The youngest boy’s bedtime is arrived. It’s 10:30. He pops up at my elbow in my cluttered home office and says, gleefully, “Read to me, Daddy! Reeeead!” I am glad to be interrupted.
Tonight we will read the last chapter in Part I of All Things for Good[;] the Steadfast Fidelity of Stonewall Jackson, which describes the Confederate general’s agonizing final days under care of the surgeons after being shot by overeager pickets one night in the battle of Chancellorsville.
Last night we read Steve Wilkins’ retelling of the barrage of gunfire that felled numerous aides and officers riding with Stonewall, and hits the general in both arms and one hand. His horse wanders and drags him into a tree branch, knocking him backward in the saddle. He is put on the ground and friends crouch over him. In the trek to safety, a litter bearer holding one of the four handles trips, and the soldiers dump Stonewall onto the ground. He is picked up, put into the litter. But shrapnel fells one of the men carrying him — and Stonewall plunges downward 5 feet into the darkness to crash upon the earth a second time, in utter agony.
“Jackson’s case was critical. He was weakened and in great pain, yet *** he was amazingly calm and unfailingly polite: ‘He controlled, by his iron will, all evidence of emotion,’” we read.
Jacob, 9, lies silently, covers pulled up tightly under his chin. I am lying in an unused bed on the other side of the room, propped on my elbow under a lamp. Dad’s voice is cracking and raspy.
An ambulance has come for the general, and in the rattletrap wagon are two wounded men, Col. Stapleton Crutchfield, Jackson’s artilleryman with a painfully broken leg, and Maj. Arthur L. Rogers, with a less serious arm wound. Rogers insists that Jackson take his place in the ambulance. As the wagon bumps along in the dark, Crutchfield cries out in pain. “Jackson became alarmed and asked [Dr.] McGuire if Crutchfield’s injury is serious. The doctor replied that it was more painful than it was serious. A little while later, Crutchfield asked if the general’s injury was serious. The surgeon replied that it was quite serious. Upon hearing this, Crutchfield screamed, ‘O my God!’ Jackson took this as a sign that Crutchfield was in excruciating pain and commanded the ambulance to stop so that something could be done to relieve his suffering” (pp. 242, 243).
Tonight we will read about his preparations for death in a room of the Thomas Coleman Chandler house in Guiney Station, Va. “Do you not feel willing to acquiesce in God’s allotment, if He wills you to go today?” Anna his wife asks. With difficulty, Jackson says, “I prefer it.” Later she tells him, “Well before this day closes, you will be with the blessed Savior in His glory.” Speaking distinctly, Jackson says, “I will be an infinite gainer to be translated.” While the word translated sounds odd, it comes from Hebrews 11’s reference to Enoch being “translated” into God’s presence. It refers to the usage in Colossians 1:13, in which God’s children are delivered from the power of darkness by God, who “hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” Earlier we explored the passing of the soul at death from the body into eternity. Tonight I intend to read the moving chapter of this Christian nobleman’s death with a steady voice, unaffected by the text’s transporting my son and me into that chamber. I intend.
Among my other faults as a dad
To say I falter emotionally in bedtime read alouds is to admit a personal fault of slight consequence. I have another — no, it’s not moralizing over stories and constantly injecting commentary and advice to my listener. Thw fault is revisionism — injecting commentary about a historical point to rebut a work of fiction read purely for pleasure.
Most nights, if the boy remains awake, I raise a second night-night book to my nose. The 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, is about a lawyer cum actor cum swordsman at the time of the French revolution. Angered by the death of a friend, he gives an uproarious, embittering speech to two mobs and fuels the ferment against the privileges of the nobility.
Jean-Louis Moreau, dubbed a swashbuckler, is enraged at the privileged in France and what he perceives as their legal untouchability. In one speech he accounts for tyranny and wins the reader into sympathy with the revolution foreshadowed in the first half of the story. Even though my son doesn’t know French, he learns about despotism and its requirement for a special vocabulary.
“Citizens of Rennes, the motherland is in danger!” The effect was electric. A stir ran, like a ripple over water, across that froth of upturned human faces, and completest silence followed. In that great silence they looked at this slim young man, hatless, long wisps of his black hair fluttering in the breeze, his neckcloth in disorder, his face white, his eyes on fire. Consider a few of these feudal rights that are in danger of being swept away should the Privileged yield even to the commands of their sovereign; and admit the Third Estate to an equal vote with themselves.
“What would become of the right of terrage on the land, of parciere on the fruit-trees, of carpot on the vines? What of the corvees by which they command forced labour, of the ban de vendage, which gives them the first vintage, the banvin which enables them to control to their own advantage the sale of wine? What of their right of grinding the last liard of taxation out of the people to maintain their own opulent estate; the cens, the lods-et-ventes, which absorb a fifth of the value of the land, the blairee, which must be paid before herds can feed on communal lands, the pulverage to indemnify them for the dust raised on their roads by the herds that go to market, the sextelage on everything offered for sale in the public markets, the etalonnage, and all the rest? What of their rights over men and animals for field labour, of ferries over rivers, and of bridges over streams, of sinking wells, of warren, of dovecot, and of fire, which last yields them a tax on every peasant hearth? What of their exclusive rights of fishing and of hunting, the violation of which is ranked as almost a capital offence?
“And what of other rights, unspeakable, abominable, over the lives and bodies of their people, rights which, if rarely exercised, have never been rescinded. To this day if a noble returning from the hunt were to slay two of his serfs to bathe and refresh his feet in their blood, he could still claim in his sufficient defence that it was his absolute feudal right to do so.” [italics are mine]
By such texts, my listener and I are prepared to go along with Sabatini’s rendering of the revolution as an explosion of the common people against such tyranny, against the aristocracy that has oppressed them, pursuant to such mighty indictments.
Official narrative doubted; a family custom
When our hero is in Paris, and the owner of the fencing school at which he works is slain in a mob clash, we are given the impression that the revolution that overthrew the monarchy arose from the French commoner, an upwelling of the popular will, the law of the mass. Sabatini, as we course through his work, keeps us far from the notion that the revolution was a conspiracy by the Duke of Orleans, as Nesta Webster in her history, The French Revolution, argues it. Though Sabatini suggests the duke’s role, I felt last night to interject the following:
“Jacob, I’m sorry to have to say this. This book leads us to think that the mobs and uproar against the rich arises from the people themselves. But the mobs and uproar are part of a conspiracy. The duc d’Orleans wants destroy the king and install himself. He has agitated the people toward this end. He hired thousands of troublemakers and agitators to put the French people were put into a state of envy — rage. I’ve got this from Nesta Webster, whom you’ll have to read.”
Earlier this week I insisted that the famine that Sabatini says set the people in Paris on edge for bloody revolt is manufactured by the conspirators. Yes, such comments break narrative flow. I’m not exactly entering the vanity of moralizing. But I am just being dad.
J. Steven Wilkins, All Things for Good[;] the Steadfast Fidelity of Stonewall Jackson, Leaders in Action series (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2004)
Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (New York: Bantam, 1961, 1921). Gutenberg.org carries this book. This link is to the text version.
Nesta H. Webster, The French Revolution[;] a Study in Democracy (The Christian Book Club of America, 1969, 1919)