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Chapter 16 Starting Decoration

Chapter XVI.

A Mother at Starved Camp
Repeating the Litany
Hoping in Despair
Wasting Away
The Precious Lump of Sugar
"James is Dying"
Restoring a Life
Relentless Hunger
The Silent Night-Vigils
The Sight of Earth
Descending the Snow-Pit
The Flesh of the Dead
Refusing to Eat
The Morning Star
The Mercy of God
The Mutilated Forms
The Dizziness of Delirium
Faith Rewarded
"There is Mrs. Breen!"

Very noble was the part which Mrs. Margaret Breen performed in this Donner tragedy, and very beautifully has that part been recorded by a woman's hand. It is written so tenderly, so delicately, and with so much reverence for the maternal love which alone sustained Mrs. Breen, that it can hardly be improved. This account was published by its author, Mrs. Farnham, in 1849, and is made the basis of the following sketch. With alterations here and there, made for the sake of brevity, the article is as it was written:

There was no food in Starved Camp. There was nothing to eat save a few seeds, tied in bits of cloth, that had been brought along by some one, and the precious lump of sugar. There were also a few teaspoonfuls of tea. They sat and lay by the fire most of the day, with what heavy hearts, who shall know! They were upon about thirty feet of snow. The dead lay before them, a ghastlier sight in the sunshine that succeeded the storm, than when the dark clouds overhung them. They had no words of cheer to speak to each other, no courage or hope to share, but those which pointed to a life where hunger and cold could never come, and their benumbed faculties were scarcely able to seize upon a consolation so remote from the thoughts and wants that absorbed their whole being.

A situation like this will not awaken in common natures religious trust. Under such protracted suffering, the animal outgrows the spiritual in frightful disproportion. Yet the mother's sublime faith, which had brought her thus far through her agonies, with a heart still warm toward those who shared them, did not fail her now. She spoke gently to one and another; asked her husband to repeat the litany, and the children to join her in the responses; and endeavored to fix their minds upon the time when the relief would probably come. Nature, as unerringly as philosophy could have done, taught her that the only hope of sustaining those about her, was to set before them a termination to their sufferings.

What days and nights were those that went by while they waited! Life waning visibly in those about her; not a morsel of food to offer them; her own infant - and the little one that had been cherished and saved through all by the mother now dead-wasting hourly into the more perfect image of death; her husband worn to a skeleton; it needed the fullest measure of exalted faith, of womanly tenderness and self-sacrifice, to sustain her through such a season. She watched by night as well as by day. She gathered wood to keep them warm. She boiled the handful of tea and dispensed it to them, and when she found one sunken and speechless, she broke with her teeth a morsel of the precious sugar, and put it in his lips. She fed her babe freely on snow-water, and scanty as was the wardrobe she had, she managed to get fresh clothing next to its skin two or three times a week. Where, one asks in wonder and reverence, did she get the strength and courage for all this? She sat all night by her family, her elbows on her knees, brooding over the meek little victim that lay there, watching those who slept, and occasionally dozing with a fearful consciousness of their terrible condition always upon her. The sense of peril never slumbered. Many times during the night she went to the sleepers to ascertain if they all still breathed. She put her hand under their blankets, and held it before the mouth. In this way she assured herself that they were yet alive. But once her blood curdled to find, on approaching her hand to the lips of one of her own children, there was no warm breath upon it. She tried to open his mouth, and found the jaws set. She roused her husband, "Oh! Patrick, man! arise and help me! James is dying!" "Let him die!" said the miserable father, "he will be better off than any of us." She was terribly shocked by this reply. In her own expressive language, her heart stood still when she heard it. She was bewildered, and knew not where to set her weary hands to work, but she recovered in a few moments and began to chafe the breast and hands of the perishing boy. She broke a bit of sugar, and with considerable effort forced it between his teeth with a few drops of snow-water. She saw him swallow, then a slight convulsive motion stirred his features, he stretched his limbs feebly, and in a moment more opened his eyes and looked upon her. How fervent were her thanks to the Great Father, whom she forgot not day or night.

Thus she went on. The tea leaves were eaten, the seeds chewed, the sugar all dispensed. The days were bright, and compared with the nights, comfortable. Occasionally, when the sun shone, their voices were heard, though generally they sat or lay in a kind of stupor from which she often found it alarmingly difficult to arouse them. When the gray evening twilight drew its deepening curtain over the cold glittering heavens and the icy waste, and when the famishing bodies had been covered from the frost that pinched them with but little less keenness than the unrelenting hunger, the solitude seemed to rend her very brain. Her own powers faltered. But she said her prayers over many times in the darkness as well as the light, and always with renewed trust in Him who had not yet forsaken her, and thus she sat out her weary watch. After the turning of the night she always sat watching for the morning star, which seemed every time she saw it rise clear in the cold eastern sky, to renew the promise, "As thy day is, so shall thy strength be."

Their fire had melted the snow to a considerable depth, and they were lying on the bank above. Thus they had less of its heat than they needed, and found some difficulty in getting the fuel she gathered placed so it would burn. One morning after she had hailed her messenger of promise, and the light had increased so as to render objects visible in the distance, she looked as usual over the white expanse that lay to the south-west, to see if any dark moving specks were visible upon its surface. Only the tree-tops, which she had scanned so often as to be quite familiar with their appearance, were to be seen. With a heavy heart she brought herself back from that distant hope to consider what was immediately about her. The fire had sunk so far away that they had felt but little of its warmth the last two nights, and casting her eyes down into the snow-pit, whence it sent forth only a dull glow, she thought she saw the welcome face of beloved mother Earth. It was such a renewing sight after their long, freezing separation from it She immediately aroused her eldest son, John, and with a great deal of difficulty, and repeating words of cheer and encouragement, brought him to understand that she wished him to descend by one of the tree-tops which had fallen in so as to make a sort of ladder, and see if they could reach the naked earth, and if it were possible for them all to go down. She trembled with fear at the vacant silence in which he at first gazed at her, but at length, after she had told him a great many times, he said "Yes, mother," and went.

He reached the bottom safely, and presently spoke to her. There was naked, dry earth under his feet; it was warm, and he wished her to come down. She laid her baby beside some of the sleepers, and descended. Immediately she determined upon taking them all down. How good, she thought, as she descended the boughs, was the God whom she trusted. By perseverance, by entreaty, by encouragement, and with her own aid, she got them into this snug shelter.

Relief came not, and as starvation crept closer and closer to himself and those about him, Patrick Breen determined that it was his duty to employ the means of sustaining life which God seemed to have placed before them. The lives of all might be saved by resorting to such food as others, in like circumstances, had subsisted upon. Mrs. Breen, however, declared that she would die, and see her children die, before her life or theirs should be preserved by such means. If ever the father gave to the dying children, it was without her consent or knowledge. She never tasted, nor knew of her children partaking. Mrs. Farnham says that when Patrick Breen ascended to obtain the dreadful repast, his wife, frozen with horror, hid her face in her hands, and could not look up. She was conscious of his return, and of something going on about the fire, but she could not bring herself to uncover her eyes till all had subsided again into silence. Her husband remarked that perhaps they were wrong in rejecting a means of sustaining life of which others had availed themselves, but she put away the suggestion so fearfully that it was never renewed, nor acted upon by any of her family. She and her children were now, indeed, reaching the utmost verge of life. A little more battle with the grim enemies that had pursued them so relentlessly, twenty-four, or at most forty-eight hours of such warfare, and all would be ended. The infants still breathed, but were so wasted they could only be moved by raising them bodily with the hands. It seemed as if even their light weight would have dragged the limbs from their bodies. Occasionally, through the day, she ascended the tree to look out. It was an incident now, and seemed to kindle more life than when it only required a turn of the head or a glance of the eye to tell that there was no living thing near them. She could no longer walk on the snow, but she had still strength enough to crawl from tree to tree to gather a few boughs, which she threw along before her to the pit, and piled them in to renew the fire. The eighth day was passed. On the ninth morning she ascended to watch for her star of mercy. Clear and bright it stood over against her beseeching gaze, set in the light liquid blue that overflows the pathway of the opening day. She prayed earnestly as she gazed, for she knew that there were but few hours of life in those dearest to her. If human aid came not that day, some eyes, that would soon look imploringly into hers, would be closed in death before that star would rise again. Would she herself, with all her endurance and resisting love, live to see it? Were they at length to perish? Great God! should it be permitted that they, who had been preserved through so much, should die at last so miserably?

Her eyes were dim, and her sight wavering. She could not distinguish trees from men on the snow, but had they been near, she could have heard them, for her ear had grown so sensitive that the slightest unaccustomed noise arrested her attention. She went below with a heavier heart than ever before. She had not a word of hope to answer the languid, inquiring countenances that were turned to her face, and she was conscious that it told the story of her despair. Yet she strove with some half-insane words to suggest that somebody would surely come to them that day. Another would be too late, and the pity of men's hearts and the mercy of God would surely bring them. The pallor of death seemed already to be stealing over the sunken countenances that surrounded her, and, weak as she was, she could remain below but a few minutes together. She felt she could have died had she let go her resolution at any time within the last forty-eight hours. They repeated the Litany. The responses came so feebly that they were scarcely audible, and the protracted utterances seemed wearisome. At last it was over, and they rested in silence.

The sun mounted high and higher in the heavens, and when the day was three or four hours old she placed her trembling feet again upon the ladder to look out once more. The corpses of the dead lay always before her as she reached the top-the mother and her son, and the little boy, whose remains she could not even glance at since they had been mutilated. The blanket that covered them could not shut out the horror of the sight.

The rays of the sun fell on her with a friendly warmth, but she could not look into the light that flooded the white expanse. Her eyes lacked strength and steadiness, and she rested herself against a tree and endeavored to gather her wandering faculties in vain. The enfeebled will could no longer hold rule over them. She had broken perceptions, fragments of visions, contradictory and mixed-former mingled with latter times. Recollections of plenty and rural peace came up from her clear, tranquil childhood, which seemed to have been another state of existence; flashes of her latter life-its comfort and abundance-gleams of maternal pride in her children who had been growing up about her to ease and independence.

She lived through all the phases which her simple life had ever worn, in the few moments of repose after the dizzy effort of ascending; as the thin blood left her whirling brain and returned to its shrunken channels, she grew more clearly conscious of the terrible present, and remembered the weary quest upon which she came. It was not the memory of thought, it was that of love, the old tugging at the heart that had never relaxed long enough to say, "Now I am done; I can bear no more!" The miserable ones down there - for them her wavering life came back; at thought of them she turned her face listlessly the way it had so often gazed. But this time something caused it to flush as if the blood, thin and cold as it was, would burst its vessels! What was it? Nothing that she saw, for her eyes were quite dimmed by the sudden access of excitement! It was the sound of voices! By a superhuman effort she kept herself from falling! Was it reality or delusion? She must at least live to know the truth. It came again and again. She grew calmer as she became more assured, and the first distinct words she heard uttered were, "There is Mrs. Breen alive yet, anyhow!" Three men were advancing toward her. She knew that now there would be no more starving. Death was repelled for this time from the precious little flock he had so long threatened, and she might offer up thanksgiving unchecked by the dreads and fears that had so long frozen her.

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