"Have you quite forgotten me? I have had to swallow a little pride to write you again. But perhaps I think our pleasant friendship worth it.
"Stephen has been here. He has enlisted as a private in his father's regiment of zouaves. I learned by accident from him that you are no longer associated with Craig & Son in business. I trust this means at least a partial recovery of your fortune. If it does, with fortune recovered responsibilities increase, and I choose to believe that it is these new and exacting duties which have prevented me from seeing you or from hearing from you for more than three weeks.
"But surely you could find a moment to write a line to a friend who is truly your very sincere well-wisher, and who would be the first to express her pleasure in any good fortune which might concern you.
Two days passed, and her answer came:
"Ailsa Paige, dearest and most respected, I have not forgotten you for one moment. And I have tried very hard.
"God knows what my pen is trying to say to you, and not hurt you, and yet kill utterly in you the last kindly and charitable memory of the man who is writing to you.
"Ailsa, if I had known you even one single day before that night I met you, you would have had of me, in that single day, all that a man dare lay at the feet of the truest and best of women.
"But on that night I came to you a man utterly and hopelessly ruined—morally dead of a blow dealt me an hour before I saw you for the first time.
"I had not lived an orderly life, but at worst it was only a heedless life. I had been a fool, but not a damned one. There was in me something loftier than a desire for pleasure, something worthier than material ambition. What else lay latent—if anything—I may only surmise. It is all dead.
"The blow dealt me that evening—an hour before I first laid eyes on you—utterly changed me; and if there was anything spiritual in my character it died then. And left what you had a glimpse of—just a man, pagan, material, unmoral, unsafe; unmoved by anything except by what appeals to the material senses.
"Is that the kind of man you suppose me? That is the man I am. And you know it now. And you know, now, what it was in me that left you perplexed, silent, troubled, not comprehending—why it was you would not dance with me again, nor suffer my touch, nor endure me too near you.
"It was the less noble in me—all that the blow had not killed—only a lesser part of a finer and perfect passion that might perhaps have moved you to noble response in time.
"Because I should have given you all at the first meeting; I could no more have helped it than I could have silenced my heart and lived. But what was left to give could awake in you no echo, no response, no comprehension. In plainer, uglier words, I meant to make you love me; and I was ready to carry you with me to that hell where souls are lost through love—and where we might lose our souls together.
"And now you will never write to me again."
All the afternoon she bent at her desk, poring over his letter. In her frightened heart she knew that something within her, not spiritual, had responded to what, in him, had evoked it; that her indefinable dread was dread of herself, of her physical responsiveness to his nearness, of her conscious inclination for it.
Could this be she—herself—who still bent here over his written words—this tense, hot-cheeked, tremulous creature, staring dry-eyed at the blurring lines which cut her for ever asunder from this self-outlawed man!
Was this letter still unburned. Had she not her fill of its brutality, its wickedness?
But she was very tired, and she laid her arms on the desk and her head between them. And against her hot face she felt the cool letter-paper.
All that she had dreamed and fancied and believed and cared for in man passed dully through her mind. Her own aspirations toward ideal womanhood followed—visions of lofty desire, high ideals, innocent passions, the happiness of renunciation, the glory of forgiveness——
She sat erect, breathing unevenly; then her eyes fell on the letter, and she covered it with her hands, as hands cover the shame on a stricken face. And after a long time her lips moved, repeating:
"The glory of forgiveness—the glory of forgiveness——"
Her heart was beating very hard and fast as her thoughts ran on.
"To forgive—help him—teach truth—nobler ideals——"
She could not rest; sleep, if it really came, was a ghostly thing that mocked her. And all the next day she roamed about the house, haunted with the consciousness of where his letter lay locked in her desk. And that day she would not read it again; but the next day she read it. And the next.
And if it were her desire to see him once again before all ended irrevocably for ever—or if it was what her heart was striving to tell her, that he was in need of aid against himself, she could not tell. But she wrote him:
"It is not you who have written this injury for my eyes to read, but another man, demoralised by the world's cruelty—not knowing what he is saying—hurt to the soul, not mortally. When he recovers he will be you. And this letter is my forgiveness."
Berkley received it when he was not particularly sober; and lighting the end of it at a candle let it burn until the last ashes scorched his fingers.
"Burgess," he said, "did you ever notice how hard it is for the frailer things to die? Those wild doves we used to shoot in Georgia—by God! it took quail shot to kill them clean."
"Exactly. Then, that being the case, you may give me a particularly vigorous shampoo. Because, Burgess, I woo my volatile goddess to-night—the Goddess Chance, Burgess, whose wanton and naughty eyes never miss the fall of a card. And I desire that all my senses work like lightning, Burgess, because it is a fast company and a faster game, and that's why I want an unusually muscular shampoo!"
"Yes, sir. Poker, sir?"
"I—ah—believe so," said Berkley, lying back in his chair and closing his eyes. "Go ahead and rub hell into me—if I'll hold any more."
The pallor, the shadows under eyes and cheeks, the nervous lines at the corners of the nose, had almost disappeared when Burgess finished. And when he stood in his evening clothes pulling a rose-bud stem through the button-hole of his lapel, he seemed very fresh and young and graceful in the gas-light.
"Am I very fine, Burgess? Because I go where youth and beauty chase the shining hours with flying feet. Oh yes, Burgess, the fair and frail will be present, also the dashing and self-satisfied. And we'll try to make it agreeable all around, won't we? . . . And don't smoke all my most expensive cigars, Burgess. I may want one when I return. I hate to ask too much of you, but you won't mind leaving one swallow of brandy in that decanter, will you? Thanks. Good night, Burgess."
"Thank you, sir. Good night, sir."
As he walked out into the evening air he swung his cane in glittering circles.
"Nevertheless," he said under his breath, "she'd better be careful. If she writes again I might lose my head and go to her. You can never tell about some men; and the road to hell is a lonely one—damned lonely. Better let a man travel it like a gentleman if he can. It's more dignified than sliding into it on your back, clutching a handful of lace petticoat."
He added: "There's only one hell; and it's hell, perhaps, because there are no women there."
Berkley, hollow-eyed, ghastly white, but smiling, glanced at the clock.
"Only one more hand after this," he said. "I open it for the limit."
"All in," said Cortlandt briefly. "What are you going to do now?"
"Scindere glaciem," observed Berkley, "you may give me three cards, Cortlandt." He took them, scanned his hand, tossed the discards into the centre of the table, and bet ten dollars. Through the tobacco smoke drifting in level bands, the crystal chandeliers in Cortlandt's house glimmered murkily; the cigar haze even stretched away into the farther room, where, under brilliantly lighted side brackets, a young girl sat playing at the piano, a glass of champagne, gone flat, at her dimpled elbow. Another girl, in a shrimp-pink evening gown, one silken knee drooping over the other, lay half buried among the cushions, singing the air which the player at the piano picked out by ear. A third girl, velvet-eyed and dark of hair, listened pensively, turning the gems on her fingers.
The pretty musician at the piano was playing an old song, once much admired by the sentimental; the singer, reclining amid her cushions, sang the words, absently:
"Why did I give my heart away— Give it so lightly, give it to pay For a pleasant dream on a summer's day?
"Why did I give? I do not know. Surely the passing years will show.
"Why did I give my love away— Give it in April, give it in May, For a young man's smile on a summer's day?
"Why did I love? I do not know. Perhaps the passing years will show.
"Why did I give my soul away— Give it so gaily, give it to pay For a sigh and a kiss on a summer's day?
"Perhaps the passing years may show; My heart and I, we do not know."
She broke off short, swung on the revolving chair, and called: "Mr. Berkley, are you going to see me home?"
"Last jack, Miss Carew," said Berkley, "I'm opening it for the limit. Give me one round of fixed ammunition, Arthur."
"There's no use drawing," observed another man, laying down his hand, "Berkley cleans us up as usual."
He was right; everything went to Berkley, as usual, who laughed and turned a dissipated face to Casson.
"Cold decks?" he suggested politely. "Your revenge at your convenience, Jack."
Casson declined. Cortlandt, in his brilliant zouave uniform, stood up and stretched his arms until the scarlet chevrons on the blue sleeves wrinkled into jagged lightning.
"It's been very kind of you all to come to my last 'good-bye party,'" he yawned, looking sleepily around him through the smoke at his belongings.
For a week he had been giving a "good-bye party" every evening in his handsome house on Twenty-third Street. The four men and the three young girls in the other room were the residue of this party, which was to be the last.
Arthur Wye, wearing the brand-new uniform, red stripes and facings, of flying artillery, rose also; John Casson buttoned his cavalry jacket, grumbling, and stood heavily erect, a colossus in blue and yellow.
"You have the devil's luck, Berkley," he said without bitterness.
"I need it."
"So you do, poor old boy. But—God! you play like a professional."
Wye yawned, thrust his strong, thin hands into his trousers pockets, and looked stupidly at the ceiling.
"I wish to heaven they'd start our battery," he said vacantly. "I'm that sick of Hamilton!"
Casson grumbled again, settling his debts with Berkley.
"Everybody has the devil's own luck except the poor God-forsaken cavalry. Billy Cortlandt goes tomorrow, your battery is under orders, but nobody cares what happens to the cavalry. And they're the eyes and ears of an army——"
"They're the heels and tail of it," observed Berkley, "and the artillery is the rump."
"Shut up, you sneering civilian!"
"I'm shutting up—shop—unless anybody cares to try one last cold hand—" He caught the eye of the girl at the piano and smiled pallidly. "'Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, auri sacra fames!' Also I have them all scared to death, Miss Carew—the volunteer army of our country is taking water."
"It doesn't taste like water," said the pretty singer on the sofa, stretching out her bubbling glass, "try it yourself, Mr. Berkley."
They went toward the music room; Cortlandt seated himself on top of the piano. He looked rather odd there in his zouave jacket, red trousers, white-gaitered legs hanging.
"Oh the Zou-zou-zou! Oh the Zou-zou-zou! Oh the boys of the bully Zouaves!"
he hummed, swinging his legs vigorously. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's all over but the shooting. Arthur, I saw your battery horses; they belong in a glue factory. How arc you going to save your guns when the rebs come after you?"
"God knows, especially if the Zouaves support us," replied Wye, yawning again. Then, rising:
"I've got to get back to that cursed fort. I'll escort anybody who'll let me."
"One more glass, then," said Cortlandt. "Berkley, fill the parting cup! Ladies of the Canterbury, fair sharers of our hospitality who have left the triumphs of the drama to cheer the unfortunate soldier on his war-ward way, I raise my glass and drink to each Terpsichorean toe which, erstwhile, was pointed skyward amid the thunder of metropolitan plaudits, and which now demurely taps my flattered carpet. Gentlemen—soldiers and civilians—I give you three toasts! Miss Carew, Miss Lynden, Miss Trent! Long may they dance! Hurrah!"
"Get on the table," said Casson amid the cheering, and climbed up, spurs jingling, glass on high.
"Will it hold us all?" inquired Letty Lynden, giving her hands to Berkley, who shrugged and swung her up beside him. "Hurrah for the Zouaves!" she cried; "Hurrah for Billy Cortlandt!—Oh, somebody spilled champagne all over me!"
"Hurrah for the artillery!" shouted Arthur Wye, vigorously cheering himself and waving his glass, to the terror of Ione Carew, who attempted to dodge the sparkling rain in vain.
"Arthur, you look like a troop of trained mice," observed Berkley gravely. "Has anybody a toy cannon and a little flag?"
Wye descended with a hop, sprang astride a chair, and clattered around the room, imitating his drill-master.
"Attention! By the right of batteries, break into sections, trot. Mar-r-rch! Attention-n-n! By section from the right of batteries—front into column. Mar-r-rch!"
"By section from the right, front into column, march!" repeated Cortlandt, jumping down from the table and seizing another chair. "Everybody mount a chair!" he shouted. "This is the last artillery drill of the season. Line up there, Letty! It won't hurt your gown. Berkley'll get you another, anyway! Now, ladies and gentlemen, sit firmly in your saddles. Caissons to the rear—march! Caissons, left about—pieces forward—march!"
Wye's chair buckled and he came down with a splintering crash; Casson galloped madly about, pretending his chair had become unmanageable. It, also, ultimately collapsed, landed him flat on his back, whence he surveyed the exercises of the haute ecole in which three flushed and laughing young girls followed the dashing lead of Cortlandt, while Berkley played a cavalry canter on the piano with one hand and waved his cigar in the other.
Later, breathless, they touched glasses to the departing volunteers, to each other, to the ladies ("God bless them! Hear! He-ah!"), to the war, to every regiment going, to each separate battery horse and mule in Arthur's section. And then began on the guns,
"I prophesy a quick reunion!" said Berkley. "Here's to it! Full glasses!
"Speech! Speech—you nimble-witted, limber-legged prophet!" roared John Casson, throwing a pack of cards at Berkley. "Read the cards for us!"
Berkley very gracefully caught a handful, and sorting them, began impromptu:
"Diamonds for you, Little Miss Carew, Strung in a row, Tied in a bow— What would you do If they came true?
"What can it be? Hearts! for Miss Letty— Sweethearts and beaux, Monarchs in rows, Knaves on their knees— Choose among these!
"Clubs now, I see! Ace! for Miss Betty— Clubman and swell, Soldier as well. Yes, he's all three; Who can he be?
"Ione, be kind To monarch and knave, But make up your mind To make 'em behave. And when a man finds you The nicest he's met, he Is likely to marry you, Letty and Betty!"
Tremendous cheering greeted these sentiments; three more cheers were proposed and given for the Canterbury.
"Home of the 'ster arts, m-music an' 'r' drama-r-r—" observed Casson hazily—"I'm going home."
Nobody seemed to hear him.
"Home—ser-weet home," he repeated sentimentally—"home among the horses—where some Roman-nosed, camel-backed, slant-eared nag is probably waitin' to kick daylight out'r me! Ladies, farewell!" he added, tripping up on his spurs and waving his hand vaguely. "Cav'lry's eyes 'n' ears 'f army! 'Tain't the hind legs' No—no! I'm head 'n' ears—army! 'n' I wan' t' go home."
For a while he remained slanting against the piano, thoughtfully attempting to pry out the strings; then Wye returned from putting Miss Carew and Miss Trent into a carriage.
"You come to the fort with me," he said. "That'll sober you. I sleep near the magazine."
Berkley's face looked dreadfully battered and white, but he was master of himself, careful of his equilibrium, and very polite to everybody.
"You're—hic!—killin' yourself," said Cortlandt, balancing himself carefully in the doorway.
"Don't put it that way," protested Berkley. "I'm trying to make fast time, that's all. I'm in a hurry."
The other wagged his head: "You won't last long if you keep this up. The—hic!—trouble with you is that you can't get decently drunk. You just turn blue and white. That's what's—matter—you! And it kills the kind of—hic!—of man you are. B-b'lieve me," he added shedding tears, "I'm fon' 'v' you, Ber—hic!—kley."
He shed a few more scalding tears, waved his hand in resignation, bowed his head, caught sight of his own feet, regarded them with surprise.
"Whose?" he inquired naively.
"Yours," said Berkley reassuringly. "They don't want to go to bed."
"Put 'em to bed!" said Cortlandt in a stem voice. "No business wand'ring 'round here this time of night!"
So Berkley escorted Cortlandt to bed, bowed him politely into his room, and turned out the gas as a precaution.
Returning, he noticed the straggling retreat of cavalry and artillery, arms fondly interlaced; then, wandering back to the other room in search of his hat, he became aware of Letty Lynden, seated at the table.
Her slim, childish body lay partly across the table, her cheek was pillowed on one outstretched arm, the fingers of which lay loosely around the slender crystal stem of a wine-glass.
"Are you asleep?" he asked. And saw that she was.
So he roamed about, hunting for something or other—he forgot what—until he found it was her mantilla. Having found it, he forgot what he wanted it for and, wrapping it around his shoulders, sat down on the sofa, very silent, very white, but physically master of the demoralisation that sharpened the shadows under his cheek-bones and eyes.
"I guess," he said gravely to himself, "that I'd better become a gambler. It's—a—very, ve—ry good 'fession—no," he added cautiously, "per—fession—" and stopped short, vexed with his difficulties of enunciation.
He tried several polysyllables; they went better. Then he became aware of the mantilla on his shoulders.
"Some time or other," he said to himself with precision, "that little dancer girl ought to go home."
He rose steadily, walked to the table:
"Listen to me, you funny little thing," he said.
The childlike curve of the cheek was flushed; the velvet-fringed lids lay close. For a moment he listened to the quiet breathing, then touched her arm lightly.
The girl stirred, lifted her head, straightened up, withdrawing her fingers from the wine-glass.
"Everybody's gone home," he said. "Do you want to stay here all night?"
She rose, rubbing her eyes with the backs of her hands, saw the mantilla he was holding, suffered him to drop it on, her shoulders, standing there sleepy and acquiescent. Then she yawned.
"Are you going with me, Mr. Berkley?"
"I'll—yes. I'll see you safe."
She yawned again, laid a small hand on his arm, and together they descended the stairs, opened the front door, and went out into Twenty-third Street. He scarcely expected to find a hack at that hour, but there was one; and it drove them to her lodgings on Fourth Avenue, near Thirteenth Street. Spite of her paint and powder she seemed very young and very tired as she stood by the open door, looking drearily at the gray pallor over the roofs opposite, where day was breaking.
"Will you—come in?"
He had prepared to take his leave; he hesitated.
"I think I will," he said. "I'd like to see you with your face washed."
Her room was small, very plain, very neat. On the bed lay folded a white night gown; a pair of knitted pink slippers stood close together on the floor beside it. There was a cheap curtain across the alcove; she drew it, turned, looked at him; and slowly her oval face crimsoned.
"You needn't wash your face," he said very gently.
She crept into the depths of a big arm-chair and lay back watching him with inscrutable eyes.
He did not disturb her for a while. After a few moments he got up and walked slowly about, examining the few inexpensive ornaments on wall and mantel; turned over the pages of an album, glanced at a newspaper beside it, then came back and stood beside her chair.
She opened her eyes.
"I suppose that this isn't the—first time."
"It's not far from it, though." She was silent, but her eyes dropped.
He sat down on the padded arm of the chair.
"Do you know how much money I've made this week?" he said gaily.
She looked up at him, surprised, and shook her head; but her velvet eyes grew wide when he told her.
"I won it fairly," he said. "And I'm going to stake it all on one last bet."
"On—you. Now, what do you think of that, you funny little thing?"
"How—do you mean, Mr. Berkley?" He looked down into the eyes of a hurt child.
"It goes into the bank in your name—if you say so."
"I don't know," he said serenely, "but I am betting it will go for rent, and board, and things a girl needs—when she has no man to ask them of—and nothing to pay for them."
"You mean no man—-excepting—you?"
"No," he said wearily, "I'm not trying to buy you."
She crimsoned. "I thought—then why do you——"
"Why? Good God, child! I don't know! How do I know why I do anything? I've enough left for my journey. Take this and try to behave yourself if you can—in the Canterbury and out of it! . . . And buy a new lock for that door of yours. Good night."
She sprang up and laid a detaining hand on his sleeve as he reached the hallway.
"Mr. Berkley! I—I can't——"
He said, smiling: "My manners are really better than that——"
"I didn't mean——"
"You ought to. Don't let any man take his leave in such a manner. Men believe a woman to be what she thinks she is. Think well of yourself. And go to bed. I never saw such a sleepy youngster in my life! Good night, you funny, sleepy little thing."
"Mr. Berkley—I can't take—accept——"
"Oh, listen to her!" he said, disgusted. "Can't I make a bet with my own money if I want to? I am betting; and you are holding the stakes. It depends on how you use them whether I win or lose."
"I don't understand—I don't, truly," she stammered; "d-do you wish me to—leave—the Canterbury? Do you—what is it you wish?"
"You know better than I do. I'm not advising you. Where is your home? Why don't you go there? You have one somewhere, I suppose, haven't you?"
"Y-yes; I had."
"Well—where is it?"
"Couldn't you stand it?" he inquired with a sneer.
"No." She covered her face with her hands.
"Won't they take you back?"
"Write. Home is no stupider than the Canterbury. Will you write?"
She nodded, hiding her face.
"Then—that's settled. Meanwhile—" he took both her wrists and drew away her clinging hands:
"I'd rather like to win this bet because—the odds are all against me." He smiled, letting her hands swing back and hang inert at her sides.
But she only closed her eyes and shook her head, standing there, slim and tear-stained in her ruffled, wine-stained dinner dress. And, watching her, he retreated, one step after another, slowly; and slowly closed the door, and went out into the dawn, weary, haggard, the taste of life bitter in his mouth.
"What a spectacle," he sneered, referring to himself, "the vicious god from the machine! Chorus of seraphim. Apotheosis of little Miss Turveydrop——"
He swayed a trine as he walked, but it was not from the wine.
A policeman eyed him unfavourably,
"No," said Berkley, "I'm not drunk. You think I am. But I'm not. And I'm too tired to tell you how I left my happy, happy home."
In the rosy gray of the dawn he sat down on the steps of his new lodgings and gazed quietly into space.
"This isn't going to help," he said. "I can stand years of it yet. And that's much too long."
He brooded for a few moments.
"I hope she doesn't write me again. I can't stand everything."
He got up with an ugly, oblique glance at the reddening sky.
"I'm what he's made me—and I've got to let her alone. . . . Let her alone. I—" He halted, laid his hand heavily on the door, standing so, motionless.
"If I—go—near her, he'll tell her what I am. If he didn't, I'd have to tell her. There's no way—anywhere—for me. And he made me so. . . . And—by God! it's in me—in me—to—to—if she writes again—" He straightened up, turned the key calmly, and let himself in.
Burgess was asleep, but Berkley went into his room and awoke him, shining a candle in his eyes.
"Suppose you knew you could never marry a woman. Would you keep away from her? Or would you do as much as you could to break her heart first?"
Burgess yawned: "Yes, sir."
"You'd do all you could?"
There was a long silence; then Berkley laughed. "They drowned the wrong pup," he said pleasantly. "Good night."
But Burgess was already asleep again.
And now at last she knew what it was she feared. For she was beginning to understand that this man was utterly unworthy, utterly insensible, without character, without one sympathetic trait that appealed to anything in her except her senses.
She understood it now, lying there alone in her room, knowing it to be true, admitting it in all the bitter humiliation of self-contempt. But even in the light of this new self-knowledge her inclination for him seemed a thing so unreasonable, so terrible, that, confused and terrified by the fear of spiritual demoralisation, she believed that this bewildering passion was all that he had ever evoked in her, and fell sick in mind and body for the shame of it.
A living fever was on her night and day; disordered memories of him haunted her, waking; defied her, sleeping; and her hatred for what he had awakened in her grew as her blind, childish longing to see him grew, leaving no peace for her.
What kind of love was that?—founded on nothing, nurtured on nothing, thriving on nothing except what her senses beheld in him. Nothing higher, nothing purer, nothing more exalted had she ever learned of him than what her eyes saw; and they had seen only a man in his ripe youth, without purpose, without ideals, taking carelessly of the world what he would one day return to it—the material, born in corruption, and to corruption doomed.
It was night she feared most. By day there were duties awaiting, or to be invented. Also, sometimes, standing on her steps, she could hear the distant sound of drums, catch a glimpse far to the eastward of some regiment bound South, the long rippling line of bayonets, a flutter of colour where the North was passing on God's own errand. And love of country became a passion.
Stephen came sometimes, but his news of Berkley was always indefinite, usually expressed with a shrug and emphasised in silences.
Colonel Arran was still in Washington, but he wrote her every day, and always he asked whether Berkley had come. She never told him.
Like thousands and thousands of other women in New York she did what she could for the soldiers, contributing from her purse, attending meetings, making havelocks, ten by eight, for the soldiers' caps, rolling bandages, scraping lint in company with other girls of her acquaintance, visiting barracks and camps and "soldiers' rests," sending endless batches of pies and cakes and dozens of jars of preserves from her kitchen to the various distributing depots.
Sainte Ursula's Church sent out a call to its parishioners; a notice was printed in all the papers requesting any women of the congregation who had a knowledge of nursing to meet at the rectory for the purpose of organisation. And Ailsa went and enrolled herself as one who had had some hospital experience.
Sickness among the thousands of troops in the city there already was, also a few cases of gunshots in the accident wards incident on the carelessness or ignorance of raw volunteers. But as yet in the East there had been no soldier wounded in battle, no violent death except that of the young colonel of the 1st Fire Zouaves, shot down at Alexandria.
So there was no regular hospital duty asked of Ailsa Paige, none required; and she and a few other women attended a class of instruction conducted by her own physician, Dr. Benton, who explained the simpler necessities of emergency cases and coolly predicted that there would be plenty of need for every properly instructed woman who cared to volunteer.
So the ladies of Sainte Ursula's listened very seriously; and some had enough of it very soon, and some remained longer, and finally only a small residue was left—quiet, silent, attentive women of various ages who came every day to hear what Dr. Benton had to tell them, and write it down in their little morocco notebooks. And these, after a while, became the Protestant sisterhood of Sainte Ursula, and wore, on duty, the garb of gray with the pectoral scarlet heart.
May went out with the booming of shotted guns beyond the, Southern horizon, amid rumours of dead zouaves and cavalrymen somewhere beyond Alexandria. And on that day the 7th Regiment returned to garrison the city, and the anxious city cheered its return, and people slept more soundly for it, though all day long the streets echoed with the music of troops departing, and of regiments parading for a last inspection before the last good-byes were said.
Berkley saw some of this from his window. Never perfectly sober now, he seldom left his rooms except at night; and all day long he read, or brooded, or lay listless, or as near drunk as he ever could be, indifferent, neither patient nor impatient with a life he no longer cared enough about to either use or take.
There were intervals when the deep despair within him awoke quivering; instants of fierce grief instantly controlled, throttled; moments of listless relaxation when some particularly contemptible trait in Burgess faintly amused him, or some attempted invasion of his miserable seclusion provoked a sneer or a haggard smile, or perhaps an uneasiness less ignoble, as when, possibly, the brief series of letters began and ended between him and the dancing girl of the Canterbury.
"DEAR MR. BERKLEY: "Could you come for me after the theatre this evening? "LETITIA LYNDEN."
"DEAR LETTY: "I'm afraid I couldn't. "Very truly yours, "P. O. BERKLEY."
"DEAR MR. BERKLEY: "Am I not to see you again? I think perhaps you might care to hear that I have been doing what you wished ever since that night. I have also written home, but nobody has replied. I don't think they want me now. It is a little lonely, being what you wish me to be. I thought you might come sometimes. Could you? "LETITIA LYNDEN."
"DEAR LETITIA: "I seem to be winning my bet, but nobody can ever tell. Wait for a while and then write home again. Meantime, why not make bonnets? If you want to, I'll see that you get a chance. "P. O. BERKLEY."
"DEAR MR. BERKLEY: "I don't know how. I never had any skill. I was assistant in a physician's office—once. Thank you for your kind and good offer—for all your goodness to me. I wish I could see you sometimes. You have been better to me than any man. Could I? "LETTY."
"DEAR LETTY: "Why not try some physician's office?"
"DEAR MR. BERKLEY: "Do you wish me to? Would you see me sometimes if I left the Canterbury? It is so lonely—you don't know, Mr. Berkley, how lonely it is to be what you wish me to be. Please only come and speak to me. "LETTY."
"DEAR LETTY: "Here is a card to a nice doctor, Phineas Benton, M.D. I have not seen him in years; he remembers me as I was. You will not, of course, disillusion him. I've had to lie to him about you—and about myself. I've told him that I know your family in Philadelphia, that they asked me about the chances of a position here for you as an assistant in a physician's office, and that now you had come on to seek for such a position. Let me know how the lie turns out. "P. O. BERKLEY."
A fortnight later came her last letter:
"DEAR MR. BERKLEY: "I have been with Dr. Benton nearly two weeks now. He took me at once. He is such a good man! But—I don't know—sometimes he looks at me and looks at me as though he suspected what I am—and I feel my cheeks getting hot, and I can scarcely speak for nervousness; and then he always smiles so pleasantly and speaks so courteously that I know he is too kind and good to suspect.
"I hold sponges and instruments in minor operations, keep the office clean, usher in patients, offer them smelling salts and fan them, prepare lint, roll bandages—and I know already how to do all this quite well. I think he seems pleased with me. He is so very kind to me. And I have a little hall bedroom in his house, very tiny but very neat and clean; and I have my meals with his housekeeper, an old, old woman who is very deaf and very pleasant.
"I don't go out because I don't know where to go. I'm afraid to go near the Canterbury—afraid to meet anybody from there. I think I would die if any man I ever saw there ever came into Dr. Benton's office. The idea of that often frightens me. But nobody has come. And I sometimes do go out with Dr. Benton. He is instructing a class of ladies in the principles of hospital nursing, and lately I have gone with him to hold things for him while he demonstrates. And once, when he was called away suddenly, I remained with the class alone, and I was not very nervous, and I answered all their questions for them and showed them how things ought to be done. They were so kind to me; and one very lovely girl came to me afterward and thanked me and said that she, too, had worked a little as a nurse for charity, and asked me to call on her.
"I was so silly—do you know I couldn't see her for the tears, and I couldn't speak—and I couldn't let go of her hands. I wanted to kiss them, but I was ashamed.
"Some day do you think I might see you again? I am what you have asked me to be. I never wanted to be anything else. They will not believe that at home because they had warned me, and I was such a fool—and perhaps you won't believe me—but I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't want to be what I became—This is really true, Mr. Berkley. Sometime may I see you again? Yours sincerely, "LETITIA A. LYNDEN."
He had replied that he would see her some day, meaning not to do so. And there it had rested; and there, stretched on his sofa, he rested, the sneer still edging his lips, not for her but for himself.
"She'd have made some respectable man a good—mistress," he said. "Here is a most excellent mistress, spoiled, to make a common-place nurse! . . . Gaude! Maria Virgo; gaudent proenomine molles auriculoe. . . . Gratis poenitet esse probum. Burgess!"
"What the devil are you scratching for outside my door?"
"A letter, sir."
"Shove it under, and let me alone."
The letter appeared, cautiously inserted under the door, and lay there very white on the floor. He eyed it, scowling, without curiosity, turned over, and presently became absorbed in the book he had been reading:
"Zarathustra asked Ahura-Mazda: 'Heavenly, Holiest, Pure, when a pure man dies where does his soul dwell during that night?'
"Then answered Ahura-Mazda: 'Near his head it sits itself down. On this night his soul sees as much joy as the living world possesses.'
"And Zarathustra asked: 'Where dwells the soul throughout the second night after the body's death?'
"Then answered Ahura-Mazda: 'Near to his head it sits itself down.'
"Zarathustra spake: 'Where stays the soul of a pure roan throughout the third night, O Heavenly, Holiest, Pure?'
"And thus answered Ahura-Mazda, Purest, Heavenly: 'When the Third Night turns Itself to Light, the soul arises and goes forward; and a wind blows to meet it; a sweet-scented one, more sweet-scented than other winds.'
"And in that wind there cometh to meet him His Own Law in the body of a maid, one beautiful, shining, with shining arms; one powerful, well-grown, slender, with praiseworthy body; one noble, with brilliant face, as fair in body as the loveliest.
"And to her speaks the soul of the pure man, questioning her who she might truly be. And thus replies to him His Own Law, shining, dove-eyed, loveliest: 'I am thy thoughts and works; I am thine own Law of thine own Self. Thou art like me, and I am like thee in goodness, in beauty, in all that I appear to thee. Beloved, come!'
"And the soul of the pure man takes one step and is in the First Paradise, Humata; and takes a second step, and is in the Second Paradise, Hukhta; and takes a third step, and is in the Third Paradise, Hvarsta.
"And takes one last step into the Eternal Lights for ever."
His haggard eyes were still fixed vacantly on the printed page, but he saw nothing now. Something in the still air of the room had arrested his attention—something faintly fresh—an evanescent hint of perfume.
Suddenly the blood surged up in his face; he half rose, turned where he lay and looked back at the letter on the floor. "Damn it," he said. And rising heavily, he went to it, picked it up, and broke the scented seal.
"Will you misunderstand me, Mr. Berkley? They say that the pages of friendship are covered with records of misunderstandings.
"We were friends. Can it not be so again? I have thought so long and so steadily about it that I no longer exactly know whether I may venture to write to you or whether the only thing decently left me is silence, which for the second time I am breaking now, because I cannot believe that I offered my friendship to such a man as you have said you are. It is not in any woman to do it. Perhaps it is self-respect that protests, repudiates, denies what you have said to me of yourself; and perhaps it is a sentiment less austere. I can no longer judge.
"And now that I have the courage—or effrontery—to write you once more, will you misconstrue my letter—and my motive? If I cannot be reconciled to what I hear of you—if what I hear pains, frightens me out of a justifiable silence which perhaps you might respect, will you respect my motive for breaking it the less? I do not know. But the silence is now broken, and I must endure the consequences.
"Deep unhappiness I have never known; but I recognise it in others when I see it, and would aid always if I could. Try to understand me.
"But despair terrifies me—I who never have known it—and I do not understand how to meet it, how to cope with it in others, what to say or do. Yet I would help if help is possible. Is it?
"I think you have always thought me immature, young in experience, negligible as to wisdom, of an intellectual capacity inconsequential.
"These are the facts: I was married when I was very young, and I have known little of such happiness; but I have met sorrow and have conquered it, and I have seen bitter hours, and have overcome them, and I have been tempted, and have prevailed. Have you done these things?
"As for wisdom, if it comes only with years, then I have everything yet to learn. Yet it seems to me that in the charity wards of hospitals, in the city prisons, in the infirmary, the asylum—even the too brief time spent there has taught me something of human frailty and human sorrow. And if I am right or wrong, I do not know, but to me sin has always seemed mostly a sickness of the mind. And it is a shame to endure it or to harshly punish it if there be a cure. And if this is so, what you may have done, and what others may have done to you, cannot be final.
"My letter is longer than I meant it, but I had a great need to speak to you. If you still think well of me, answer me. Answer in the way it pleases you best. But answer—if you still think well of me.
A touch of rose still tinted the sky overhead, but already the lamp lighters were illuminating the street lamps as he came to London Terrace—that quaint stretch of old-time houses set back from the street, solemnly windowed, roofed, and pilastered; decorously screened behind green trees and flowering bushes ringed by little lawns of emerald.
For a moment, after entering the iron gateway and mounting the steps, he stood looking up at her abode. Overhead the silken folds of the flag hung motionless in the calm evening air; and all the place about him was sweet with the scent of bridal-wreath and early iris.
Then, at his tardy summons, the door of her house opened to him. He went in and stood in the faded drawing-room, where the damask curtain folds were drawn against the primrose dusk and a single light glimmered like a star high among the pendant prisms of the chandelier.
Later a servant came and gave the room more light. Then he waited for a long while. And at last she entered.
Her hands were cold—he noticed it as the fingers touched his, briefly, and were withdrawn. She had scarcely glanced at him, and she had not yet uttered a word when they were seated. It lay with him, entirely, so far.
"What a lazy hound I have been," he said, smiling; "I have no excuses to save my hide—no dogs ever have. Are you well, Ailsa?"
She made the effort: "Yes, perfectly. I fear—" Her eyes rested on his marred and haggard face; she said no more because she could not.
He made, leisurely, all proper and formal inquiries concerning the Craigs and those he had met there, mentioned pleasantly his changed fortunes; spoke of impending and passing events, of the war, of the movement of troops, of the chances for a battle, which the papers declared was imminent.
Old Jonas shuffled in with the Madeira and a decanter of brandy, it being now nearly eight o'clock.
Later, while Berkley was still carelessly bearing the burden of conversation, the clock struck nine times; and in another incredibly brief interval, it struck ten.
He started to rise, and encountered her swiftly lifted eyes. And a flush grew and deepened on his face, and he resumed his place in silence. When again he was seated she drew, unconsciously, a long, deep breath, and inclined her head to listen. But Berkley had no more to say to her—and much that he must not say to her. And she waited a long while, eyes bent steadily on the velvet carpet at her feet.
The silence endured too long; she knew it, but could not yet break it, or the spell which cradled her tired heart, or the blessed surcease from the weariness of waiting.
Yet the silence was lasting too long, and must be broken quickly.
She looked up, startled, as he rose to take his leave. It was the only way, now, and she knew it. And, oh, the time had sped too fast for her, and her heart failed her for all the things that remained unsaid—all the kindness she had meant to give him, all the counsel, the courage, the deep sympathy, the deeper friendship.
But her hand lay limply, coldly in his; her lips were mute, tremulously curving; her eyes asked nothing more.
"Good night, Ailsa."
There was colour, still, in his marred young face, grace, still, in his body, in the slightly lowered head as he looked down at her.
"I must not come again, Ailsa."
Then her pulses died. "Why?"
"Because—I am afraid to love you."
It did not seem that she even breathed, so deathly still she stood.
"Is that—-your reason?"
"Yes. I have no right to love you."
She could scarcely speak. "Is—friendship not enough, Mr. Berkley?"
"It is too late for friendship. You know it."
"That cannot be."
"Because it is friendship—mistaken friendship that moves you now in every word you say." She raised her candid gaze. "Is there no end to your self-murder? Do you still wish to slay yourself before my very eyes?"
"I tell you that there is nothing good left living in me:
"And if it were true; did you never hear of a resurrection?"
"I hear your warning."
"You dare let me love you?"
Dry-lipped, voices half stifled by their mounting emotion, they stood closely confronted, paling under the effort of self-mastery. And his was giving way, threatening hers with every breath.
Suddenly in his altered face she saw what frightened her, and her hand suddenly closed in his; but he held it imprisoned.
"Answer me, Ailsa!"
"Please—" she said—"if you will let me go—I will answer—you——"
Her breath was coming faster; her face, now white as a flower, now flushed, swam before him. Through the surging passion enveloping him he heard her voice as at a distance:
"If you will—let me go—I can tell you——"
"Tell me now!"
"Not—this way. . . . How can you care for me if——
"I warned you, Ailsa! I told you that I am unfit to love you. No woman could ever marry me! No woman could even love me if she knew what I am! You understood that. I told you. And now—good God!—I'm telling you I love you—I can't let you go!—your hands:—the sweetness of them—the——"
"I—oh, it must not be—this way——"
"It is this way!"
"I know—but please try to help.—I—I am not afraid to—love you———"
Her slender figure trembled against him; the warmth of her set him afire. There was a scent of tears in her breath—a fragrance as her body relaxed, yielded, embraced; her hands, her lids, her: hair, her mouth, all his now, for the taking, as he took her into his arms. But he only stared down at what lay there; and, trembling, breathless, her eyes unclosed and she looked up blindly into his flushed face.
"Because I—love you," she sighed, "I believe in all that—that I have—never—seen—in you."
He looked back into her eyes, steadily:
"I am going mad over you, Ailsa. There is only destruction for you in that madness. . . . Shall I let you go?"
But the white passion in his face was enough; and, involuntarily her lids shut it out. But she did not stir.
"I—warned you," he said again.
"I know. . . . Is it in you to—destroy—me?"
"God knows. . . . Yes, it is."
She scarcely breathed; only their hearts battled there in silence. Then he said harshly:
"What else is there for us? You would not marry me."
"You would not marry me if I told you——"
"I will not tell you!"
"Then tell me!"
"G-od! No! I can't throw this hour away. I can't throw love away! I want you anyway—if you have the—courage!"
"Tell me. I promise to marry you anyway. I promise it, whatever you are! Tell me."
"I—" An ugly red-stained neck and forehead; his embrace suddenly hurt her so that she cried out faintly, but her hand closed on his.
"Tell me, tell me, tell me!" she pleaded; "I know you are half crazed by something—some dreadful thing that has been done to you—" and ceased, appalled at the distorted visage he turned on her. His arms relaxed and fell away from her.
Released, she stood swaying as though stunned, pressed both hands to her eyes, then let her arms fall, inert.
For a moment they confronted one another; then he straightened up, squared his shoulders with a laugh that terrified her.
"No," he said, "I won't tell you! You go on caring for me. I'm beast enough to let you. Go on caring! Love me—if you're brave enough. . . . And I warn you now that I love you, and I don't care a damn how I do it! . . . Now you are frightened! . . . Very well—I——"
He swayed a little, swung blindly on his heel, and lurched out into the hall.
Mechanically she followed, halting in the doorway and resting against it, for it seemed as though her knees were giving way.
"Is that—to be the—end?" she whispered.
He turned and came swiftly back, took her in his arms, crushed her to him, kissed her lips again and again, fiercely.
"The end will be when you make an end," he said. "Make it now or never!"
His heart was beating violently against hers; her head had fallen a little back, lips slightly parted, unresponsive under his kiss, yet enduring—and at last burning and trembling to the verge of response——
And suddenly, passion-swept, breathless, she felt her self-control going, and she opened her eyes, saw hell in his, tore herself from his arms, and shrank, trembling, against the wall. He turned stupidly and opened the door, making his way out into the night. But she did not see him, for her burning face was hidden in her hands.
Drunk as though drugged, the echoes of passion still stirred his darker self, and his whirling thoughts pierced his heart like names, whispering, urging him to go back and complete the destruction he had begun—take her once more into his arms and keep her there through life, through death, till the bones of the blessed and the damned alike stirred in their graves at the last reveille.
To know that she, too, had been fighting herself—that she, too, feared passion, stirred every brutal fibre in him to a fiercer recklessness that halted him in his tracks under the calm stars. But what held him there was something else, perhaps what he believed had died in him; for he did not even turn again. And at last, through the dark and throbbing silence he moved on again at random, jaws set.
The mental strain was beginning to distort everything. Once or twice he laughed all to himself, nodding mysteriously, his tense white face stamped with a ghastly grimace of self-contempt. Then an infernal, mocking curiosity stirred him:
What kind of a thing was he anyway? A moment since he had loosed the brute in himself, leaving it to her to re-chain or let it carry her with him to destruction. And yet he was too fastidious to marry her under false pretences!
"Gods of Laughter! What in hell—what sort of thing am I?" he asked aloud, and lurched on, muttering insanely to himself, laughing, talking under his breath, hearing nothing, seeing nothing but her wistful eyes, gazing sorrowfully out of the night.
At a dark crossing he ran blindly into a moving horse; was pushed aside by its cloaked rider with a curse; stood dazed, while his senses slowly returned—first, hearing—and his ears were filled with the hollow trample of many horses; then vision, and in the dark street before him he saw the column of shadowy horsemen riding slowly in fours, knee to knee, starlight sparkling on spur and bit and sabre guard.
Officers walked their lean horses beside the column. One among them drew bridle near him, calling out:
"Have you the right time?"
Berkley looked at his watch.
"Thank you, friend."
Berkley stepped to the curb-stone: "What regiment is that?"
"Eighth New York."
"Going into camp. Yorkville."
Berkley said: "Do you want a damned fool?"
"The companies are full of fools. . . . We can stand a few first-class men. Come up to camp to-morrow, friend. If you can pass the surgeons I guess it will be all right."
And he prodded his tired horse forward along the slowly moving column of fours.
Her hatred and horror of him gave her no peace. Angry, incensed, at moments almost beside herself with grief and shame and self-contempt, she awaited the letter which he must write—the humble and hopeless effort for pardon which she never, never would answer or even in her own soul grant.
Day after day she brooded, intent, obsessed, fiercely pondering his obliteration.
But no letter came.
No letter came that week, nor Monday, nor at the end of the next week, nor the beginning of the next.
Wrath, at night, had dried her eyes where she lay crying in her humiliation; wrath diminished as the days passed; scorn became less rigid, anger grew tremulous. Then what was lurking near her pillow lifted a pallid head. Fear!
She waited. Wrath died, scorn died; there was not enough to dry her tears at night—a deeper, more hopeless humiliation had become the shame of forgiving him, of loneliness without him, of waiting for his letter, heart sick—his letter that never came.
Letter after letter to him she destroyed, and fell ill of the tension, or perhaps of a heavy cold caught in the rain where she had walked for hours, aimlessly, unable to bear her longing and her desolation.
Dr. Benton attended her; the pretty volunteer nurse came to sit with her during convalescence.
The third week in June she was physically well enough to dress and go about the house. And on that day she came to her shameful decision.
She wrote him, waited a dreary week for an answer; wrote him again, waited two weeks; wrote him a third and last letter. No answer came. And she went dully about the task of forgetting.
About the middle of July she heard from Stephen that Berkley had enlisted in one of the new unattached cavalry companies, but which one he did not know. Also she learned that the 3rd Zouaves had their marching orders and would probably come to the city to receive their colours. Later she heard from the mayor, the common council, and from Major Lent; and prepared for the ceremony.
The ceremony was prettily impressive; Ailsa, Mrs. Craig, her daughters, Paige and Marye, and Camilla Lent wearing a bell button from Stephen's zouave jacket, stood on the lawn in front of Ailsa's house, escorted by Colonel Arran who had returned from Washington, with his commission, by the mayor of the city, and several red-faced, fat-paunched gentlemen of the common council, and by a young officer, Captain Hallam, who stood behind Ailsa and seemed unable to keep his handsome eyes off her.
Twenty-third Street was packed solid with people and all aflutter with flags under the July sun when the distant strains of military music and blue lines of police heralded the coming of the 3rd Zouaves.
Band crashing, raw, gray horses of field and staff-officers dancing, the regiment came swinging down the wide stony street,—a torrent of red and gold, a broad shaft of silvery bayonets;—and halted facing the group of ladies and officials.
Celia Craig looked down at her husband where he sat his great gray horse. Their last good-bye had already been said; he sat erect, calm, gazing quietly up at her through his gold-rimmed eye-glasses; from his blue sleeves' edge to the points of his shoulders glittered in twisted gold the six-fold arabesques of his rank.
The roar of cheers was dying away now; a girlish figure in white had moved forward to the edge of the lawn, carrying two standards in her arms, and her voice was very clear and sweet and perfectly audible to everybody;
"Colonel Craig, officers, and soldiers of the 3rd New York Zouaves; the ladies of the Church of Sainte Ursula have requested me, in their name, to present to you this set of colours. God guard them and you!
"Remember that, although these flags are now yours, they still remain ours. Your cause is ours. Your vows our vows. Your loyalty to God and country is part of our loyalty to God, to country, and to you."
She stood silent, pensive a moment; then stretched out her arms, a flag in either hand; and the Colonel rode straight up to where she stood, took the silken colours and handed them to the two colour-sergeants. Then, while an orderly advanced to the head of his horse, Colonel Craig dismounted and quietly ascended the steps beside the little group of ladies and city officials:
"On behalf of the officers and men of the 3rd New York Zouaves," he said, "I thank you. We are grateful. I think that we all mean to do our best.
"If we cannot, in the hour of trial, do all that is expected of us, we will do all that is in us to do.
"It is very easy to dress a thousand men in uniform, and invest them with the surroundings of military life; but it is not thus alone that soldiers are made. It is only discipline; regular steady, rigid discipline—that forms a soldier to be relied upon in the hour of need.
"At present we are only recruits. So I ask, in justice to the regiment, that you will not demand too much of us in the beginning. We desire to learn; we desire most earnestly to deserve your confidence. I can only say that we will try to prove ourselves not unworthy guardians of these flags you have given us."
He bowed, turned to go, swung around sharply and looked at his wife.
"Good-bye, my darling," he said under his breath; and the nest moment he was in the saddle.
All the rest that Ailsa recollected distinctly was the deafening outcrash of military music, the sustained cheering, the clatter of hoofs, the moving column of red and gold—and Celia, standing there under the July sun, her daughters' hands in hers.
So the 3rd Zouaves marched gaily away under their new silk flags to their transport at Pier No. 3, North River. But the next day another regiment received its colours and went, and every day or so more regiments departed with their brand-new colours; and after a little only friends and relatives remembered the 3rd Zouaves, and what was their colonel's name.
By the middle of July the transformation of the metropolis from a city into a vast military carnival was complete. Gaudy uniforms were no longer the exception; a madness for fantastic brilliancy seized the people; soldiers in all kinds of colours and all kinds of dress filled the streets. Hotels, shops, ferry-boats, stages, cars, swarmed with undisciplined troops of all arms of the service, clad in every sort of extravagant uniforms. Except for the more severe state uniform and the rarer uniform of National troops, eccentric costumes were the rule. It was a carnival of military absurdity. Regiments were continually entering the city, regiments were continually leaving it; regiments in transit disembarked overnight only to resume the southward journey by steamer or train; regiments in camp and barrack were completing organisation and being mustered in by United States officers. Gorgeous regiments paraded for inspection, for drill, for the reception of state and regimental colours; three-month troops were returning, bands madly playing; two- and three-year regiments leaving, drums beating frantically.
The bewildering variety of cut and colour in the uniforms of this vast army, which was being made to order, had been, in a measure, rendered comparatively homogeneous by the adoption of the regulation blue overcoat, but many a regiment wore its own pattern of overcoat, many a regiment went forward in civilian attire, without arms and equipment, on the assurance that these details were to be supplied in Washington.
The dress of almost every foreign army in Europe was represented among the regiments forming or in transit. The 79th Highlanders, it is true, discarded kilt and bagpipe on the eve of departure, marching in blouse and cap and breeks of army blue; but the 14th. Brooklyn departed in red cap and red breeches, the 1st and 2d Fire Zouaves discarded the Turkish fez only; the 5th, 9th, 10th Zouaves marched wearing fez and turban; and bizarre voltigeurs, foot chasseurs, hussars, lancers, rocket batteries in costume de fantasie poured southward,—no two regiments equipped and armed alike.
The city remained in painful suspense concerning its raw, multicoloured, and undisciplined army. Every few days arose rumours of a great battle fought on Virginia soil, corroborated by extras, denied next morning. During the last half of July such reports had been current daily, tightening the tension, frightening parents, wives, and sweethearts. Recent armed affrays had been called battles; the dead zouaves at Big Bethel, a dead trooper at Alexandria sobered and silenced the street cheering. Yet, what a real battle might be, nobody really comprehended or even surmised.
To Ailsa Paige June and July passed like fevered dreams; the brief sweet spring had suddenly turned into summer in a single day—a strange, stifling, menacing summer full of heavy little thunder-storms which rolled crackling and banging up the Hudson amid vivid electric displays, leaving no coolness behind their trailing wake of rain.
Society was lingering late in town—if the few nebulous, unorganised, and scattered social groups could be called society—small coteries drawn temporarily together through accident of environment, inherited family acquaintance, traditional, material, or religious interest, and sometimes by haphazard intellectual compatibility.
In the city, and in Ailsa's little world, the simple social routine centring in Sainte Ursula's and the Assembly in winter, and in Long Branch and Saratoga in summer, had been utterly disorganised. Very few of her friends had yet left for the country; nor had she made any arrangements for this strange, unreal summer, partly because, driven to find relief from memory in occupation, she was devoting herself very seriously to the medical instruction under Dr. Benton; partly because she did not consider it a fitting time to seek the coolness and luxury of inland spa or seaside pier.
Colonel Arran had brought back with him from Washington a Captain Hallam, a handsome youngster who wore his cavalry uniform to perfection and who had become instantly attentive to Ailsa,—so attentive that before she realised it he was a regular visitor at her house, appropriating the same chair that Berkley always had—Berkley!——
At the memory she closed her eyes instinctively. The wound throbbed,
"What is the matter, Mrs. Paige?" inquired Captain Hallam anxiously. "Are you faint?"
She opened her eyes and smiled in pretence of surprise at such a question; and Hallam muttered: "I thought you seemed rather pale all of a sudden." Then he brightened up and went gaily on with what he had been saying:
"We've got nine full companies already, and the 10th, K, is an independent company which we're taking in to complete our organisation. Colonel Arran and I stopped in Philadelphia to inspect Colonel Rush's regiment of lancers—the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry—because the French officers on McClellan's staff have put it into his head that he needs lancers——"
"Is Colonel Arran's regiment to carry lances?" interrupted Ailsa in surprise.
Hallam nodded, laughing: "We recruited as light cavalry, armed with sabre and pistol, but General McClellan has ordered that we carry the lance in addition. The department had none to issue until the foreign samples arrived. We are ordered to carry a lance of the Austrian pattern, nine feet long with an eleven-inch, three-edged blade; the staff of Norway fir about an inch and a quarter through, with ferrule and counter poise at the heel. Do I make myself clear, Mrs. Paige?"
Ailsa, thinking of Berkley, flushed slightly and nodded.
"There'll be a scarlet swallow-tailed pennon on the end just below the blade point. The whole affair will weigh about five pounds," concluded Hallam, rising to take his leave; "and I've got to be off to camp."
"Must you go, Captain Hallam?"
"I really must. That K Company is due in camp this evening, and I expect our uniforms and equipments will be delivered in the morning. Are you coming to see us off, Mrs. Paige?"
"When do you go? Colonel Arran said nothing about going."
"Oh, I expect we'll be on our way before very long. We are not in the best of shape yet; that's not to be expected. But there's a sad lack of cavalry in Washington, and they may want us to go whether we're ready or not. They sent off a regiment that had neither arms nor uniforms and couldn't even keep step, the other day. I've an idea we are going pretty soon." He took Ailsa's offered hand, looked at her a little earnestly, smiled in self-satisfaction, and went his way.
Later in the week he came back for a few moments; and all through the week he continued to come back for a few moments whenever he had an hour's leave.
And every time he took his leave his smile became less nervous and more confident.
She was very unhappy; devotion to Dr. Benton's class helped; devotion to Celia in her brief visits to Brooklyn helped, too; devotion to others, to prayer, all helped as long as it was devotion of some sort.
And now this young, blue-eyed, blonde-haired fellow was on the edge of offering to devote himself to her. She knew it, wondered whether this was her refuge from care. And when he did, at last, she was quietly prepared to answer.
"Captain Hallam," she said slowly, "I do like you. I don't know whether I could ever learn to love you. I am not very happy; it might influence my judgment. If you are willing to wait until I know more about myself——"
Oh, he would wait! Certainly. Meanwhile would she wear his ring—not exactly an engagement—unless she was willing—but——
She hesitated. Lonelier than she had ever been in all her life, no longer self-sufficient, wistfully hopeless, needing to devote herself absolutely to something or somebody, she hesitated. But that evening when Hallam came with his ring she could not bring herself to accept what she now seemed to be most deeply in need of—the warm, eager, complacent affection that he laid at her feet. She was not yet able—could not; and the desolate memories of Berkley set the wound aching anew. . . . No, she could promise nothing to this young fellow—nothing yet. . . . Perhaps, in the future—as time passed—she might venture to wear his ring, and see what happened to her. But she would not promise—she would not talk of marrying him. . . . And cried herself to sleep over the memory of Berkley, and his vileness, and his heartless wickedness, and his ignoble love that had left her so ashamed, so humiliated, so cruelly crushed for ever. And all night long she dreamed of Berkley and of his blessed nearness; and the sweetness of her dream troubled her profoundly. She sat up, still asleep, her straining throat whispering his name, her arms outstretched, blindly searching the darkness for him, until suddenly awake, she realised what she was doing, and dropped back among her pillows.
All that day the city was filled with rumours of a great battle fought in Virginia. The morning's papers hailed it with triumphant head-lines and columns of praise and thanksgiving for a great victory won. But at night the stunned city knew that Bull Run had been fought and lost, and the Confederacy was at the gates of Washington.
In a city where thousands and thousands of women were now organising relief work for the troops already in the field, Ailsa Paige had been among the earliest to respond to the call for a meeting at the Church of the Puritans. Here she had left her name for enrolment with Mrs. Gerard Stuyvesant.
Later, with Mrs. Marquand, Mrs. Aspinwall, Mrs. Astor, and Mrs. Hamilton Fish, and a hundred others, she had signed the call for the great mass-meeting; had acted on one of the subcommittees chosen from among the three thousand ladies gathered at the Institute; had served with Mrs. Schuyler on the board of the Central Relief Association; had been present at the inception of the Sanitary Commission and its adjunct, the Allotment Commission; had contributed to the Christian Commission, six thousand of whose delegates were destined to double the efficiency of the armies of the Union.
Then Sainte Ursula's Sisterhood, organised for field as well as hospital service, demanded all her energies. It was to be an emergency corps; she had hesitated to answer the call, hesitated to enroll for this rougher service, and, troubled, had sought counsel from Mr. Dodge and Mr. Bronson of the Allotment Commission, and from Dr. Agnew of the Sanitary Commission.
Dr. Agnew wrote to Dr. Benton:
"Mrs. Paige is a very charming and very sweet little lady, excellently equipped by experience to take the field with Sainte Ursula's Sisterhood, but self-distrustful and afraid of her own behaviour on a battle-field where the emergency corps might be under fire. In this sort of woman I have every confidence."
The next day Ailsa enrolled; arranged her household affairs so that she could answer any summons at a few hours' notice; and went to bed dead tired, and slept badly, dreaming of dead men. The morning sun found her pale and depressed. She had decided to destroy Berkley's letters. She burned all, except one; then went to her class work.
Dr. Benton's class was very busy that morning, experimenting on the doctor's young assistant with bandages, ligatures, lint, and splints. Letty, wearing only her underclothes, lay on the operating table, her cheek resting on her bared arm, watching Ailsa setting a supposed compound fracture of the leg, and, at intervals, quietly suggesting the proper methods.
Autumn sunshine poured through the windows gilding the soft gray garb of Sainte Ursula's nursing sisterhood which all now wore on duty.
The girl on the table lay very still, now and then directing or gently criticising the well-intended operations on limb and body. And after the allotted half hour had struck, she sat up, smiling at Ailsa, and, slipping to the floor, dressed rapidly, talking all the while in her pretty, gentle way about bandages and bones and fractures and dislocations.
A few minutes after she had completed dressing and was standing before the glass, smoothing the dark, silky masses of her hair, Dr. Benton arrived, absent-eyed, preoccupied at first, then in a fidgety humour which indicated something was about to happen. It happened.
"Could any lady get ready in time to take the noon train for Washington?" he asked abruptly.
There was a startled silence; the call had come at last.
Mrs. Rutherford said quietly: "I will go. But I must see my husband and children first. I could be ready by to-morrow, if that will do."
Another—a young girl—said: "I could not leave my mother at an hour's notice. She is ill. Would tomorrow do, Dr. Benton?"
"I—think I can go to-day," said Ailsa in a low voice.
"Our quota is to be two nurses," said the doctor. But no other lady could possibly leave before the morrow; and it was, after all, scarcely fair to expect it of women with families to be provided for and home responsibilities to be arranged.
"I could go to-day—if I may be permitted," said the doctor's young assistant, timidly.
He swung around and scowled at her, lips compressed, eyes gleaming through his spectacles:
"You are not asked to go, Miss Lynden."
"Do you want to go?"
"If Mrs. Paige is going—alone——"
Ailsa looked at her, gratefully surprised, but smiled her thanks.
"If Miss Lynden may come, Dr. Benton, I would be very glad. May she?"
"Miss Lynden is not a member of Sainte Ursula's congregation," he said drily. "She's my—rather valuable—assistant."
"She has been to church with me several times," said Ailsa. "I have spoken to her about becoming a communicant of Sainte Ursula's, and she desired to begin her instruction in October——"
"But, confound it!—I want her with me!" interrupted the doctor impatiently. "My house and office require the services of Miss Lynden!" He turned and paced the room rapidly, hands clasped behind his bent back; then, halting:
"Do you want to go?" he repeated.
The girl coloured. "You are very kind to wish me to remain. . . . But I feel as though Mrs. Paige should not go alone."
"Oh, all right," said the doctor gruffly. "And you'd better start at once; that train leaves at mid-day." And, turning to his class: "Now, ladies, if you will kindly put away those rags and give me your strict and undivided attention!"—his voice rumbled off into a growl.
Ailsa was already putting on her hat. Presently Letty Lynden came out of the inner office, carrying a light scarf over her arm. She and Ailsa bade a hasty and excited good-bye to the ladies of the class; thanked Dr. Benton; listened solemnly to instructions; promised to obey; and gave him tremulous hands in leave taking.
"If those ungrateful dogs of soldiers don't appreciate you two young ladies, come home on the next train, where you'll be appreciated," grumbled the doctor. "Anyway, God bless you both. And don't drink dirty water! And keep your patients clean! Keep 'em clean! clean! clean! I've a notion that cleanness is nine-tenths of surgery; and it's all there is to nursing—but few agree with me. Good-bye! Tell Agnew I say that you know your business!"
Ailsa turned to Letty Lynden.
"It is so sweet of you to want to come. Will you send your trunk to my house? I will have luncheon ready, and another gray uniform for you. You'll be a communicant soon, so there is no possible harm in wearing it."
"I would like to wear Sainte Ursula's garb," said the girl wistfully. "Do you really think I may, Mrs. Paige?"
"You shall indeed! Will you be ready by eleven?"
"I have very little to take with me—only a small trunk. I will be at your house at eleven."
Ailsa, nervous and excited, nodded; the suddenness of departure was beginning to stimulate her. She walked rapidly home, summoned the servants, interviewed the house-keeper, sat down and drew necessary checks to cover a month's absence; sent hurried notes to Celia, to Camilla, to Colonel Arran, to Captain Hallam; dispatched a servant to find a hack, another to pack for her, another to serve her something to eat.
The household below stairs was inclined to tears; old Jonas sniffled and shuffled about, shrunken hands hanging helpless, mild eyes following his young mistress as she moved decisively from room to room, gathering up or indicating to servants what she required for her journey.
Shawls, handbags, umbrellas, cloaks, and trunk were packed and strapped and carried off below. Letty arrived with her trunk, was taken to Ailsa's room where luncheon for two was ready on a big silver tray.
Later Jonas arrived, still sniffling, to announce the hack; and the two gray-garbed women hurried away amid the hysterical snivel of servants and the friendly mewing of Missy, who trotted after them to the front door, tail erect, followed by her latest progeny on diminutive and wavering legs.
All the way to the ferry Ailsa sat silent in her corner of the hack, worried, reflecting, trying to recollect what it was that she had left undone.
Something important she certainly had forgotten; she knew it, searching her mind, while Letty furtively watched her in silence, gloved hands clasped in her lap.
And suddenly Ailsa knew, and a flood of colour dyed her face; for the vague sense of leaving something undone was the instinct to let Berkley know she was going—the blind, unreasoning need for some communication with him.
Had it been possible that all this time she had not utterly uprooted this man from her insulted heart! Had hope, all this time, unconsciously lived latent in her; was it possible that somehow, somewhere, there remained a chance for him yet—a chance for her—a cure—the only cure for all he had done to her—himself!
She reddened painfully again as memory, insolent, imperious, flashed in her brain, illuminating the unquiet past, sparing her nothing—no, not one breathless heart beat, not one atom of the shame and the sweetness of it, not one dishonourable thrill she had endured for love of him, not one soundless cry at night where she lay tortured, dumb, hands clenched but arms wide flung as her heart beat out his name, calling, calling to the man who had ended himself for ever.
And Letty, silent in her comer, watched her without a word.
At the station, scarcely knowing what she did, Ailsa stopped at the telegraph office and wrote a despatch to him, addressing it to his old lodgings:
"I don't know whether this will ever reach you, but I can't go without trying to let you know that I am leaving for Washington as volunteer nurse. They have my address at the house.
Then the two gray-garbed women hurried to the train, but found no seats together until a lank, sad-eyed lieutenant of artillery gave up his place and doubled in with a sweating, red-necked contractor from St. Louis, who sat in his shirt sleeves, fanning himself with his straw hat.
The day was hot; the car dusty, ill-smelling, uncomfortable.
At Philadelphia their train was stalled for hours. Two long trains, loaded with ammunition and a section of field-artillery, had right of way; and then another train filled with jeering, blue-clad infantry blocked them.
The soldiers, bare headed and in their undershirts, lolled and yelled and hung from the car windows, chewing tobacco, smoking, or gazing, jaws a-gape, at the crowds in the station.
Another train rolled by, trailing a suffocating stench of cattle and hogs from its slatted stock-cars; and Ailsa was almost stifled before her train at last moved heavily southward, saluted by good-natured witticisms from the soldiers at the windows of the stalled troop train.
Evening came, finding them somewhere in Delaware; the yellow stars appeared, the air freshened a little. Letty had fallen asleep; her dark lashes rested quietly on her cheeks, but the car jolted her head cruelly, and Ailsa gently drew it to her own shoulder and put one arm around her.
A major of heavy artillery turned toward her from his seat and said:
"Are you a volunteer nurse, ma'am?"
"Yes," motioned Ailsa with her lips, glancing cautiously at Letty.
"Can I do anything for you at Wilmington?"
She thanked him, smiling. He was disposed to be very friendly.
"You ladies arc the right stuff," he said. "I've seen you aboard those abominable transports, behaving like angels to the poor sea-sick devils. I saw you after Big Bethel, scraping the blood and filth off of the wounded zouaves; I saw you in Washington after Bull Run, doing acts of mercy that, by God, madam! would have turned my stomach. . . . Won't you let me do something for you. You don't need any whisky for your sick boys, do you?"
Ailsa smiled and shook her head, saying they had not yet been assigned to duty.
"I haven't anything else to offer you except tobacco," said the Major ruefully, and subsided.
At Wilmington, however, he got out, and presently reappeared with hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches, a big bottle of cold, sweet milk, and a basket of fruit. Letty awoke; realised that Ailsa had been holding her in her arms; looked at her in confusion, then impulsively bent and laid her lips against Ailsa's hands.
"Why—child—I didn't mind," faltered Ailsa, flushing in response to Letty's swift emotion. "See what this very kind officer has brought us for dinner, dear! Isn't it delicious?"
They were as hungry as two school children and ate everything; and by and by the Major of heavy artillery came back and reversed the seat he had been occupying, and arranged it so he could sit facing them. He was fat, red-faced, with a pair of terrific moustaches, and a closely clipped head showing two scars.
"I've daughters older than you, ma'am," he said, in part explanation of his friendliness. "One's got a new baby. He's a devil!"
"W-what?" asked Ailsa.
"The right kind of devil, ma'am. I've been to see him! He wanted my sword; he tried to chew off my shoulder straps; he almost impaled himself on my spurs. By heaven, ma'am, that's a boy for you!"
Ailsa smiled. She knew about babies; implanted in her had always been a perfect madness to possess one.
She and the red-faced Major talked babies. Letty, knowing nothing about babies and not deeply interested, lay back in her seat, watching Ailsa in the dim light of the ceiling lamps. She seemed never to have enough of Ailsa. It had been so from the first.
In Baltimore dawn was breaking when Ailsa awoke at the summons of the major; and he remained devoted to the two nurses of Sainte Ursula, attending to their baggage and transfer across the city, finding seats in the waiting-room already invaded by the officers of several regiments in transit, and finally saw them safely aboard the cars again.
"Good-bye, little ladies," he said cheerily. "If I'm hit, God send one of you to wash my face for me. My card, ladies—if I may be permitted the honour. I'm to be at Fortress Monroe as soon as my command leaves Baltimore."
After he had gone away, Ailsa looked at his card:
A. J. DENISLOW MAJOR, ART., U. S. A.
"I thought he was a regular," she said, smiling at Letty. "He's a perfect old dear. Shall we open the parcel and see what he has left us for breakfast?"
There was more milk, more peaches and pears, more bread and butter, and a cold roast chicken; and they made very merry over it, doing the best they could without knife and fork.
They were nearing Washington now. Every little while they passed bodies of troops marching or encamped along the roads; and once they saw a line of army waggons, drab coloured, with yellow canvas tops, moving slowly in clouds of dust.
In the limpid morning light buzzards were already soaring over the green fields; the fresh odour of wild flowers came blowing in at the open car window; butterflies fluttered, wind-driven, helpless.
And now they were passing mounds of freshly turned red earth—long stretches of hillocks banked high and squared at the ends. Hundreds of negroes were at work sodding them; here and there a flag fluttered and a bayonet gleamed.
"I believe all these little hills and ditches have something to do with forts," said Ailsa. "Certainly that great mound must be part of a fort. Do you see the cannon?"
Letty nodded, wide-eyed. And now they were passing soldiers on every road, at every bridge, along every creek bank.
Squads of them, muskets shining, marched briskly along beside the railroad track; sentinels stood at every culvert, every flag house, every water tank and local station past which they rolled without stopping. Acres of white tents flashed into view; houses and negro cabins became thicker; brick houses, too, appeared at intervals, then half-finished blocks fronting the dusty roads, then rows and lines of dwellings, and street after street swarming with negroes and whites. And before they realised it they had arrived.
They descended from the car amid a pandemonium of porters, hackmen, soldiers, newsboys, distracted fellow-passengers, locomotives noisily blowing off steam, baggagemen trundling and slamming trunks about; and stood irresolute and confused.
"Could you direct us to the offices of the Sanitary Commission?" asked Ailsa of a passing soldier wearing the insignia of the hospital service on his sleeve.
"You bet I can, ladies! Are you nurses?"
"Yes," said Ailsa, smiling.
"Bully for you," said the boy; "step right this way, Sanitary. One moment——"
He planted himself before a bawling negro hack driver and began to apply injurious observations to him, followed by terrible threats if he didn't take these "Sanitary Ladies" to the headquarters of the Commission.
"I'm going up that way, too," he ended, "and I'm going to sit on the box with you, and I'll punch your nose off if you charge my Sanitary Ladies more than fifty cents!"
And escorted in this amazing manner, cinder-smeared, hot, rumpled, and very tired, Ailsa Paige and Letty Lynden entered the unspeakably dirty streets of the Capital of their country and turned into the magnificent squalor of Pennsylvania Avenue which lay, flanked by ignoble architecture, straight and wide and hazy under its drifting golden dust from the great unfinished dome of the Capitol to the Corinthian colonnade of the Treasury. Their negro drove slowly; their self-constituted escort, legs crossed, cap over one impish eye, lolled on the box, enjoying the drive.
Past them sped a company of cavalry in blue and yellow, bouncing considerably in their saddles, red faces very dusty under their tightly strapped caps, sabres and canteens jangling like an unexpected avalanche of tin-ware in a demoralised pantry.
"Go it, young 'uns!" cried their soldier escort from the box, waving his hand patronisingly. He also saluted an officer in spectacles as "Bully boy with a glass eye," and later informed another officer in a broad yellow sash that he was "the cheese." All of which painfully mortified the two young nurses of Sainte Ursula, especially when passing the fashionably-dressed throng gathered in front of the Willard and promenading Lafayette Square.
"Oh, dear," said Ailsa, "I suppose he's only a boy, but I didn't know soldiers were permitted to be so impudent. What on earth do all these people think of us?"
Letty, who had been mischievously amused and inclined to enjoy it, looked very grave as the boy, after a particularly outrageous jibe at a highly respectable old gentleman, turned and deliberately winked at his "Sanitary Ladies."
"That's old hoss Cameron," he said. "I made such a mug at the old terrapin that he'll never be able to recognise my face."
"The—the Secretary of War!" gasped Ailsa.
"You very wicked little boy, don't you dare to make another face at anybody!—or I'll—I'll report your conduct to—to the Sanitary Commission!"
"Oh, come!" he said blankly, "don't do that, lady! They'll raise hell with me, if you do. I want to get hunky with the Sanitary boss."
"Then behave yourself!" said Ailsa, furious; "and don't you dare to swear again. Do you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am—I will—I won't, I mean. And if I see that old mudsill, Simon Cameron, I'll take off my cap to him, b'gosh!"
It was an anxious and subdued soldier who showed them the door of the Commission's office, and stood at attention, saluting carefully as the ladies passed him.
"You won't peach, will you?" he whispered loudly, as Ailsa stopped to pay the driver.
"No, I won't—this time," she said, smiling, "if you promise to be a very good soldier hereafter."
He promised fervidly. He happened to be on duty at headquarters, and the fear of the Commission had been driven into him deep. So she and Letty entered the door with a stream of people who evidently had business with the officials of the American Sanitary Commission; and a very amiable young man received them in their turn, took their papers, examined their credentials, nodded smilingly, and directed them to a small boarding-house on F Street, where, he explained, they had better remain until further orders.
There had been some desultory fighting in Virginia, he said, also there were a great many sick soldiers in the army.
Perhaps, added the young man, they would be sent to one of the city hospitals, but the chances were that they would be ordered directly to a field hospital. In that case their transportation would be by army waggon or ambulance, or the Commission might send one of its own mule-drawn conveyances. At any rate, they had better rest and not worry, because as long as the Commission had sent for them, the Commission certainly needed them, and would see that they arrived safely at their destination.
Which turned out to be a perfectly true prophecy; for after a refreshing bath in their boarding-house quarters, and a grateful change of linen, and an early supper, a big, bony cavalryman came clanking to their door, saying that a supply train was leaving for the South, and that an ambulance of the Sanitary Commission was waiting for them in front of the house.
The night was fearfully hot; scarcely a breath of dir stirred as their ambulance creaked put toward the river.
The Long Bridge, flanked by its gate houses, loomed up in the dusk; and:
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Friends with the countersign."
"Dismount one and advance with the countersign!"
And the Sergeant of cavalry dismounted and moved forward; there was a low murmur; then: "Pass on, Sanitary!"
A few large and very yellow stars looked down from the blackness above; under the wheels the rotten planking and worn girders of the Long Bridge groaned and complained and sagged.
Ailsa, looking out from under the skeleton hood, behind her, saw other waggons following, loaded heavily with hospital supplies and baggage, escorted by the cavalrymen, who rode as though exhausted, yellow trimmed shell jackets unbuttoned exposing sweat-soaked undershirts, caps pushed back on their perspiring heads.
Letty, lying on a mattress, had fallen asleep. Ailsa, scarcely able to breathe in the heavy heat, leaned panting against the framework, watching the darkness.
It seemed to be a little cooler on the Virginia side after they had passed the General Hospital, and had gone forward through the deserted city of Alexandria. About a mile beyond a slight freshness, scarcely a breeze, stirred Ailsa's hair. The driver said to her, pointing at a shadowy bulk with his whip-stock:
"That's the Marshall House, where Colonel Ellsworth was killed. God help their 'Tigers' if the Fire Zouaves ever git at 'em."
She looked at the unlighted building in silence. Farther on the white tents of a Pennsylvania regiment loomed gray under the stars; beyond them the sentinels were zouaves of an Indiana regiment, wearing scarlet fezzes.
Along the road, which for a while paralleled the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, cavalry vedettes sat their horses, carbine on thigh. No trains passed the embankment; once she saw, on a weed-grown siding, half a dozen locomotives apparently intact; but no fire burned in their furnaces, no smoke curled from their huge drumhead stacks; and on the bell frame of one an owl was sitting.
And now, between a double line of ditches, where a battalion of engineers lay asleep in their blankets, the road entered the pine woods.
Ailsa slept fitfully, but the far challenge and the halting of the waggon usually awoke her in darkness feebly lit by the rays of a candle-set lantern, swung up inquiringly by the corporal of some guard. And, "Pass forward, Sanitary!" was the invariable formula; and the ambulance rolled on again between a double abattis of fallen trees, flanked on either horizon by tall, quiet pines.
Once she heard singing; a small company of cavalry-men straggled by, and, seeing their long lances and their Belgian forage caps, she leaned out and asked what regiment it might be. Somebody answered: "Escort Squad of Rankin's Lancers, 1st United States. Our regiment is in Detroit, Miss, and thank God we're going back there."
And they rode on toward Washington, singing their monotonous "Do They Miss Me at Home" song, till she lost them against the darkness of the distant woods, and dropped back to her bed of shawls and blankets once more.
After midnight she slept, and it was only the noise the driver made pulling the canvas cover of the frame above her that awakened her, and she sat up, half frozen, in a fine fog that became a drizzle soon after the cover was up.
"The sunny South," observed the driver in disgust. "Yesterday the thermometer stood at 105 in Washington, and now look at this here weather, lady."
Day broke, bitter cold; it was raining heavily; but soon after sunrise the rain slackened, the fog grew thinner, and the air warmer. Slowly the sun appeared, at first only a dazzling blot through the smother, then brassy, glittering, flooding the chilled earth with radiance.
Through steaming fields, over thickets, above woods, the vapours were rising, disclosing a shining and wet world, sweet and fresh in its early autumn beauty.
The road to Fairfax Court House was deep in red mud, set with runnels and pools of gold reflecting corners of blue sky. Through it slopped mules and horses and wheels, sending splashes of spray and red mud over the roadside bushes. A few birds sang; overhead sailed and circled hundreds of buzzards, the sun gilding their upcurled wing tips as they sheered the tree-tops.
And now, everywhere over the landscape soldiers were visible, squads clothed only in trousers and shirts, marching among the oaks and magnolias with pick and shovel; squads carrying saws and axes and chains. A little farther on a wet, laurel-bordered road into the woods was being corduroyed; here they were bridging the lazy and discoloured waters of a creek, there erecting log huts. Hammer strokes rang from half-cleared hillsides, where some regiment, newly encamped, was busily flooring its tents; the blows of axes sounded from the oak woods; and Ailsa could see great trees bending, slowly slanting, then falling with a rippling crash of smashed branches.
The noises in the forest awoke Letty. Whimpering sleepily, but warm under the shawls which Ailsa had piled around her, she sat up rubbing her dark eyes; then, with a little quick-drawn breath of content, took Ailsa's hand.
The driver said: "It's them gallus lumbermen from some o' the Maine regiments clearing the ground. They're some with the axe. Yonder's the new fort the Forty Thieves is building."
"The—what?" asked Ailsa, perplexed.
"Fortieth New York Infantry, ma'am. The army calls 'em the Forty Thieves, they're that bright at foraging, flag or no flag! Chickens, pigs, sheep—God knows they're a light-fingered lot; but their colonel is one of the best officers in the land. Why shouldn't they be a good fat regiment, with their haversacks full o' the best, when half the army feeds on tack and sow-belly, and the other half can't git that!"