The driver, evidently nearing his destination, became confidentially loquacious.
"Yonder's Fort Elsworth, ladies! It's hid by the forest, but it's there, you bet! If you ladies could climb up one o' them big pines, you'd see the line of forts and trenches in a half-moon from the Chain Bridge at Georgetown to Alexandria, and you'd see the seminary in its pretty park, and, belike, Gineral McClellan in the chapel cupola, a-spying through his spy-glass what deviltry them rebel batteries is hatching on the hill over yonder."
"Are the rebels there?"
"Yes'm. Little Mac, he lets 'em stay there till he's good 'n' ready to gobble 'em."
Ailsa and Letty stared at the bluish hill, the top of which just showed above the forest.
A young soldier of engineers, carrying a bundle of axes, came along the road, singing in a delightful tenor voice the hymn, "Arise, My Soul, Arise!" He glanced admiringly at Ailsa, then at Letty, as the ambulance drove by, but his song did not falter; and far away they heard him singing gloriously through the autumn woods.
Presently a brigade medical officer rode up, signalling the driver to stop, with his gloved hand.
"Where do you come from, ladies—the General Hospital at Alexandria?"
"That's good," he said emphatically; "the brigade hospitals are short handed. We need experienced nurses badly." And he pointed across the fields toward a hillside where a group of farm-houses and barns stood. A red flag napped darkly against the sky from the cupola of a barn.
"Is that the hospital?" asked Ailsa, noticing some ambulances parked near by.
"Yes, madam. You will report to Dr. West." He looked at them for a second, shook his head thoughtfully, then saluted and wheeled his horse.
"Pass on, Sanitary!" he added to the driver.
There was a deeply rutted farm road across the fields, guarded by gates which now hung wide open. Through these the supply waggons and the Commission ambulance rolled, followed slowly by the rain-soaked troopers of the escort.
In front of one of the outhouses a tall, bald-headed, jolly-faced civilian stood in his checked shirt sleeves, washing bloody hands in a tin basin. To Ailsa's question he answered:
"I'm Dr. Hammond of the Sanitary Commission. Dr. West is in the wards. Very glad you came, Mrs. Paige; very glad, indeed, Miss Lynden. Here's an orderly who'll show you your quarters—can't give you more than one room and one bed. You'll get breakfast in that house over there, as soon as it's ready. After that come back here to me. There's plenty to do," he added grimly; "we're just sending fifty patients to Alexandria, and twenty-five to Washington. Oh, yes, there's plenty to do—plenty to do in this God-forsaken land. And, it isn't battles that are keeping us busy."
No, it was not battles that kept the doctors, nurses, and details for the ambulance corps busy at the front that first autumn and winter in Virginia. Few patients required the surgeon, few wounded were received, victims of skirmish or sharpshooting or of their own comrades' carelessness. But unwounded patients were arriving faster and faster from the corduroy road squads, from the outposts in the marshy forests, from the pickets' hovels on the red-mud banks of the river, from chilly rifle pits and windy hill camps, from the trenches along Richmond Turnpike, from the stockades at Fairfax. And there seemed no end of them. Hundreds of regimental hospital tents, big affairs, sixty feet long by forty wide, were always full. The hospitals at Alexandria, Kalorama, the Columbia, and the Stone Mansion, took the overflow, or directed it to Washington, Philadelphia, and the North.
In one regiment alone, the Saratoga Regiment, the majority of the men were unfit for duty. In one company only twelve men could be mustered for evening parade. Typhoid, pneumonia, diphtheria, spotted fever were doing their work in the raw, unacclimated regiments. Regimental medical officers were exhausted.
Two steady streams of human beings, flowing in opposite directions, had set in with the autumn; the sick, going North, the new regiments arriving from the North to this vast rendezvous, where a great organizer of men was welding together militia and volunteers, hammering out of the raw mass something, that was slowly beginning to resemble an army.
Through the wards of their hospital Ailsa and Letty saw the unbroken column of the sick pass northward or deathward; from their shuttered window they beheld endless columns arriving—cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineers, all seeking their allotted fields or hillsides, which presently blossomed white with tents and grew blue and hazy with the smoke of camp fires.
All day long, rain or sun, the landscape swarmed with men and horses; all day long bugle answered bugle from hill to hill; drums rattled at dawn and evening; the music from regimental and brigade bands was almost constant, saluting the nag at sunset, or, with muffled drums, sounding for the dead, or crashing out smartly at guard-mount, or, on dress parade, playing the favorite, "Evening Bells."
Leaning on her window ledge when off duty, deadly tired, Ailsa would listen dully to the near or distant strains, wondering at the strangeness of her life; wondering what it all was coming to.
But if life was strange, it was also becoming very real and very full as autumn quickened into winter, and the fever waxed fiercer in every regiment.
Life gave her now scant time for brooding—scarce time for thought at all. There were no other women at the Farm Hospital except the laundresses. Every regiment in the newly formed division encamped in the vicinity furnished one man from each company for hospital work; and from this contingent came their only relief.
But work was what Ailsa needed, and what Letty needed, too. It left them no chance to think of themselves, no leisure for self-pity, no inclination for it in the dreadful daily presence of pestilence and death.
So many, many died; young men, mostly. So many were sent away, hopelessly broken, and very, very young. And there was so much to do—so much!—instruments and sponges and lint to hold for surgeons; bandages, iced compresses, medicines to hand to physicians; and there were ghastly faces to be washed, and filthy bodies to be cleansed, and limp hands to be held, and pillows to be turned, and heads to be lifted. And there were letters to be written for sick boys and dying boys and dead boys; there was tea and lemonade and whisky and wine to be measured out and given; there was broth to be ordered and tasted and watched, delicacies to be prepared; clothing to be boiled; inventories to be made of dwindling medical supplies and of fresh stores to be ordered or unpacked from the pyramids of muddy boxes and barrels in the courts.
There was also the daily need of food and a breath of fresh air; and there were, sometimes, letters to read, None came to Ailsa from Berkley. No letters came to Letty at all, except from Dr. Benton, who wrote, without any preliminary explanation of why he wrote at all, once every fortnight with absolute regularity.
What he had to say in his letters Ailsa never knew, for Letty, who had been touched and surprised by the first one and had read it aloud to Ailsa, read no more of the letters which came to her from Dr. Benton. And Ailsa asked her nothing.
Part of Colonel Arran's regiment of lancers was now in Washington—or near it, encamped to the east of Meridian Hill, in a field beyond Seventh Street—at least these were the careful directions for posting letters given her by Captain Hallam, who wrote her cheerfully and incessantly; and in every letter he declared himself with a patient and cordial persistence that perhaps merited something more enthusiastic than Ailsa's shy and brief replies.
Colonel Arran had been to see her twice at her hospital that winter; he seemed grayer, bigger than ever in his tight blue and yellow cavalry uniform; and on both occasions he had spoken of Berkley, and had absently questioned her; and after both visits she had lain awake, her eyes wide in the darkness, the old pain stirring dully in her breast. But in the duties of the morning she forgot sorrow, forgot hope, and found strength and peace in a duty that led her ever amid the shadows of pain and death.
Once Hallam obtained leave, and made the journey to the Farm Hospital; but it had been a hard day for her, and she could scarcely keep awake to talk to him. He was very handsome, very bronzed, very eager and determined as a wooer; and she did not understand just how it happened, but suddenly the world's misery and her own loneliness overwhelmed her, and she broke down for the first time. And when Captain Hallam went lightly away about his business, and she lay on her mattress beside Letty, she could feel, furtively, a new jewel on the third finger of her left hand, and fell asleep, wondering what she had done, and why—too tired to really care.
The sick continued to drift North; new regiments continued to arrive; the steady, tireless welding of the army was going on all around her, night and day; and the clamour of it filled the sky.
Celia Craig wrote her and sent her boxes for herself; but the contents of the parcels went to her sick men. Camilla wrote her and requested information concerning Stephen, who was, it appeared, very lax in correspondence; but Ailsa had not heard from Colonel Craig since the 3rd Zouaves left Fortress Monroe, and she had no information for either Celia or Camilla.
Christmas boxes for the hospital began to arrive early; presents came to Ailsa from Colonel Arran, from Hallam, from Celia and Camilla,
Letty had only one gift, a beautiful watch and chain from Dr. Benton; and Ailsa, going up to undress for a short sleep before supper, found the girl sitting with the little timepiece in her hand, crying silently all to herself.
"Why, dear!" she exclaimed, "what in the world is the trouble?" and put both arms around her. But Letty only laid her head against Ailsa's breast, and sobbed anew, uncomforted.
"Won't you tell me what is wrong?" urged Ailsa, mystified.
"Yes . . . I am . . . Don't pay attention to what I say, Mrs. Paige. You—you like me, don't you?"
"I love you, dear,"
"Please—do. I am—very unhappy."
"You are only tired out. Listen; don't the wards look pretty with all the laurel and evergreens and ribbons! Our poor boys will have something to remind them of Christmas. . . . I—do you know that young Langley is dead?"
"Yes—I helped him—die. Yesterday Dr. West seemed to think he would get well. But Hammond couldn't stop the gangrene, and he cut him almost to pieces. Oh—I'm very, very miserable—my boys die so fast—so fast——"
"You mustn't be miserable on Christmas Eve! I won't let you be silly!"
"I'm gay enough in the wards," said Letty listlessly; "I've got to be. Can't I cry a little in my own room?"
"No, we haven't time to cry," said Ailsa decisively. "Lie down beside me and go to sleep. Flannery has promised to wake us in time for supper."
"I can't get Langley's terrible face out of my mind," whimpered Letty, cuddling close to Ailsa, as they lay in bed in the wintry darkness. "It was all drawn up on one side."
"But coma had set in," said Ailsa gently. "You know, he wasn't suffering when he died. . . . You'll write to his mother, won't you, dear? Or shall I?"
"I will. . . . She wanted to come, you remember, but she's bedridden. . . . Her only son. . . . Yes, I'll write . . . I think Peterson is going to die, next——"
"But Levy is getting well," interrupted Ailsa.
"Stop it, Letty dear! I won't let you become morbid. Think of your beautiful watch! Think of dear Dr. Benton." "I—I am," gasped Letty, and fell to crying again until she sobbed herself to sleep in Ailsa's tired arms.
Supper was spread in Dr. West's private office; Hallam had obtained leave, and Ailsa expected him; Colonel Arran was in Washington and could not come, but the company was to be a small one at best—Ailsa, Letty Lynden, Dr. West, Dr. Hammond, and Hallam were all who had been expected for Christmas Eve supper.
They waited for Hallam until Dr. West decided to wait no longer, saying that he was either stuck in the mud somewhere or had been detailed for duty unexpectedly.
So Ailsa lighted the Christmas candles, and the two young women in their fresh gray garbs, and the two civilian doctors in clean clothes, sat down before a rather thin roasted turkey. But the bird proved tender and juicy, and it was beautifully cooked; and a glass of wine sent the colour into Letty's pale cheeks, and straightened Ailsa's drooping neck.
Candles, laurel branches, evergreens, bits of red ribbon, and flags made the office very gay and attractive. Dr. West rose and delivered an unexpected speech, complimenting the ladies and praising their skill and devotion; then dinner began, and Dr. Hammond told about an intensely interesting operation, which made the negro waiter turn almost white.
"Christmas comes but once a year!" cried jolly Dr. Hammond, warming up. "Let's be merry!" And he told about another operation even more wonderful than the first; and Letty, catching a glimpse of the negro's wildly rolling eyes, threw back her head and laughed. It was the first genuine laughter of the evening, and rested everybody.
A few moments later there came a jingle of metal from outside, and Hallam walked in, his wonderfully handsome face aglow, and plenty of red mud frozen on his boots.
"I've a green orderly outside. Where can I stow him?" he asked, shaking hands and exchanging preliminary Christmas greetings all around.
"I'll attend to him," said Ailsa, flushed and a little shy as she felt the significant pressure of Hallam's hand and saw him glance at her ring.
"No," he insisted, "I'll see to him myself, if you'll tell me where he can put the horses and find some supper."
"Poor fellow," said Ailsa. "Tell him to stable the horses in the new barn, and go to the kitchen. Wait a moment, Captain Hallam, I'd rather do it myself!" And she turned lightly and ran out to the dark porch.
The trooper holding Hallam's horse: sat his own saddle, wrapped to the eyes in his heavy overcoat, long lance with its drooping pennon slanting stiffly athwart the wintry wilderness of stars.
"Soldier!" she called gently from the porch. "Stable, blanket, and feed; then come back to the kitchen, and there will be a good hot dinner waiting."
The cavalryman slowly turned his head at the sound of her voice. And, as he made no movement to obey:
"There is the stable over there," she said, pointing across the frozen field. "Follow that gate path. There's a lantern in the barn."
An orderly, passing, added:
"Come on, lancer. I'm going to the barn myself;" and very slowly the trooper turned both tired horses and walked them away into the darkness.
When she returned to the table there was considerable laughter over a story chat Hallam had been telling. He jumped up, seated Ailsa, hovered over her for a second with just a suspicion of proprietary air which made her blush uncomfortably. Talking had become general, but everybody noted it, and Letty's eyes grew wide and velvety, and the blood was making her cheeks and lips very pink.
Dr. West said: "The new regiment on Pine Knob was recruited from the Bowery. I happened to be with Kemp, their surgeon, when sick call sounded, and I never saw such a line of impudent, ruffianly malingerers as filed before Kemp. One, I am convinced, had deliberately shot off his trigger finger; but it couldn't be proven, and he'll get his discharge. Another, a big, hulking brute, all jaw and no forehead, came up and looked insolently at Kemp.
"Kemp said: 'Well, what's the matter with you?' "'Aw,' said the soldier, with a leer, 'I've got de lapsy-palls, and I wanter go to de horspittle, I do.'
"I never saw such a mad man as Kemp was.
"'So you've got the lapsy-palls, have you?'
"'Bet yer boots, I have.'
"'And you want to go to the hospital?'
"Aw—w'ats der matter wit youse, Doc.?'
"And Kemp gave him a bang on the eye with his fist, and another on the nose, and then began to hit him so quickly that the fellow reeled, about, yelling for mercy.
"'Sure cure for the lapsy-palls,' said Kemp; and, turning his glare on the rest of the shivering line: 'Anybody else got 'em?' he asked briskly.
"At that a dozen big brutes sneaked out of the line and hurriedly decamped; and I don't think that disease is going to be popular in that regiment."
A shout of laughter greeted the story. All present had seen too many instances of malingering not to appreciate Surgeon Kemp's cure for a disease which never existed.
A plum pudding was brought on and set afire. Ailsa poured the burning sauce over and over it. Dr. Hammond got up and threw some more pine logs on the fire. Huge shadows rose up and danced in the ruddy light, as the candles burned lower. Then Dr. West began another story, but was checked by the appearance of a hospital steward:
"Davis, Ward A, No. 3, is very bad, sir."
The doctor bent above the table, took a hasty spoonful of pudding, nodded to the company, and went out.
"Speaking of malingerers," began Hammond, "I saw the Colonel of the forty Thieves put down in a most amusing manner the day before Bull Run. Shall I tell it? It involves some swearing."
Ailsa laughed. "Proceed, Dr. Hammond. Do you think Miss Lynden and I have been deaf since we arrived at the front?"
"Does anybody in this hospital use bad language?" demanded the doctor sharply.
"Not to us," said Ailsa, smiling. "But there's an army just outside the windows. Go on with your story, please."
"Well, then," said the jolly surgeon, "I was talking with Colonel Riley, when up walks the most honest-looking soldier I think I ever saw; and he gazed straight into the Colonel's eyes as he saluted. He wanted a furlough, it appeared, to go to New York and see his dying wife.
"Riley said: 'Is she very sick?'
"'You have a letter: saying she is very sick?'
"'Well, I also have a letter from your wife. I wanted to make certain about all the applications for furlough you have been making, so I wrote her.'
"'And she says that she is perfectly well, and does not want you to come home!'
"The soldier smiled.
"'Did you write a letter to my wife, Colonel?'
"'Did my wife write to you?'
"'She did. And what do you mean by coming here to me with a lie about your sick wife! Have you anything to say to that?'
"'Then say it!'
"'Well, Colonel, all I have to say is that there are two of the damnedest, biggest liars that ever lived, right here in this regiment!'
"The soldier grinned.
"'I'm not married at all,' he said, 'and I'm the biggest liar—and you can ask the boys who the damnedest liar is.'"
When the merriment and laughter had subsided, Hallam told another story rather successfully; then Hammond told another. Then Dr. West returned; the tiny Christmas tree, cut in the forest, and loaded with beribboned cakes and sticks of chocolate and a few presents tied in tissue-paper, was merrily despoiled.
Ailsa and Letty had worked slippers for the two doctors, greatly appreciated by them, apparently; Hallam had some embroidered handkerchiefs from Ailsa, and she received a chain and locket from him—and refrained from opening the locket, although everybody already had surmised that their engagement was a fact.
Letty sent an orderly for her guitar, and sang very sweetly an old-fashioned song:
"When the moonlight Shines bright Silvery bright on the sea."
Ailsa sang "Aileen Aroon," and "Oft in the Stilly Night," and everybody, later, sang "The Poor Old Soldier."
The fire glowed red in the chimney; gigantic shadows wavered on wall and ceiling; and, through the Christmas candles dimly burning, the branches of the little evergreen spread, laden with cake and candy.
"They're to have a tree in every ward to-morrow," said Ailsa, turning toward Hallam. Her eyes smiled, but her voice was spiritless. A tinge of sadness had somehow settled over the festivity; Hammond was staring at the fire, chin in hand; West sipped his wine reflectively; Letty's idle fingers touched her guitar at intervals, as her dark eyes rested on Ailsa and Hallam.
Hallam had found in camp a copy of a Southern newspaper; and, thinking it might amuse the company to read it, produced it. Ailsa, looking over his shoulder, noticed a poem called "Christmas," printed on the first page.
"Read it aloud," he said, laughing. "Let's hear what sort of Christmas poetry the Johnnies produce."
So, after smilingly scanning the first lines, she began, aloud; but her face had grown very grave, and her low voice thrilled them as she became conscious of the deeper sadness of the verse.
"How grace this Hallowed Day? Shall happy bells from yonder ancient spire Send their glad greetings to each Christmas fire Round which our children play?
"How shall we grace the Day? With feast and song and dance and homely sport, And shout of happy children in the court, And tales of ghost and fay?
"Is there indeed a door Where the old pastimes with their joyful noise And all the merry round of Christmas joys Can enter as of yore?
"Would not some pallid face Look in upon the banquet, calling up Dread shapes of battle in the Christmas cup, And trouble all the place?
"How can we hear the mirth While some loved reveller of a year ago Keeps his mute Christmas now beneath the snow, In cold Virginia earth—"
Her voice suddenly broke; she laughed, slightly hysterical, the tears glittering in her eyes.
"I—c-can't—read it, somehow. . . . Forgive me, everybody, I think I'm—tired——"
"Nerves," said West cheerily. "It'll all come right in a moment, Mrs. Paige. Go up and sit by Davis for a while. He's going fast."
Curious advice, yet good for her. And Ailsa rose and fled; but a moment later, seated at the side of the dying man, all thought of self vanished in the silent tragedy taking place before her.
"Davis?" she whispered.
The man opened his sunken eyes as the sleepy steward rose, gave his bedside chair to Ailsa, and replaced the ominous screen.
"I am here, Private Davis," she said cheerily, winking away the last tear drop.
Then the man sighed deeply, rested his thin cheek against her hand, and lay very, very still.
At midnight he died as he lay. She scarcely realised it at first. And when at length she did, she disengaged her chilled hand, closed his eyes, drew the covering over his face, and, stepping from behind the screen, motioned to the steward on duty.
Descending the stairs, her pale, pensive glance rested on the locket flashing on its chain over the scarlet heart sewn on her breast. Somehow, at thought of Hallam waiting for her below, she halted on the stairway, one finger twisted in the gold chain. And presently the thought of Hallam reminded her of the trooper and the hot dinner she had promised the poor fellow. Had the cook been kind to him?
She hastened downstairs, passed the closed door of the improvised dining-room, traversed the hall to the porch, and, lifting the skirts of her gray garb, sped across the frozen yards to the kitchen.
The cook had gone; fire smouldered in the range; and a single candle guttered in its tin cup on the table.
Beside it, seated on a stool, elbows planted on both knees, face buried in his spread fingers, sat the lancer, apparently asleep.
She cast a rapid glance at the table. The remains of the food satisfied her that he had had his hot dinner. Once more she glanced at him, and then started to withdraw on tiptoe.
And he raised his head; and she gazed into the face of Berkley.
Neither stirred, although in the shock of discovery she felt that she would drop where she stood. Then, instinctively, she reached for the table's edge, rested against it, hand clutching it, fascinated eyes never leaving his face.
He got up leisurely, walked toward her, made an abrupt turn and faced her again from the window recess, leaning back against the closed wooden shutters.
Her heart was beating too rapidly for her to speak; she tried to straighten her shoulders, lift her head. Both sank, and she looked down blindly through the throbbing silence.
Berkley spoke first; but she could not answer him. Then he said, again, lightly:
"A woman's contempt is a bitter thing; but they say we thrive best on bitter medicine. Do you wish me to go, Ailsa? If so, where? I'll obey with alacrity."
She raised her dazed eyes.
"W-was that you, with Captain Hallam's horse—there in the starlight—when I spoke?"
"Yes. Didn't you know me?"
"No. Did you know me?"
"Of course. I nearly fell out of my saddle."
She strove hard to collect herself.
"How did you know it was I?"
"How?" He laughed a short, mirthless laugh. "I knew your voice. Why shouldn't I know it?"
"Did—had anybody told you I was here?"
"No. Who is there to tell me anything?"
"Nobody wrote you?—or telegraphed?"
He laughed again. "Nobody has my address."
"And you never—received—receive—letters?"
"Who would write to me? No, I never receive letters. Why do you ask?"
She was silent.
He waited a moment, then said coolly: "If you actually have any interest in what I'm doing—" and broke off with a shrug. At which she raised her eyes, waiting for him to go on.
"I went into an unattached company—The Westchester Horse—and some fool promised us incorporation with the 1st Cavalry and quick service. But the 1st filled up without us and went off. And a week ago we were sent off from White Plains Camp as K Company to"—he bit his lip and stared at her—"to—your friend Colonel Arran's regiment of lancers. We took the oath. Our captain, Hallam, selected me for his escort to-night. That is the simple solution of my being here. I didn't sneak down here to annoy you. I didn't know you were here."
After a moment she raised her pallid face.
"Have you seen Colonel Arran?"
"No," he said shortly.
"I—it would give me—pleasure—to recommend you to his—attention. May I write——"
"Thank you, no."
There was another painful interval of silence. Then:
"May I speak to Captain Hallam about you?"
"No, thank you!" he said contemptuously, "I am currying no favours."
Hurt, she shrank away, and the blood mounted to her temples.
"You see," he said, "I'm just a plain brute, and there's no use being kind to me." He added in a lower voice, but deliberately: "You once found out that."
She quivered and straightened up.
"Yes," she said, "I found that out. I have paid very dearly for my—my—" But she could not continue.
Watching her, cap hanging in his gauntleted hand, he saw the colour deepen and deepen in neck and cheek, saw her eyes falter, and turn from him.
"Is there any forgiveness for me?" he said. "I didn't ask it before—because I've still some sense of the ludicrous left in me—or did have. It's probably gone now, since I've asked if it is in you to pardon—" He shrugged again, deeming it useless; and she made no sign of comprehension.
For a while he stood, looking down at his cap, turning it over and over, thoughtfully.
"Well, then, Ailsa, you are very kind to offer what you did offer. But—I don't like Colonel Arran," he added with a sneer, "and I haven't any overwhelming admiration for Captain Hallam. And there you are, with your kindness and gentleness and—everything—utterly wasted on a dull, sordid brute who had already insulted you once. . . . Shall I leave your kitchen?"
"No," she said faintly. "I am going."
He offered to open the door for her, but she opened it herself, stood motionless, turned, considered him, head high and eyes steady;
"You have killed in me, this night—this Christmas night—something that can never again l-live in me. Remember that in the years to come."
"I'm sorry," he said. "That's the second murder I've attempted. The other was your soul."
Her eyes flashed.
"Even murderers show some remorse—some regret——"
"I do regret," he said deliberately, "that I didn't kill it. . . . You would have loved me then."
She turned white as death, then, walking slowly up in front of him:
"You lie!" she said in even tones.
Confronted, never stirring, their eyes met; and in the cold, concentrated fury which possessed her she set her small teeth and stared at him, rigid, menacing, terrible in her outraged pride.
After a while he stirred; a quiver twitched his set features.
"Nevertheless—" he said, partly to himself. Then, drawing a long breath, he turned, unhooked his sabre from a nail where it hung, buckled his belt, picked up the lance which stood slanting across a chair, shook out the scarlet, swallow-tailed pennon, and walked slowly toward the door—and met Letty coming in.
"Mrs. Paige," she said, "we couldn't imagine what had become of you—" and glancing inquiringly at Berkley, started, and uttered a curious little cry:
"Yes," he said, smiling through his own astonishment.
"Oh!" she cried with a happy catch in her voice, and held out both hands to him; and he laid aside his lance and took them, laughing down into the velvet eyes. And he saw the gray garb of Sainte Ursula that she wore, saw the scarlet heart on her breast, and laughed again—a kindly, generous, warm-hearted laugh; but there was a little harmless malice glimmering in his eyes.
"Wonderful—wonderful, Miss Lynden"—he had never before called her Miss Lynden—"I am humbly overcome in the presence of Holy Sainte Ursula embodied in you. How on earth did old Benton ever permit you to escape? He wrote me most enthusiastically about you before I—ahem—left town."
"Why didn't you let me know where you were going?" asked Letty with a reproachful simplicity that concentrated Ailsa's amazed attention on her, for she had been looking scornfully at Berkley.
"Why—you are very kind, Miss Lynden, but I, myself, didn't know where I was going."
"I—I wanted to write you," began Letty; and suddenly remembered Ailsa's presence and turned, shyly:
"Mrs. Paige," she said, "this private soldier is Mr. Berkley—a gentleman. May I be permitted to present him to you?"
And there, while the tragic and comic masks grinned side by side, and the sky and earth seemed unsteadily grinning above and under her feet, Ailsa Paige suffered the mockery of the presentation; felt the terrible irony of it piercing her; felt body and senses swaying there in the candle-light; heard Letty's happy voice and Berkley's undisturbed replies; found courage to speak, to take her leave; made her way back through a dreadful thickening darkness to her room, to her bed, and lay there silent, because she could not weep.
In February the birds sang between flurries of snow; but the end of the month was warm and lovely, and robins, bluebirds, and cardinals burst into a torrent of song. The maples' dainty fire illumined every swamp; the green thorn turned greener; and the live-oaks sprouted new leaves amid their olive-tinted winter foliage, ever green.
Magnolia and laurel grew richer and glossier; azaleas were budding; dog-wood twigs swelled; and somewhere, in some sheltered hollow, a spray of jasmine must have been in bloom, because the faint and exquisite scent haunted all the woodlands.
On the 17th the entire army was paraded by regiments to cheer for the fall of Fort Donnelson.
About mid-February the Allotment Commission began its splendid work in camp; and it seemed to Ailsa that the mental relief it brought to her patients was better than any other medicine—that is, better for the Union patients; for now there were, also, in the wards, a number of Confederate wounded, taken at various times during the skirmishing around Fairfax—quiet, silent, dignified Virginians, and a few fiery Louisianians, who at first, not knowing what to expect, scarcely responded to the brusque kindness of the hospital attendants.
The first Confederate prisoner that Ailsa ever saw was brought in on a stretcher, a quiet, elderly man in bloody gray uniform, wearing the stripes of a sergeant.
Prisoners came more often after that. Ailsa, in her letters to Celia Craig, had mentioned the presence of Confederate wounded at the Farm Hospital; and, to her delight and amazement, one day late in February a Commission ambulance drove up, and out stepped Celia Craig; and the next instant they were locked tightly in each other's arms,
"Darling—darling!" sobbed Ailsa, clinging desperately to Celia, "it is heavenly of you to come. I was so lonely, so tired and discouraged. You won't go away soon, will you? I couldn't bear it—I want you so—I need you——"
"Hush, Honey-bud! I reckon I'll stay a while. I've been a week with Curt's regiment at Fortress Monroe. I had my husband to myse'f fo' days, befo' they sent him to Acquia Creek. And I've had my boy a whole week all to myse'f! Then his regiment went away. They wouldn't tell me where.' But God is kinder. . . . You are certainly ve'y pale, Honey-bee!"
"I'm well, dearest—really I am, I'll stay well now. Is Curt all right? And Stephen? And Paige and Marye?—and Camilla?"
"Everybody is well, dear. Curt is ve'y brown and thin—the dear fellow! And Steve is right handsome. I'm just afraid some pretty minx—" She laughed and added: "But I won't care if she's a rebel minx."
"Celia! . . . And I—I didn't think you liked that word."
"What word, Honey-bell?" very demurely.
"Why, I reckon George Washington wore that title without reproach. It's a ve'y good title—rebel," she added serenely. "I admire it enough to wear it myse'f."
Quarters were found for Mrs. Craig. Letty shyly offered to move, but Celia wouldn't have it.
"My dear child," she said, "I'm just a useless encumbrance 'round the house; give me a corner where I may sit and look on and—he'p everybody by not inte'fering."
Her corner was an adjoining section of the garret, boarded up, wall-papered, and furnished for those who visited the Farm Hospital on tour of inspection or to see some sick friend or relative, or escort some haggard convalescent to the Northern home.
Celia had brought a whole trunkful of fresh gingham clothes and aprons, and Ailsa could not discover exactly why, until, on the day following her arrival, she found Celia sitting beside the cot of a wounded Louisiana Tiger, administering lemonade.
"Dearest," whispered Ailsa that night, "it is very sweet of you to care for your own people here. We make no distinction, however, between Union and Confederate sick; so, dear, you must be very careful not to express any—sentiments."
Celia laughed. "I won't express any sentiments, Honey-bee. I reckon I'd be drummed out of the Yankee army." Then, graver: "If I'm bitter—I'll keep it to myse'f."
"I know, dear. . . . And—your sympathies would never lead you—permit you to any—indiscretion."
"You mean in talking—ahem!—treason—to sick Confederates? I don't have to, dear."
"And. . . you must never mention anything concerning what you see inside our lines. You understand that, of course, don't you, darling?"
"I hadn't thought about it," said Celia musingly.
Ailsa added vaguely: "There's always a government detective hanging around the hospital."
Celia nodded and gazed out of the open window. Very far away the purple top of a hill peeped above the forest. Ailsa had told her that a Confederate battery was there. And now she looked at it in silence, her blue eyes very soft, her lips resting upon one another in tender, troubled curves.
Somewhere on that hazy hill-top a new flag was flying; soldiers of a new nation were guarding it, unseen by her. It was the first outpost of her own people that she had ever seen; and she looked at it wistfully, proudly, her soul in her eyes. All the pain, all the solicitude, all the anguish of a Southern woman, and a wife of a Northern man, who had borne him Northern children deepened in her gaze, till her eyes dimmed and her lids quivered and closed; and Ailsa's arms tightened around her.
"It is ve'y hard, Honey-bud," was all she said.
She had Dr. West's permission to read to the sick, mend their clothing, write letters for them, and perform such little offices as did not require the judgment of trained nurses.
By preference she devoted herself to the Confederate sick, but she was very sweet and gentle with all, ready to do anything any sick man asked; and she prayed in her heart that if her husband and her son were ever in need of such aid. God would send, in mercy, some woman to them, and not let them lie helpless in the clumsy hands of men.
She had only one really disagreeable experience. Early in March a government detective sent word that he wished to speak to her; and she went down to Dr. West's office, where a red-faced, burly man sat smoking a very black cigar. He did not rise as she entered; and, surprised, she halted at the doorway.
"Are you Mrs. Craig?" he demanded, keeping his seat, his hat, and the cigar between his teeth.
"Are you a government detective?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then stand up when you speak to me!" she said sharply. "I reckon a Yankee nigger has mo' manners than you display."
And the astonished detective presently found himself, hat in hand, cigar discarded, standing while Mrs. Craig, seated, replied indifferently to his very mild questions.
"Are you a Southerner, Mrs. Craig?"
"Your husband is Colonel Estcourt Craig, 3rd New York Zouaves?"
"You have a son serving in that regiment?"
"You are not a volunteer nurse?"
"Your sister-in-law, Mrs. Paige, is?"
"Now, Mrs. Craig"—but he could not succeed in swaggering, with her calm, contemptuous eyes taking his measure—"now, Mrs. Craig, is it true that you own, a mansion called Paigecourt near Richmond?"
"It was your father's house?"
"It was my father's home befo' he was married."
"Oh. Who owns your father's house—the one he lived in after he was married?"
"She is your sister-in-law? Your brother inherited this house? And it is called Marye Mead, isn't it?"
"It is not occupied?"
"Is Paigecourt—your own house—ah—occupied?"
"By an overseer?"
"By a housekeeper. The overseer occupies his own quarters."
"I see. So you hold slaves."
"There are negroes on the plantations. Mr. Paige, my father, freed his slaves befo' I was married."
The man looked surprised and incredulous.
"How did your father come to do that? I never heard of a Southern slave owner voluntarily freeing his slaves."
"A number of gentlemen have done so, at va'ious times, and fo' va'ious reasons," said Celia quietly. "Mr. Paige's reason was a personal matter. . . . Am I obliged to give it to you?"
"I think you had better," said the detective, watching her.
"Ve'y well. Mr. Paige happened to find among family papers a letter written by General Washington to my grandfather, in which his Excellency said;
"'I never mean to possess another slave, it being now among my first wishes to see slavery, in this country, abolished by law.' That is why my father freed his slaves."
The detective blinked; then, reddening, started toward the door, until he suddenly remembered his rudiments of manners. So he halted, bowed jerkily, clapped the hat on his head and the cigar into his mouth, and hastily disappeared.
When Celia scornfully informed Ailsa what had happened, the latter looked worried.
"You see," she said, "how easily trouble is created. Somehow the Government has learned about your coming here."
"Oh, I had to have a pass."
"Of course. And somebody has informed somebody that you own Paigecourt, and that you hold slaves there, and therefore you might be a suspicious person. And they told that detective to find out all about you. You see, dear, for Curt's sake and Stephen's sake as well as for your own, you will have to be particularly careful. You see it, don't you?"
"Yes," said Celia, thoughtfully, "I——"
The sudden thunder of a field battery drowned her voice. Ailsa ran to the door and looked out, and a soldier shouted to her the news of the Monitor's combat with the Merrimac. Battery after battery saluted; regiment after regiment blackened the hill-tops, cheering. At dusk gigantic bonfires flamed.
That evening Hallam came unexpectedly.
Now Ailsa had neither worn her ring and locket since her sister-in-law had arrived at the Farm Hospital, nor had she told her one word about Hallam.
Since her unhappy encounter with Berkley, outraged pride had aided to buoy her above the grief over the deep wound he had dealt her. She never doubted that his insolence and deliberate brutality had killed in her the last lingering spark of compassion for the memory of the man who had held her in his arms that night so long—so long ago.
Never, even, had she spoken to Letty about him, or betrayed any interest or curiosity concerning Letty's knowing him. . . . Not that, at moments, the desire to ask, to know had not burned her.
Never had she spoken of Berkley to Hallam. Not that she did not care to know what this private in Colonel Arran's regiment of lancers might be about. And often and often the desire to know left her too restless to endure her bed; and many a night she rose and dressed and wandered about the place under the yellow stars.
But all fires burn themselves: to extinction; a dull endurance, which she believed had at last become a God-sent indifference, settled on her mind. Duties helped her to endure; pride, anger, helped her toward the final apathy which she so hopefully desired to attain. And still she had never yet told Celia about Hallam and his ring; never told her about Berkley and his visit to the Farm Hospital that Christmas Eve of bitter memory.
So when, unexpectedly, Hallam rode into the court, dismounted, and sent word that he was awaiting Ailsa in Dr. West's office, she looked up at Celia in guilty consternation.
They had been seated in Celia's room, mending by candle-light, and the steward who brought the message was awaiting Ailsa's response, and Celia's lifted eyes grew curious as she watched her sister-in-law's flushed face.
"Say to Captain Hallam that I will come down, Flannery."
And when the hospital steward had gone:
"Captain Hallam is a friend of Colonel Arran, Celia."
"Oh," said Celia drily, and resumed her mending.
"Would you care to meet him, dear?"
"I reckon not, Honey-bud."
A soldier had found a spray of white jasmine in the woods that afternoon and had brought it to Ailsa. She fastened a cluster in the dull gold masses of her hair, thickly drooping above each ear, glanced at her hot cheeks in the mirror, and, exasperated, went out and down the stairs.
And suddenly, there in the star-lit court, she saw Berkley leaning against one of the horses, and Letty Lynden standing beside him, her pretty face uplifted to his.
The shock of it made her falter. Dismayed, she shrank back, closing the door noiselessly. For a moment she stood leaning against it, breathing fast; then she turned and stole through to the back entrance, traversed the lower gallery, and came into Dr. West's office, offering Hallam a lifeless hand.
They talked of everything—every small detail concerning their personal participation in the stirring preparations which were going on all around them; gossip of camp, of ambulance; political rumours, rumours from home and abroad; and always, through her brain, ran the insistent desire to know what Berkley was doing in his regiment; how he stood; what was thought of him; whether the Colonel had yet noticed him. So many, many things which she had supposed no longer interested her now came back to torment her into inquiry. . . . And Hallam talked on, his handsome sun-bronzed face aglow, his eager eyes of a lover fastened on her and speaking to her a different but silent language in ardent accompaniment to his gaily garrulous tongue.
"I tell you, Ailsa, I witnessed a magnificent sight yesterday. Colonel Rush's regiment of lancers, a thousand strong, rode into the meadow around Meridian Hill, and began to manoeuvre at full speed, not far away from us. Such a regiment! Every man a horseman; a thousand lances with scarlet pennons fluttering in the sunlight! By ginger! it was superb! And those Philadelphians of the 6th Pennsylvania Lancers can give our 8th Lancers a thousand keener points than the ends of their lance blades!"
"I thought your regiment was a good one," she said surprised.
"It is—for greenhorns. Every time we ride out past some of these dirty blue regiments from the West, they shout: 'Oh my! Fresh fish! Fresh fish!' until our boys are crazy to lay a lance butt across their ragged blouses."
"After all," said Ailsa, smiling, "what troops have really seen war yet—except the regiments at Bull Run—and those who have been fighting in the West?"
"Oh, we are fresh fish," laughed Hallam. "I don't deny it. But Lord! what an army we look like! It ought to scare the Johnnies into the Union again, just to look at us; but I don't suppose it will."
Ailsa scarcely heard him; she had caught the sound of regular and steady steps moving up and down the wooden walk outside; and she had caught glimpses, too, of a figure in the starlight, of two figures, Berkley and Letty, side by side, pacing the walk together.
To and fro, to and fro, they passed, until it seemed as though she could not endure it. Hallam laughed and talked, telling her about something or other—she did not know what—but all she listened to was the steady footsteps passing, repassing.
"Your orderly—" she scarce knew what she was saying—"is the same—the one you had Christmas Eve?"
"Yes," said Hallam. "How did you know?"
"I re—thought so."
"What wonderfully sharp eyes those violet ones of yours are, Ailsa! Yes, I did take Ormond with me on Christmas Eve—the surly brute."
"That's his rather high-flown name. Curious fellow. I like him—or try to. I've an odd idea he doesn't like me, though. Funny, isn't it, how a man goes out of his way to win over a nobody whom he thinks doesn't like him but ought to? He's an odd crab," he added.
"Odd?" Her voice sounded so strange to her that she tried again. "Why do you think him odd?"
"Well, he is. For one thing, he will have nothing to do with others of his mess or troop or squadron, except a ruffianly trooper named Burgess; consequently he isn't very popular. He could be. Besides, he rides better than anybody except the drill-master at White Plains; he rides like a gentleman—-and looks like one, with that infernally cool way of his. No, Ormond isn't very popular."
"Because he—looks like a gentleman?"
"Because he has the bad breeding of one. Nobody can find out anything about him."
"Isn't it bad breeding to try?"
Hallam laughed. "Technically. But a regiment that elects its officers is a democracy; and if a man is too good to answer questions he's let alone."
"Perhaps," said Ailsa, "that is what he wants."
"He has what he wants, then. Nobody except the trooper Burgess ventures to intrude on his sullen privacy. Even his own bunky has little use for him. . . . Not that Ormond isn't plucky. That's all that keeps the boys from hating him."
"Is he plucky?"
Hallam said; "We were on picket duty for three days last week. The Colonel had become sick of their popping at us, and asked for twelve carbines to the troop. On the way to the outposts the ammunition waggon was rushed by the Johnnies, and, as our escort had only their lances, they started to scatter—would have scattered, I understand, in spite of the sergeant if that man Ormond hadn't ridden bang into them, cursing and swearing and waving his pistol in his left hand.
"'By God!' he said, 'it's the first chance you've had to use these damned lances! Are you going to run away?'
"And the sergeant and the trooper Burgess and this fellow Ormond got 'em into line and started 'em down the road at a gallop; and the rebs legged it."
Ailsa's heart beat hard.
"I call that pluck," said Hallam, "a dozen lancers without a carbine among them running at a company of infantry. I call that a plucky thing, don't you?"
Hallam shrugged. "He behaved badly to the sergeant, who said warmly: ''Tis a brave thing ye did, Private Ormond.' And 'Is it?' said Ormond with a sneer. 'I thought we were paid for doing such things.' 'Och, ye sour-faced Sassenach!' said Sergeant Mulqueen, disgusted; and told me about the whole affair."
Ailsa had clasped her hands in her lap. The fingers were tightening till the delicate nails whitened.
But it was too late to speak of Berkley to Hallam now, too late to ask indulgence on the score of her friendship for a man who had mutilated it. Yet, she could scarcely endure the strain, the overmastering desire to say something in Berkley's behalf—to make him better understood—to explain to Hallam, and have Hallam explain to his troop that Berkley was his own most reckless enemy, that there was good in him, kindness, a capacity for better things——
Thought halted; was it that which, always latent within her bruised heart, stirred it eternally from its pain-weary repose—the belief, still existing, that there was something better in Berkley, that there did remain in him something nobler than he had ever displayed to her? For in some women there is no end to the capacity for mercy—where they love.
Hallam, hungry to touch her, had risen and seated himself on the flat arm of the chair in which she was sitting. Listlessly she abandoned her hand to him, listening all the time to the footsteps outside, hearing Hallam's low murmur; heard him lightly venturing to hint of future happiness, not heeding him, attentive only to the footsteps outside.
"Private Berk—Ormond—" she calmly corrected herself—"has had no supper, has he?"
"Neither have I!" laughed Hallam. And Ailsa rose up, scarlet with annoyance, and called to a negro who was evidently bound kitchenward.
And half an hour later some supper was brought to Hallam; and the negro went out into the star-lit court to summon Berkley to the kitchen.
Ailsa, leaving Hallam to his supper, and wandering aimlessly through the rear gallery, encountered Letty coming from the kitchen.
"My trooper," said the girl, pink and happy, "is going to have such a good supper! You know who I mean, dear—that Mr. Ormond——"
"I remember him," said Ailsa steadily. "I thought his name was Berkley."
"It is Ormond," said Letty in a low voice.
"Then I misunderstood. Is he here again?"
"Yes," ventured Letty, smiling; "he is escort to—your Captain."
Ailsa's expression was wintry. Letty, still smiling out of her velvet eyes, looked up confidently into Ailsa's face.
"Dear," she said, "I wish you could ever know how nice he is. . . . But—I don't believe I could explain——"
"Nice? Who? Oh, your trooper!"
"You don't mistake me, do you?" asked the girl, flushing up. "I only call him so to you. I knew him in New York—and—he is so much of a man—so entirely good——"
She hesitated, seeing no answering sympathy in Ailsa's face, sighed, half turned with an unconscious glance at the closed door of the kitchen.
"What were you saying about—him?" asked Ailsa listlessly.
"Nothing—" said Letty timidly—"only, isn't it odd how matters are arranged in the army. My poor trooper—a gentleman born—is being fed in the kitchen; your handsome Captain—none the less gently born—is at supper in Dr. West's office. . . . They might easily have been friends in New York. . . . War is so strange, isn't it?"
Ailsa forced a smile; but her eyes remained on the door, behind which was a man who had held her in his arms. . . . And who might this girl be who came now to her with tales of Berkley's goodness, kindness—shy stories of the excellence of the man who had killed in her the joy of living—had nigh killed more than that? What did this strange, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl know about his goodness?—a girl of whom she had never even heard until she saw her in Dr. Benton's office!
And all the while she stood looking at the closed door, thinking, thinking.
They were off duty that night, but Letty was going back to a New Hampshire boy who was not destined to live very long, and whose father was on the way from Plymouth to see his eldest son—his eldest son who had never fought a battle, had never seen one, had never even fired his musket, but who lay dying in the nineteenth year of his age, colour corporal, loved of his guard and regiment.
"Baily asked for me," she said simply. "I can get some sleep sitting up, I think." She smiled. "I'm happier and—better for seeing my trooper. . . . I am—a—better—woman," she said serenely. Then, looking up with a gay, almost childish toss of her head, like a schoolgirl absolved of misdemeanours unnumbered, she smiled wisely at Ailsa, and went away to her dying boy from New Hampshire.
The closed door fascinated Ailsa, distressed, harrowed her, till she stood there twisting her hands between desire and pallid indecision.
Leaden her limbs, for she could not stir them to go forward or to retire; miserably she stood there, swayed by fear and courage alternately, now rigid in bitter self-contempt, now shivering lest he fling open the door and find her there, and she see the mockery darkening his eyes——
And, "Oh-h!" she breathed, "is there nothing on earth but this shame for me?"
Suddenly she thought of Celia, and became frightened. Suppose Celia had gone to the kitchen! What would Celia think of her attitude toward the son of Constance Berkley? She had never told Celia that she had seen Berkley or that she even knew of his whereabouts. What would Celia think!
In her sudden consternation she had walked straight to the closed door. She hesitated an instant; then she opened the door. And Berkley, seated as he had been seated that Christmas Eve, all alone by the burning candle, dropped his hands from his face and looked up. Then he rose and stood gazing at her.
She said, haughtily: "I suppose I am laying myself open to misconstruction and insult again by coming here to speak to you."
"Did you come to speak to me, Ailsa?"
"Yes. Celia Craig is here—upstairs. I have never told her that you have even been in this place. She does not know you are here now. If she finds out——"
"I understand," he said wearily. "Celia shall not be informed of my disgrace with you—unless you care to tell her."
"I do not care to tell her. Is there any reason to distress her with—such matters?"
"No," he said. "What do you wish me to do? Go out somewhere—" He glanced vaguely toward the darkness. "I'll go anywhere you wish."
"Why did you come—again?" asked Ailsa coldly.
"Orders—" he shrugged—"I did not solicit the detail; I could not refuse. Soldiers don't refuse in the army."
She stood looking at the floor for a moment. Then: "Why have you changed your name?"
"It's not a permanent change," he said carelessly.
"Oh. You wish to remain unrecognised in your regiment?"
"While my service lasts."
Her lips formed the question again; and he understood, though she had not spoken.
"Why? Yes, I'll tell you," he said with a reckless laugh. "I'll tell you why I wear a new name. It's because I love my old one—and the mother who bore it—and from whom I received it! And it's because I won't risk disgracing it. You have asked, and that's why! Because—I'm afraid in battle!—if you want to know!—afraid of getting hurt—wounded—killed! I don't know what I might do; I don't know! And if the world ever sees Private Ormond running away, they'll never know it was Constance Berkley's son. And that's why I changed my name!"
"W-what?" she faltered. Then, revolted. "It is not true! You are not afraid!"
"I tell you I am," he repeated with a mirthless laugh. "Don't you suppose I ought to know? I want to get out of bullet range every time I'm shot at. And—if anybody ever turns coward, I prefer that it should be trooper Ormond, not trooper Berkley. And that is the truth, Ailsa."
She was scarcely able to suppress her anger now. She looked at him, flushed, excited, furious.
"Why do you say such untruthful things to me! Who was it that fairly kicked his fellow troopers into charging infantry with nothing but lances against bullets?"
Amazed for a second, he burst into an abrupt laugh that rang harshly in the room.
"Who told you such cock-and-bull stories, Ailsa?"
"Didn't you do it? Isn't it true?"
"Do what? Do what the Government pays me for doing? Yes, I happened to come up to the scratch that time. But I was scared, every inch of me—if you really want the truth."
"But—you did it?"
He laughed again, harshly, but apparently puzzled by her attitude.
She came nearer, paler in her suppressed excitement.
"Private Ormond," she faltered, "the hour that you fail under fire is the hour when I—shall be able to—forget—you. Not—until—then."
Neither moved. The slow, deep colour mounted to the roots of his hair; but she was white as death.
And suddenly he had dropped to one knee, and the hem of her gray garb was against his lips—and it was a thing of another age that he did, there on one knee at her feet, but it became him as it had become his ancestors. And she saw it, and, bending, laid her slim hands on his head.
After a long silence, her hands still resting on his dark hair, she found voice enough to speak.
"I know you now."
And, as he made no answer:
"It is there, in you—all that I believed. It was to that I—yielded—once."
She looked intently down at him.
"I think at last you have become—my champion. . . . Not my—destroyer. Answer me, Philip!"
He would not, or could not.
"I take you—for mine," she said. "Will you deny me?"
She said, steadily: "The other—the lesser happiness is to be—forgotten. Answer."
She bent lower, whispering: "Is there no wedlock of the spirit?"
"That is all there ever was to hope for."
"Yes. Will you, Ailsa?"
He rose; her fingers slipped from his hair to his hands, and they stood, confronted.
She said in a dull voice: "I am engaged to—be—married to Captain Hallam."
"I know it."
She spoke again, very white.
"Can you tell me why you will not marry me?"
"No, I cannot tell you."
"I—would love you none the less. Don't you believe me?"
"Yes, I do now. But I—cannot ask that of you."
"Yet—you would have—taken me without—marriage."
He said, quietly:
"Marriage—or love to the full, without it—God knows how right or wrong that may be. The world outlaws those who love without it—drives them out, excommunicates, damns. . . . It may be God does, too; but—I—don't—believe it, Ailsa."
She said, whiter still: "Then I must not think of—what cannot be?"
"No," he said dully, "it cannot be."
She laid her hands against his lips in silence.
"Good night. . . . You won't leave me—too much—alone?"
"May I write to you, dear?"
"Please. And come when—when you can."
He laughed in the utter hopelessness of it all.
"Dear, I cannot come to you unless—he comes."
At that the colour came back into her face.
Suddenly she stooped, touched his hands swiftly with her lips—the very ghost of contact—turned, and was gone.
Hallam's voice was hearty and amiable; also he welcomed her with a smile; but there seemed to be something hard in his eyes as he said:
"I began to be afraid that you'd gone to sleep, Ailsa. What the deuce has kept you? A sick man?"
"Y-es; he is—better—I think."
"That's good. I've only a minute or two left, and I wanted to speak—if you'll let me—about——"
"Can't you come again next week?" she asked.
"Well—of course, I'll do my best. I wanted to speak——"
"Don't say everything now," she protested, forcing a smile, "otherwise what excuse will you have for coming again?"
"Well—I wished to— See here, Ailsa, will you let me speak about the practical part of our future when I come next time?"
For a moment she could, not bring herself to the deception; but the memory of Berkley rendered her desperate.
"Yes—if you will bring back to Miss Lynden her trooper friend when you come again. Will you?"
"Who? Oh, Ormond. Yes, of course, if she wishes——"
But she could not endure her own dishonesty any longer.
"Captain Hallam," she said with stiffened lips, "I—I have just lied to you. It is not for Miss Lynden that I asked; it is for myself!"
He looked at her in a stunned sort of way. She said, forcing herself to meet his eyes:
"Trooper Ormond is your escort; don't you understand? I desire to see him again, because I knew him in New York."
"Oh," said Hallam slowly.
She stood silent, the colour racing through her cheeks. She could not, in the same breath, ask Hallam to release her. It was impossible. Nothing on earth could prevent his believing that it was because she wished to marry Berkley. And she was never to marry Berkley. She knew it, now.
"Who is this Private Ormond, anyway?" asked Hallam, handsome eyes bent curiously on her.
And she said, calmly: "I think you did not mean to ask me that, Captain Hallam."
"Because the man in question would have told you had he not desired the privilege of privacy—to which we all are entitled, I think."
"It seems to me," said Hallam, reddening, "that, under the circumstances, I myself have been invested by you with some privileges."
"Not yet," she returned quietly. And again her reply implied deceit; and she saw, too late, whither that reply led—where she was drifting, helpless to save herself, or Berkley, or this man to whom she had been betrothed.
"I've got to speak now," she began desperately calm. "I must tell you that I cannot marry you. I do not love you enough. I am forced to say it. I was a selfish, weak, unhappy fool when I thought I could care enough for you to marry you. All the fault is mine; all the blame is on me. I am a despicable woman."
"Are you crazy, Ailsa!"
"Half crazed, I think. If you can, some day, try to forgive me—I should be very grateful."
"Do you mean to tell me that you—you are—have been—in love with this—this broken-down adventurer——"
"Yes. From the first second in my life that I ever saw him. Now you know the truth. And you will now consider me worthy of this—adventurer——"
"No," he replied. And thought a moment. Then he looked at her.
"I don't intend to give you up," he said.
"Captain Hallam, believe me, I am sorry——"
"I won't give you up," he repeated doggedly.
"You won't—release me?"
She said, with heightened colour: "I am dreadfully sorry—and bitterly ashamed. I deserve no mercy, no consideration at your hands. But—I must return your ring—" She slipped it from her finger, laid it on the table, placed the chain and locket beside it.
She said, wistfully: "I dare not hope to retain your esteem—I dare not say to you how much I really desire your forgiveness—your friendship——"
Suddenly he turned on her a face, red, distorted, with rage.
"Do you know what this means to me? It means ridicule in my regiment! What kind of figure do you think I shall cut after this? It's—it's a shame!—it's vile usage. I'll appear absurd—absurd! Do you understand?"
Shocked, she stared into his inflamed visage, which anger and tortured vanity had marred past all belief.
"Is that why you care?" she asked slowly.
"Ailsa! Good God—I scarcely know what I'm saying——"
She stepped back, eyes darkening to deepest violet—retreated, facing him, step by step to the doorway, through it; and left him standing there.
Berkley's first letter to her was written during that week of lovely weather, the first week in March. The birds never sang more deliriously, the regimental bands never played more gaily; every camp was astir in the warm sunshine with companies, regiments, brigades, or divisions drilling.
At the ceremonies of guard mount and dress parade the country was thronged with visitors from Washington, ladies in gay gowns and scarfs, Congressmen in silk hats and chokers, apparently forgetful of their undignified role in the late affair at Bull Run—even children with black mammies in scarlet turbans and white wool dresses came to watch a great army limbering up after a winter of inaction.
He wrote to her:
"Dearest, it has been utterly impossible for me to obtain leave of absence and a pass to go as far as the Farm Hospital. I tried to run the guard twice, but had to give it up. I'm going to try again as soon as there seems any kind of a chance.
"We have moved our camp. Why, heaven knows. If our general understood what cavalry is for we would have been out long ago—miles from here—if to do nothing more than make a few maps which, it seems, our august leaders entirely lack.
"During the night the order came: 'This division will move at four o'clock in the morning with two days' rations.' All night long we were at work with axe and hammer, tearing down quarters, packing stores, and loading our waggons.
"We have an absurd number of waggons. There is an infantry regiment camped near us that has a train of one hundred and thirty-six-mule teams to transport its household goods. It's the 77th New York,
"The next morning the sun rose on our army in motion. You say that I am a scoffer. I didn't scoff at that spectacle. We were on Flint Hill; and, as far as we could see around us, the whole world was fairly crawling with troops. Over them a rainbow hung. Later it rained, as you know.
"I'm wet, Ailsa. The army for the first time is under shelter tents. The Sibley wall tents and wedge tents are luxuries of the past for officers and men alike.
"The army—that is, the bulk of it—camped at five. We—the cavalry—went on to see what we could see around Centreville; but the rebels had burned it, so we came back here where we don't belong—a thousand useless men armed with a thousand useless weapons. Because, dear, our lances are foolish things, picturesque but utterly unsuited to warfare in such a country as this.
"You see, I've become the sort of an ass who is storing up information and solving vast and intricate problems in order to be kind to my superiors when, struck with panic at their own tardily discovered incapacity, they rush to me in a body to ask me how to do it.
"Rush's Lancers are encamped near you now; our regiment is not far from them. If I can run the guard I'll do it. I'm longing to see you, dear.
"I've written to Celia, as you know, so she won't be too much astonished if I sneak into the gallery some night.
"I've seen a lot of Zouaves, the 5th, 9th, 10th, and other regiments, but not the 3rd. What a mark they make of themselves in their scarlet and blue. Hawkins' regiment, the 9th, is less conspicuous, wearing only the red headgear and facings, but Duryea's regiment is a sight! A magnificent one from the spectacular stand-point, but the regiments in blue stand a better chance of being missed by the rebel riflemen. I certainly wish Colonel Craig's Zouaves weren't attired like tropical butterflies. But for heaven's sake don't say this to Celia.
"Well, you see, I betray the cloven hoof of fear, even when I write you. It's a good thing that I know I am naturally a coward; because I may learn to be so ashamed of my legs that I'll never run at all, either way.
"Dear, I'm too honest with you to make promises, and far too intelligent not to know that when people begin shooting at each other somebody is likely to get hit. It is instinctive in me to avoid mutilation and extemporary death if I can do it. I realise what it means when the air is full of singing, buzzing noises; when twigs and branches begin to fall and rattle on my cap and saddle; when weeds and dead grass are snipped off short beside me; when every mud puddle is starred and splashed; when whack! smack! whack! on the stones come flights of these things you hear about, and hear, and never see. And—it scares me.
"But I'm trying to figure out that, first, I am safer if I do what my superiors tell me to do; second, that it's a dog's life anyway; third, that it's good enough for me, so why run away from it?
"Some day some of these Johnnies will scare me so that I'll start after them. There's no fury like a man thoroughly frightened.
"Nobody has yet been hurt in any of the lancer regiments except one of Rush's men, who got tangled up in the woods and wounded himself with his own lance.
"Oh, these lances! And oh, the cavalry! And, alas! a general who doesn't know how to use his cavalry.
"No sooner does a cavalry regiment arrive than, bang! it's split up into troops—a troop to escort General A., another to gallop after General B., another to sit around headquarters while General C. dozes after dinner! And, if it's not split up, it's detailed bodily on some fool's job instead of being packed off under a line officer to find out what is happening just beyond the end of the commander's nose.
"The visitors like to see us drill—like to see us charge, red pennons flying, lances at rest. I like to see Rush's Lancers, too. But, all the same, sometimes when we go riding gaily down the road, some of those dingy, sunburnt Western regiments who have been too busy fighting to black their shoes line up along the road and repeat, monotonously:
"It isn't what they say, Ailsa, it's the expression of their dirty faces that turns me red, sometimes, and sometimes incites me to wild mirth.
"I'm writing this squatted under my 'tente d'abri.' General McClellan, with a preposterous staff the size of a small brigade, has just passed at a terrific gallop—a handsome, mild-eyed man who has made us into an army, and who ornaments headquarters with an entire squadron of Claymore's 20th Dragoons and one of our own 8th Lancers. Well, some day he'll come to me and say: 'Ormond, I understand that there is only one man in the entire army fit to command it. Accept this cocked hat.'
"That detail would suit me, dear. I could get behind the casemates of Monroe and issue orders. I was cut out to sit in a good, thick casemate and bring this cruel war to an end.
"A terribly funny thing happened at Alexandria. A raw infantry regiment was camped near the seminary, and had managed to flounder through guard mount. The sentinels on duty kept a sharp lookout and turned out the guard every time a holiday nigger hove in sight; and sentinels and guard and officer were getting awfully tired of their mistakes; and the day was hot, and the sentinels grew sleepy.
"Then one sentry, dozing awake, happened to turn and glance toward the woods; and out of it, over the soft forest soil, and already nearly on top of him, came a magnificent cavalcade at full gallop—the President, and Generals McClellan and Benjamin Butler leading.
"Horror paralyzed him, then he ran toward the guard house, shrieking at the top of his lungs:
"'Great God! Turn out the guard! Here comes Old Abe and Little Mac and Beast Butler!'
"And that's all the camp gossip and personal scandal that I have to relate to you, dear.
"I'll run the guard if I can, so help me Moses!
"And I am happier than I have ever been in all my life. If I don't run under fire you have promised not to stop loving me. That is the bargain, remember.
"Here comes your late lamented. I'm no favorite of his, nor he of mine. He did me a silly trick the other day—had me up before the Colonel because he said that it had been reported to him that I had enlisted under an assumed name.
"I had met the Colonel. He looked at me and said:
"'Is Ormond your name?'
"I said: 'It is, partly.'
"He said: 'Then it is sufficient to fight under.'
"Ailsa, I am going to tell you something. It has to do with me, as you know me, and it has to do with Colonel Arran.
"I'm afraid I'm going to hurt you; but I'm also afraid it will be necessary.
"Colonel Arran is your friend. But, Ailsa, I am his implacable enemy. Had I dreamed for one moment that the Westchester Horse was to become the 10th troop of Arran's Lancers, I would never have joined it.
"It was a bitter dose for me to swallow when my company was sworn into the United States service under this man.
"Since, I have taken the matter philosophically. He has not annoyed me, except by being alive on earth. He showed a certain primitive decency in not recognizing me when he might have done it in a very disagreeable fashion. I think he was absolutely astonished to see me there; but he never winked an eyelash. I give the devil his due.
"All this distresses you, dear. But I cannot help it; you would have to know, sometime, that Colonel Arran and I are enemies. So let it go at that; only, remembering it, avoid always any uncomfortable situation which must result in this man and myself meeting under your roof."
His letter ended in lighter vein—a gay message to Celia, a cordial one to Letty, and the significant remark that he expected to see her very soon.
The next night he tried to run the guard, and failed.
She had written to him, begging him not to; urging the observance of discipline, while deploring their separation—a sweet, confused letter, breathing in every line her solicitation for him, her new faith and renewed trust in him.
Concerning what he had told her about his personal relations with Colonel Arran she had remained silent—was too unhappy and astonished to reply. Thinking of it later, it recalled to her mind Celia's studied avoidance of any topic in which Colonel Arran figured. She did not make any mental connection between Celia's dislike for the man and Berkley's—the coincidence merely made her doubly unhappy.
And, one afternoon when Letty was on duty and she and Celia were busy with their mending in Celia's room, she thought about Berkley's letter and his enmity, and remembered Celia's silent aversion at the same moment.
"Celia," she said, looking up, "would you mind telling me what it is that you dislike about my old and very dear friend, Colonel Arran?"
Celia continued her needlework for a few moments. Then, without raising her eyes, she said placidly:
"You have asked me that befo', Honey-bird."
"Yes, dear. . . . You know it is not impertinent curiosity——"
"I know what it is, Honey-bee. But you can not he'p this gentleman and myse'f to any ground of common understanding."
"I am so sorry," sighed Ailsa, resting her folded hands on her work and gazing through the open window.
Celia continued to sew without glancing up. Presently she said:
"I reckon I'll have to tell you something about Colonel Arran after all. I've meant to for some time past. Because—because my silence condemns him utterly; and that is not altogether just." She bent lower over her work; her needle travelled more slowly as she went on speaking:
"In my country, when a gentleman considers himse'f aggrieved, he asks fo' that satisfaction which is due to a man of his quality. . . . But Colonel Arran did not ask. And when it was offered, he refused." Her lips curled. "He cited the Law," she said with infinite contempt.
"But Colonel Arran is not a Southerner," observed Ailsa quietly. "You know how all Northerners feel——"
"It happened befo' you were born, Honey-bud. Even the No'th recognised the code then."
"Is that why you dislike Colonel Arran? Because he refused to challenge or be challenged when the law of the land forbade private murder?"
Celia's cheeks flushed deeply; she tightened her lips; then:
"The law is not made fo' those in whom the higher law is inherent," she said calmly. "It is made fo' po' whites and negroes."
"It is true, Honey-bird. When a gentleman breaks the law that makes him one, it is time fo' him to appeal to the lower law. And Colonel Arran did so."
"What was his grievance?"
"A deep one, I reckon. He had the right on his side—and his own law to defend it, and he refused. And the consequences were ve'y dreadful."
"To us all. . . . His punishment was certain."
"Was he punished?"
"Yes. Then, in his turn, he punished—terribly. But not as a gentleman should. Fo' in that code which gove'ns us, no man can raise his hand against a woman. He must endure all things; he may not defend himse'f at any woman's expense; he may not demand justice at the expense of any woman. It is the privilege of his caste to endure with dignity what cannot be remedied or revenged except through the destruction of a woman. . . . And Colonel Arran invoked the lower law; and the justice that was done him destroyed—a woman."
She looked up steadily into Ailsa's eyes.
"She was only a young girl, Honey-bud—too young to marry anybody, too inexperienced to know her own heart until it was too late.
"And Colonel Arran came; and he was ve'y splendid, and handsome, and impressive in his cold, heavy dignity, and ve'y certain that the child must marry him—so certain that she woke up one day and found that she had done it. And learned that she did not love him.
"There was a boy cousin. He was reckless, I reckon; and she was ve'y unhappy; and one night he found her crying in the garden; and there was a ve'y painful scene, and she let him kiss the hem of her petticoat on his promise to go away fo' ever. And—Colonel Arran caught him on his knees, with the lace to his lips—and the child wife crying. . . . He neither asked nor accepted satisfaction; he threatened the—law! And that settled him with her, I reckon, and she demanded her freedom, and he refused, and she took it.
"Then she did a ve'y childish thing; she married the boy—or supposed she did——"
Celia's violet eyes grew dark with wrath:
"And Colonel Arran went into co't with his lawyers and his witnesses and had the divorce set aside—and publicly made this silly child her lover's mistress, and their child nameless! That was the justice that the law rendered Colonel Arran. And now you know why I hate him—and shall always hate and despise him."
Ailsa's head was all awhirl; lips parted, she stared at Celia in stunned silence, making as yet no effort to reconcile the memory of the man she knew with this cold, merciless, passionless portrait.
Nor did the suspicion occur to her that there could be the slightest connection between her sister-in-law's contempt for Colonel Arran and Berkley's implacable enmity.
All the while, too, her clearer sense of right and justice cried out in dumb protest against the injury done to the man who had been her friend, and her parents' friend—kind, considerate, loyal, impartially just in all his dealings with her and with the world, as far as she had ever known.
From Celia's own showing the abstract right and justice of the matter had been on his side; no sane civilisation could tolerate the code that Celia cited. The day of private vengeance was over; the era of duelling was past in the North—was passing in the South. And, knowing Colonel Arran, she knew also that twenty odd years ago his refusal to challenge had required a higher form of courage than to face the fire of a foolish boy's pistol.
And now, collecting her disordered thoughts, she began to understand what part emotion and impulse had played in the painful drama—how youthful ignorance and false sentiment had combined to invest a silly but accidental situation with all the superficial dignity of tragedy.
What must it have meant to Colonel Arran, to this quiet, slow, respectable man of the world, to find his girl wife crying in the moonlight, and a hot-headed boy down on his knees, mumbling the lace edge of her skirts?
What must it have meant to him—for the chances were that he had not spoken the first word—to be confronted by an excited, love-smitten, reckless boy, and have a challenge flung in his face before he had uttered a word.
No doubt his calm reply was to warn the boy to mind his business under penalty of law. No doubt the exasperated youth defied him—insulted him—declared his love—carried the other child off her feet with the exaggerated emotion and heroics. And, once off their feet, she saw how the tide had swept them together—swept them irrevocably beyond reason and recall.
Ailsa rose and stood by the open window, looking out across the hills; but her thoughts were centred on Colonel Arran's tragedy, and the tragedy of those two hot-headed children whom his punishment had out-lawed.
Doubtless his girl wife had told him how the boy had come to be there, and that she had banished him; but the clash between maturity and adolescence is always inevitable; the misunderstanding between ripe experience and Northern logic, and emotional inexperience and Southern impulse was certain to end in disaster.
Ailsa considered; and she knew that now her brief for Colonel Arran was finished, for beyond the abstract right she had no sympathy with the punishment he had dealt out, even though his conscience and civilisation and the law of the land demanded the punishment of these erring' ones.
No, the punishment seemed too deeply tainted with vengeance for her to tolerate.
A deep unhappy sigh escaped her. She turned mechanically, seated herself, and resumed her sewing.
"I suppose I ought to be asleep," she said. "I am on duty to-night, and they've brought in so many patients from the new regiments."
Celia bent and bit off her thread, then passing the needle into the hem, laid her work aside.
"Honey-bud," she said, "you are ve'y tired. If you'll undress I'll give you a hot bath and rub you and brush your hair."
"Oh, Celia, will you? I'd feel so much better." She gave a dainty little shudder and made a wry face, adding:
"I've had so many dirty, sick men to cleanse—oh, incredibly dirty and horrid!—poor boys—it doesn't seem to be their fault, either; and they are so ashamed and so utterly miserable when I am obliged to know about the horror of their condition. . . . Dear, it will be angelic of you to give me a good, hot scrubbing. I could go to sleep if you would."
"Of co'se I will," said Celia simply. And, when Ailsa was ready to call her in she lifted the jugs of water which a negro had brought—one cold, one boiling hot—entered Ailsa's room, filled the fiat tin tub; and, when Ailsa stepped into it, proceeded to scrub her as though she had been two instead of twenty odd.
Then, her glowing body enveloped in a fresh, cool sheet, she lay back and closed her eyes while Celia brushed the dull gold masses of her hair.
"Honey-bee, they say that all the soldiers are in love with you, even my po' Confederate boys in Ward C. Don't you dare corrupt their loyalty!"
"They are the dearest things—all of them," smiled Ailsa sleepily, soothed by the skilful brushing. "I have never had one cross word, one impatient look from Union or Confederate." She added: "They say in Washington that we women are not needed—that we are in the way—that the sick don't want us. . . . Some very important personage from Washington came down to the General Hospital and announced that the Government was going to get rid of all women nurses. And such a dreadful row those poor sick soldiers made! Dr. West told us; he was there at the time. And it seems that the personage went back to Washington with a very different story to tell the powers that be. So I suppose they've concluded to let us alone."
"It doesn't surprise me that a Yankee gove'nment has no use fo' women," observed Celia.
"Hush, dear. That kind of comment won't do. Besides, some horrid stories were afloat about some of the nurses not being all they ought to be."
"That sounds ve'y Yankee, too!"
"Celia! And perhaps it was true that one or two among thousands might not have been everything they should have been," admitted Ailsa, loyal to her government in everything. "And perhaps one or two soldiers were insolent; but neither Letty Lynden nor I have ever heard one unseemly word from the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers we have attended, never have had the slightest hint of disrespect from them."
"They certainly do behave ve'y well," conceded Celia, brushing away vigorously. "They behave like our Virginians."
Ailsa laughed, then, smiling reflectively, glanced at her hand which still bore the traces of a healed scar. Celia noticed her examining the slender, uplifted hand, and said:
"You promised to tell me how you got that scar, Honey-bud."
"I will, now—because the man who caused it has gone North."
"Yes, poor fellow. When the dressings were changed the agony crazed him and he sometimes bit me. I used to be so annoyed," she added mildly, "and I used to shake my forefinger at him and say, 'Now it's got to be done, Jones; will you promise not to bite me.' And the poor fellow would promise with tears in his eyes—and then he'd forget—poor boy——"
"I'd have slapped him," said Celia, indignantly. "What a darling you are, Ailsa! . . . Now bundle into bed," she added, "because you haven't any too much time to sleep, and poor little Letty Lynden will be half dead when she comes off duty."
Letty really appeared to be half dead when she arrived, and bent wearily over the bed where Ailsa now lay in calm-breathing, rosy slumber.
"Oh, you sweet thing!" she murmured to herself, "you can sleep for two hours yet, but you don't know it." And, dropping her garments from her, one by one, she bathed and did up her hair and crept in beside Ailsa very softly, careful not to arouse her.
But Ailsa, who slept lightly, awoke, turned on her pillow, passed one arm around Letty's dark curls.
"I'll get up," she said drowsily. "Why didn't Flannery call me?"
"You can sleep for an hour or two yet, darling," cooed Letty, nestling close to her. "Mrs. Craig has taken old Bill Symonds, and they'll be on duty for two hours more."
"How generous of Celia—and of old Symonds, too. Everybody seems to be so good to me here."
"Everybody adores you, dear," whispered Letty, her lips against Ailsa's flushed cheek. "Don't you know it?"
Ailsa laughed; and the laugh completed her awakening past all hope of further slumber.
"You quaint little thing," she said, looking at Letty. "You certainly are the most engaging girl I ever knew."
Letty merely lay and looked her adoration, her soft cheek pillowed on Ailsa's arm. Presently she said:
"Do you remember the first word you ever spoke to me?"
"Yes, I do."
"And—you asked me to come and see you."
"Who wouldn't ask you—little rosebud?"
But Letty only sighed and closed her eyes; nor did she awaken when Ailsa cautiously withdrew her arm and slipped out of bed.
She still had an hour and more; she decided to dress and go out for a breath of fresh, sweet air to fortify her against the heavy atmosphere of the sick wards.
It was not yet perfectly dark; the thin edge of the new moon traced a pale curve in the western sky; frogs were trilling; a night-bird sang in a laurel thicket unceasingly.
The evening was still, but the quiet was only comparative because, always, all around her, the stirring and murmur of the vast army never entirely ended.
But the drums and bugles, answering one another from hill to hill, from valley to valley, had ceased; she saw the reddening embers of thousands of camp fires through the dusk; every hill was jewelled, every valley gemmed.
In the darkness she could hear the ground vibrate under the steady tread of a column of infantry passing, but she could not see them—could distinguish no motion against the black background of the woods.
Standing there on the veranda, she listened to them marching by. From the duration of the sound she judged it to be only one regiment, probably a new one arriving from the North.
A little while afterward she heard on some neighbouring hillside the far outbreak of hammering, the distant rattle of waggons, the clash of stacked muskets. Then, in sudden little groups, scattered starlike over the darkness, camp fires twinkled into flame. The new regiment had pitched its tents.
It was a pretty sight; she walked out along the fence to see more clearly, stepping aside to avoid collision with a man in the dark, who was in a great hurry—a soldier, who halted to make his excuses, and, instead, took her into his arms with a breathless exclamation.
"Philip!" she faltered, trembling all over.
"Darling! I forgot I was not to touch you!" He crushed her hands swiftly to his lips and let them drop.
"My little Ailsa! My—little—Ailsa!" he repeated under his breath—and caught her to him again.
"Oh—darling—we mustn't," she protested faintly. "Don't you remember, Philip? Don't you remember, dear, what we are to be to one another?"
He stood, face pressed against her burning cheeks; then his arm encircling her waist fell away.
"You're right, dear," he said with a sigh so naively robust, so remarkably hearty, that she laughed outright—a very tremulous and uncertain laugh.
"What a tragically inclined boy! I never before heard a 'thunderous sigh'; but I had read of them in poetry. Philip, tell me instantly how you came here!"
"Ran the guard," he admitted.
"No! Oh, dear, oh, dear!—and I told you not to. Philip! Philip! Do you want to get shot?"
"Now you know very well I don't," he said, laughing. "I spend every minute trying not to. . . . And, Ailsa, what do you think? A little while ago when I was skulking along fences and lurking in ditches—all for your sake, ungrateful fair one!—tramp—tramp—tramp comes a column out of the darkness! 'Lord help us,' said I, 'it's the police guard, or some horrible misfortune, and I'll never see my Ailsa any more!' Then I took a squint at 'em, and I saw officers riding, with about a thousand yards of gold lace on their sleeves, and I saw their music trudging along with that set of silver chimes aloft between two scarlet yaks' tails; and I saw the tasselled fezzes and the white gaiters and—'Aha!' said I—'the Zou-Zous! But which?'
"And, by golly, I made out the number painted white on their knapsacks; and, Ailsa, it was the 3d Zouaves, Colonel Craig!—just arrived! And there—on that hill—are their fires!"
"Oh, Phil!" she exclaimed in rapture, "how heavenly for Celia! I'm perfectly crazy to see Curt and Steve——"
"Please transfer a little of that sweet madness to me."
"Dear—I can't, can I?"
But she let him have her hands; and, resting beside him on the rail fence, bent her fair head as he kissed her joined hands, let it droop lower, lower, till her cheek brushed his. Then, turning very slowly, their lips encountered, rested, till the faint fragrance of hers threatened his self-control.