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Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories (Ambrose Bierce) online
THREE AND ONE ARE ONE
The house was unlighted, the door open. As he approached and paused to recover control of himself his father came out and stood bare- headed in the moonlight.
"Father!" cried the young man, springing forward with outstretched hand--"Father!"
The elder man looked him sternly in the face, stood a moment motionless and without a word withdrew into the house. Bitterly disappointed, humiliated, inexpressibly hurt and altogether unnerved, the soldier dropped upon a rustic seat in deep dejection, supporting his head upon his trembling hand. But he would not have it so: he was too good a soldier to accept repulse as defeat. He rose and entered the house, passing directly to the "sitting-room."
It was dimly lighted by an uncurtained east window. On a low stool by the hearthside, the only article of furniture in the place, sat his mother, staring into a fireplace strewn with blackened embers and cold ashes. He spoke to her--tenderly, interrogatively, and with hesitation, but she neither answered, nor moved, nor seemed in any way surprised. True, there had been time for her husband to apprise her of their guilty son's return. He moved nearer and was about to lay his hand upon her arm, when his sister entered from an adjoining room, looked him full in the face, passed him without a sign of recognition and left the room by a door that was partly behind him. He had turned his head to watch her, but when she was gone his eyes again sought his mother. She too had left the place.
Barr Lassiter strode to the door by which he had entered. The moonlight on the lawn was tremulous, as if the sward were a rippling sea. The trees and their black shadows shook as in a breeze. Blended with its borders, the gravel walk seemed unsteady and insecure to step on. This young soldier knew the optical illusions produced by tears. He felt them on his cheek, and saw them sparkle on the breast of his trooper's jacket. He left the house and made his way back to camp.
The next day, with no very definite intention, with no dominant feeling that he could rightly have named, he again sought the spot. Within a half-mile of it he met Bushrod Albro, a former playfellow and schoolmate, who greeted him warmly.
"I am going to visit my home," said the soldier.
The other looked at him rather sharply, but said nothing.
"I know," continued Lassiter, "that my folks have not changed, but--"
"There have been changes," Albro interrupted--"everything changes. I'll go with you if you don't mind. We can talk as we go."
But Albro did not talk.
Instead of a house they found only fire-blackened foundations of stone, enclosing an area of compact ashes pitted by rains.
Lassiter's astonishment was extreme.
"I could not find the right way to tell you," said Albro. "In the fight a year ago your house was burned by a Federal shell."
"And my family--where are they?"
"In Heaven, I hope. All were killed by the shell."