'

"Well, I had captured them. The crowd broke up, moving slowly here and there, all fraternizing, while some of those who had been the most insistent for the commission of the dreadful crime shook me by the hand and declared they never meant what they said. None the less; they still would have insisted upon marooning the sick man had I changed my mind and refused to go into his cabin.

"The promise I made was faithfully carried out. The patient never knew from me of the scene on the upper deck, though I think it likely it reached his ears afterward from another source. I sat in his room for hours, reading and talking and doing all I could to cheer him. He really didn't need anything of that nature, for the most exhilarating physical condition in which any person can be placed is that of convalescence. You get used to high health, but convalescence is new, thrillingly comforting and delightful, and by the time you become somewhat accustomed to it, its exquisite pleasure deepens and intensifies.

"I never saw a man improve more rapidly than my friend. Of course we exchanged names, and before I finish you shall learn his. Neither of us had ever heard of the other, but that we became the warmest of comrades was inevitable. It is said that the one who does a kindness to another feels tenderer toward him than does the recipient toward the other. This man was an educated gentleman of the highest honor and was filled with profound gratitude. He did not gush, but merely thanked me, adding:

"'I hope you will never be in trouble, but should such be your lot, you may command me to the death. Remember that,' he added with solemn significance.

"When we reached Louisville my friend was substantially well, though the marks of his disease would show for a long time, and it was hardly prudent for him to venture out, except when absolutely necessary. My intention was to leave the steamer at that point, attend to some business matters in the interior, and to reach my home in Knoxville in the course of a couple of weeks; but I thought it best not to part company with the gentleman, who was too considerate to express the wish that I should stay by him any longer. His face lit up with pleasure when I quietly told him of my intention to see him through to his home.

"At Louisville we had to change steamers. The captain of the new boat was a Free Mason, and when I told my story to him, he promptly gave all the help needed. Arm in arm we two walked upon his boat at midnight and went to our cabin. No other person besides the captain had a suspicion of the truth.

"By the time we reached the landing where my friend was to leave the boat he was well, though the discolorations on his face, of course, were plain. I had accepted his invitation to go to his home with him. He wished me to make him an old-fashioned visit, but I assured him I could stay only one night. He would not consent to this until I promised to use the first chance to spend several weeks with him. It was my intention to do so, but somehow or other the opportunity never came.

"He was expected, and his negro coachman was waiting for him. We were driven to one of the finest residences I have ever seen. He was a man of wealth, of culture, and of refinement, and was well known throughout the State. I never received kinder or more hospitable treatment than from him and his wife and daughter, of whom any husband and father might be proud. Late at night, when we sat alone in his drawing-room, smoking and chatting, he suddenly asked:

"'And now how much do I owe you, Mr. Wilkins?'

"I took out a bit of paper and pencil and figured for a minute or two.

"'As nearly as I can make it, it is six dollars and fifty cents,' I replied; 'that is the extra fare for going somewhat out of my way.'

"He took his pipe from his mouth, smiled and shook his head.

"'That won't do.'

"'Why not? Can you make it any different?' I asked.

"'It is a hundred dollars at least. That will never repay you. Who would have done as much for me as you have done?'

'You for me; are we not brother Masons?'

"He looked calmly in my face and smoked for a minute or two in silence. He saw I was in earnest, and without speaking paid me my extra fare to and from Louisville. With the rare tact which was natural to him, he made no further reference to my services.

"The next morning I bade him and his family good-by. Just as the coach was starting for the landing, his daughter hurried out of the door and placed a sealed letter in my hand.

"'Father says you are not to open that till you get home,' she said.

"I nodded and promised as I shoved it into my coat pocket. When I broke the seal a fortnight later, the first thing that caught my eye was a hundred dollar bill. Penciled on a sheet of paper were the words:

'If it should ever be in my power to do you any favor, no matter of what character, I beg that you give me the opportunity.'

"Bear in mind that all this took place in 1851. Ten years later came our great Civil War. You people in the North know nothing of what we suffered in the border States, nor, indeed, do the people of the South itself, though they have had to drink the cup to its dregs. But in Knoxville, as in certain parts of Kentucky and Missouri, it was unadulterated hell, for the Secessionists and Unionists were about equally divided. It grew hotter and more frightful every day. In the same city, the same street, the same square, the same house, men met who were eager to spring at one another's throats and were only waiting for the chance to do so. I was a pronounced Union man from the start, and my two boys, one of whom was just old enough, enlisted in the Federal army. I stayed at home to look after my business, or until the necessity for my leaving should become more urgent. After a time the Secessionists gained to a large extent the upper hand. Parson Brownlow and a few of us used to meet secretly to discuss and decide upon the best course to follow, if, indeed, any course was open to us other than to bide our time.

"Some of the hotter-headed Unionists began burning bridges in different parts of the State with the purpose of harassing Confederate military movements. This continued after a number of them had been shot, and it was proclaimed that any one found guilty of the crime would be punished with death.

"Hardly a day passed that men were not arrested on the street charged with bridge burning and thrust into jail. One day, just as I came out of my house, I was taken in charge by two soldiers in command of a corporal and hustled off to jail. When I was thrust into the suffocating place, I found more than sixty of my friends and neighbors all charged with the same offence."

At this point in Wilkins's story I interrupted him.

"See here, my friend, the war is over and you needn't be afraid to tell me the truth. Did you help burn any of those bridges?"

He chuckled.

"No; I was innocent, though if they had waited two nights longer I should have had to plead guilty in order to be honest. We had a big scheme on foot, but one of our number betrayed us. I know who he was, but will say nothing more, for he has been dead several years, and it is as well, also, that I make no reference to the manner of his taking off.

"If it be conceivable, matters grew worse. They kept bringing more prisoners and shoving them in upon us, until we hardly had room to move about. Finally Parson Brownlow himself was fairly thrown into the big room with us. Well, he was a character. He could pray harder, sing louder and use more sulphurous language toward the Secessionists than any ten men north or south of Mason and Dixon's line. The style in which he denounced the Southern Confederacy and all the leaders in it, from the President down, made one's hair fairly rise on end. I can see him now, as the gaunt, spare preacher stood up among us, his eyes blazing, while he rolled out his denunciations and called down the vengeance of God upon the enemies of the Union. Then he would tell us of our duties to one another as well as to our country. I have seen the tears course down his cadaverous cheeks while thus pleading with us to lead pure and godly lives. Then all at once he would break out with his strong and not over musical voice into one of the sweet, grand old Methodist hymns, followed by a prayer, like that of some inspired prophet of old.

"One favorite expression of his was that we who suffered imprisonment or death for our principles were doing our country as much good and were as much martyrs for the Union as if we fell in battle. He drove that truth in upon us, seasoned with the assurance that those at whose hands we suffered should receive full punishment, not only in this world, but in the life to come.

"We had been in prison only a few days when an orderly came to the door with a slip of paper in hand, and called out in a loud voice the names of two of the prisoners. They rose to their feet.

"'Come with me,' said the orderly; 'the provost-marshal wants you.'

"They followed him out of the door. A few minutes later we heard the discharge of several guns, as if fired by a platoon. We looked at one another with scared faces. All knew what it meant; our two neighbors had been shot. Whether they had taken any part in bridge burning I do not know. Evidently there had been a secret investigation, and they had been pronounced guilty.

"Precisely the same thing took place the next day and the day following that. Since no one could shut his eyes to the fearful truth, it was the custom in each instance for Parson Brownlow to offer up a prayer, denounce the Confederate authorities in his red-hot fashion, while the victims shook the hands of all in turn. Then they went out and met their fate like heroes.

"We prisoners received visitors now and then, our jailers making no objection, for no harm could follow from such calls. I remember a mild old Quaker who came every day. He spoke kindly to all of us, sometimes bringing us delicacies or messages from our families and friends, and bearing away such messages as we had to send. His visits were the only rays of sunshine that pierced the woeful gloom, and he was feelingly thanked over and over again for this thoughtfulness.

"One day I penciled the following words on a small piece of paper and handed it to him:

"'The man who befriended you ten years ago when you were taken down with small-pox on a Mississippi steamer is now in Knoxville jail unjustly charged with bridge burning.'

'Will you be kind enough to mail that for me?' I asked, handing the paper to him. 'Read it first.'
"He deliberately adjusted his spectacles, held the slip at arm's length and carefully read the line or two.

'I don't know,' he replied; 'these are' troublous times, my friend; those few words may mean more than they seem to mean. The authorities allow me to visit thee and thy friends on the understanding that I am to take no unfair advantage of the opportunity.'

"'I give you my word of honor,' I said, 'that the words have no other meaning than what they show on their surface.'

"He hesitated for a moment or two and then crumpled up the paper and shoved it into his waistcoat pocket, with the remark:

"I cannot make thee any promise, but I will see what I can do.

"The summary executions went on as before, with the same horrible detail - the calling out in a loud voice of two names, the farewell and shaking of hands, Parson Brownlow's prayer, with a few words of exhortation and the promise to look after the families of the victims, so far as it should be possible to do so, and then a few minutes after the doomed ones had passed out the whole company burst into singing 'The Star Spangled Banner.' One object of this was to drown the sound of the volley which we knew would soon be fired. We became so accustomed to the report that we knew just when to expect it; but sing as loud as we might, we never failed to hear the awful crash, which pierced the walls of the jail.

"You cannot imagine the breathless hush which came over us when the door opened and we caught sight of the orderly with the little slip of paper in his hand. When the names were pronounced, the scene which I have described invariably followed. It is said that men can become accustomed to anything, but that, tomb like pause as we concentrated all our faculties upon the dread form as he was about to pronounce the doom of two of our number never lost its deadly intensity. There was always a moment or two when I do not believe a man in the room breathed.

"One dismal, drizzly morning, when we were all shivering with cold, the messenger of fate seemed to shout with more fiendish loudness than ever before.

"'William R. Jones and John Wilkins!'

"When the solemn hush ended we began shaking the hands of those who crowded around us.

'Well, boys,' said I with a mirthless smile, 'my turn has come. Good-by!'

"'Remember,' fairly shouted the parson, 'you are dying as much for your country as did your comrades at Manassas and before Richmond. This can't go on much longer; these hell-hounds will soon run their race and God will smite them in His wrath.'

"It seemed to me that the parson put more unction into his prayer than usual, while the scowling orderly stood at the door and impatiently awaited the close of the exercises. As I finally passed out, I heard the strains of our national song, sung with a heartiness and vigor that thrilled me through.

"The orderly walked in the direction of the provost marshal's office, with me just behind him and my neighbor at my heels. The provost was a large man, whom I had known for years as possessing a furious temper. He was very profane and one of the fiercest Secessionists in the State. When I entered his office he was savagely smoking a huge cigar, the smoke of which partly obscured his flaming features. Glaring at me as I halted near the door and looked at him seated in front of his desk, he fairly shouted with a sulphurous oath:

"'I should like to know what that means!'

"He held in his hand, which shook with anger, a yellow piece of paper, that I saw was a telegram. The writing on it was so large that I read the words from where I was standing:

"'WAR DEPARTMENT, Richmond, Va.

Provost-Marshal, Knoxville, Tenn.:
"'Release John Wilkins from custody at once and do not allow him to be molested or disturbed in person or property. Allow him to pass back and forth between the Confederate and Federal lines without question.

"'By order of
"'JAMES A. SEDDON,
" 'Secretary of War, C. S. A.'

"James A. Seddon was the gentleman whom I had befriended in time of sore need, and it was to him my few penciled lines were addressed which I handed to the Quaker visitor at our jail. He had mailed them to Richmond, and it had no sooner been read by Secretary Seddon than he telegraphed the order for my release.

"A glance at the writing and the whole truth flashed upon me. I could not conceal my exaltation of spirits, and as the provost-marshal still held the telegram at arm's length, as if it were a venomous serpent, he took his cigar from his mouth and again roared with a number of oaths:

"'I say, what does that mean?'

"'Since it is written plainly enough for me to read it from where I stand, I should think you ought to be able to do so.'

"He glared at me as if about to burst with rage, swung around in his chair with a snort of disgust, and waved the orderly away with me. He had probably given his orders to the man and was unable to do justice to the situation. On the outside I was told I was at liberty to go whither I chose.

"General Burnside at that time was besieging Knoxville and drew the cordon close. Taking advantage of my strange permission I passed into his lines, where, being well known to a number, I was well received. I made the trip to and fro several times, doing considerable in the way of trade. It was rare that any one was given such privileges as I, and the situation was not only peculiar, but so dangerous that it could not last. For a civilian to pass freely from the lines of one army to those of their enemy, when he was known to be the foe of one, was an anomaly in warfare that must soon terminate.

"When the curious condition had lasted something over a week I was fired upon one night when turning a corner of the street in Knoxville. The man who discharged the pistol was not more than a dozen feet distant. I saw the flash and I heard the whistle of the bullet in front of my eyes. Instead of breaking into a run, he coolly walked off as if he did not care a rap whether I identified him or not. It would have been useless for me to demand his punishment or to appeal for protection. I knew I was certain to be shot if I remained, and the man who did me up would never suffer there from. So the next time I went into Burnside's lines I stayed there. My two sons were serving under him, and I was given employment in the commissary department, in which I remained to the close of the war.

"When it was safe for me to visit Knoxville again, I found that my property had utterly vanished, and I was not worth a dollar beyond the pay I had saved. My wife had died at the outbreak of the war and both my sons had been killed in battle. My only daughter married about that time and moved with her husband to the North. Like thousands of others in the South, it was necessary for me when fifty years old to begin life over again.

"I had enough from my pay to take me to Canada, where I made my way to a lumber camp and hired out as a day laborer. My companions were good-hearted and kind, though rough, rugged and strong as bears. They forgot sometimes that I was not as tough as they, and the work which I undertook wag often beyond my power. I strove to the utmost to 'hold up my end,' anxious not to betray my physical weakness.

"One day while straining to lift a large piece of timber I felt something give way within me, and seized with a sudden deathly nausea, I sank to the ground in a faint. When I rallied I was so weak that one of the men had to help me to the cabin in which we slept and ate our meals. There I was put in my bunk and a messenger brought a country doctor from the nearest village, which was a dozen miles away. The physician did all he could for me, but he had not the remotest idea of what was the trouble. He left me some simple medicines and promised to come again in the course of two or three days.

"Well, I lay in my rough bed for six weeks, during which time there was not a single movement of my bowels. The lower part of my body seemed as inert as so much wood. The doctor was not able to give me the slightest help, but always left me some of his medicine, which I religiously took according to instruction. I was too weak to leave my bed for more than a minute or two, and seemed to get neither better nor worse. Injections and every means possible were tried and produced not the slightest effect.

"As I said, six weeks passed away without any change in my condition. As I lay awake one afternoon, it occurred to me that it was time to take some of the medicine, which was on a rough stand beside my bed. I rolled over on one side and reached out my hand for the phial. At that instant I thought a cannon had been discharged in the cabin. I lunged head foremost and tumbled upon the floor, where I lay like a dead man until some of my friends came in to prepare supper; and lifted me upon the couch again.

"Then the truth was discovered. A rupture of the bowels had taken place on my left side, and through the opening thus formed passed all the food that I ate, with the exception of a small proportion, which sometimes found its way into the bladder. The relief that had thus come gave me strength enough to walk, and by and by I felt so well that no one would suspect that anything was the matter with me. It was utterly impossible, however, for me to do any kind of manual labor. I made my way to the hospital in Montreal, where after a time I was discharged as incurable. I journeyed to Philadelphia, where I went through the same experience. I am now on my way to my married daughter in Troy, where I expect to end my days. Being without a dollar to my name, I am compelled to apply to my Masonic brethren for assistance."

Mr. Wilkins told me that the only food he dare eat was mush and milk. I gave him a meal of that, and saw the opening in his side, over which he carried a bandage, something like a truss. I handed him, in the name of my lodge, more money than he asked for, shook his hand, and still smiling and with his farewell accompanied by a bright jest, he passed out of my home and I never saw or heard of him again.


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