She opened her blue eyes as he raised his head, looking at him vaguely in the dusk, then very gently shook her head and rested one cheek on her open palm.
"I don't know," she sighed. "I—don't—know—" and closed her lids once more.
"Know what, dearest of women?"
"What is going to happen to us, Phil. . . . It seems incredible—after our vows—after the lofty ideals we——"
"The ideals are there," he said in a low voice. And, in his tone there was a buoyancy, a hint of something new to her—something almost decisive, something of protection which began vaguely to thrill her, as though that guard which she had so long mounted over herself might be relieved—the strain relaxed—-the duty left to him.
She laid one hand on his arm, looked up, searching his face, hesitated. A longing to relax the tension of self-discipline came over her—to let him guard them both—to leave all to him—let him fight for them both. It was a longing to find security in the certainty of his self-control, a desire to drift, and let him be responsible, to let him control the irresponsibility within her, the unwisdom, the delicate audacity, latent, mischievous, that needed a reversal of the role of protector and protected to blossom deliciously into the coquetry that she had never dared.
"Are you to be trusted?" she asked innocently.
"Yes, at last. You know it. Even if I——"
She considered him with a new and burning curiosity. It was the feminine in her, wondering, not yet certain, whether it might safely dare.
"I suppose I've made an anchorite out of you," she ventured.
"You can judge," he said, laughing; and had her in his arms again, and kissed her consenting lips and palms, and looked down into the sweet eyes; and she smiled back at him, confident, at rest.
"What has wrought this celestial change in you, Phil?" she whispered, listlessly humourous.
"Is there one? I seem to kiss you just as ardently."
"I know. . . . But—for the first time since I ever saw you—I feel that I am safe in the world. . . . It may annoy me."
"I may grow tired of it," she insisted, watching him. "I may behave like a naughty, perverse, ungrateful urchin, and kick and scream and bite. . . . But you won't let me be hurt, will you?"
"No, child." His voice was laughing at her, but his eyes were curiously grave.
She put both arms up around his neck with a quick catch of her breath.
"I do love you—I do love you. I know it now, Phil—I know it as I never dreamed of knowing it. . . . You will never let me be hurt, will you? Nothing can harm me now, can it?"
She regarded him dreamily. Sometimes her blue eyes wandered toward the stars, sometimes toward the camp fires on the hill.
"Perfect—perfect belief in—your goodness—to me," she murmured vaguely. "Now I shall—repay you—by perversity—misbehaviour—I don't know what—I don't know—what——"
Her lids closed; she yielded to his embrace; one slim, detaining hand on his shoulder held her closer, closer.
"You must—never—go away," her lips formed.
But already he was releasing her, pale but coolly master of the situation. Acquiescent, inert, she lay in his arms, then straightened and rested against the rail beside her.
Presently she smiled to herself, looked at him, still smiling.
"Shall we go into Dr. West's office and have supper, Phil? I'm on duty in half an hour and my supper must be ready by this time; and I'm simply dying to have you make up for the indignity of the kitchen."
"You ridiculous little thing!"
"No, I'm not. I could weep with rage when I think of you in the kitchen and—and— Oh, never mind. Come, will you?" And she held out her hand.
Her supper was ready, as she had predicted, and she delightedly made room for him beside her on the bench, and helped him to freshly baked bread and ancient tinned vegetables, and some doubtful boiled meat, all of which he ate with an appetite and a reckless and appreciative abandon that fascinated her.
"Darling!" she whispered in consternation, "don't they give you anything in camp?"
"Sometimes," he enunciated, chewing vigorously on the bread. "We don't get much of this, darling. And the onions have all sprouted, and the potatoes are rotten."
She regarded him for a moment, then laughed hysterically.
"I beg your pardon, Phil, but somehow this reminds me of our cook feeding her policeman:—just for one tiny second, darling——"
They abandoned any effort to control their laughter. Ailsa had become transfigured into a deliciously mischievous and bewildering creature, brilliant of lip and cheek and eye, irresponsible, provoking, utterly without dignity or discipline.
She taunted him with his appetite, jeered at him for his recent and marvellous conversion to respectability, dared him to make love to her, provoked him at last to abandon his plate and rise and start toward her. And, of course, she fled, crying in consternation: "Hush, Philip! You mustn't make such a racket or they'll put us both out!"—keeping the table carefully between them, dodging every strategy of his, every endeavour to make her prisoner, quick, graceful, demoralising in her beauty and abandon. They behaved like a pair of very badly brought up children, until she was in real terror of discovery.
"Dearest," she pleaded, "if you will sit down and resume your gnawing on that crust, I'll promise not to torment you. . . . I will, really. Besides, it's within a few minutes of my tour of duty——"
She stopped, petrified, as a volley of hoof-beats echoed outside, the clash of arms and accoutrements rang close by the porch.
"Phil!" she gasped.
And the door opened and Colonel Arran walked in.
There was a dreadful silence. Arran stood face to face with Berkley, looked him squarely in the eye where he stood at salute. Then, as though he had never before set eyes on him, Arran lifted two fingers to his visor mechanically, turned to Ailsa, uncovered, and held out both his hands.
"I had a few moments, Ailsa," he said quietly. "I hadn't seen you for so long. Are you well?"
She was almost too frightened to answer; Berkley stood like a statue, awaiting dismissal, and later the certain consequences of guard running.
And, aware of her fright, Arran turned quietly to Berkley:
"Private Ormond," he said, "there is a led-horse in my escort, in charge of Private Burgess. It is the easier and—safer route to camp. You may retire."
Berkley's expression was undecipherable as he saluted, shot a glance at Ailsa, turned sharply, and departed.
"Colonel Arran," she said miserably, "it was all my fault. I am too ashamed to look at you."
"Let me do what worrying is necessary," he said quietly. "I am—not unaccustomed to it. . . . I suppose he ran the guard."
She did not answer.
The ghost of a smile—a grim one—altered the Colonel's expression for a second, then faded. He looked at Ailsa curiously. Then:
"Have you anything to tell me that—perhaps I may be entitled to know about, Ailsa?"
"I see. I beg your pardon. If you ever are—perplexed—in doubt—I shall always——"
"Thank you," she said faintly. . . . "And—I am so sorry——"
"So am I. I'm sorrier than you know—about more matters than you know, Ailsa—" He softly smote his buckskin-gloved hands together, gazing at vacancy. Then lifted his head and squared his heavy shoulders.
"I thought I'd come when I could. The chances are that the army will move if this weather continues. The cavalry will march out anyway. So I thought I'd come over for a few moments, Ailsa. . . . Are you sure you are quite well? And not overdoing it? You certainly look well; you appear to be in perfect health. . . . I am very much relieved. . . . And—don't worry. Don't cherish apprehension about—anybody." He added, more to himself than to her: "Discipline will be maintained—must be maintained. There are more ways to do it than by military punishments, I know that now."
He looked up, held out his hand, retained hers, and patted it gently.
"Don't worry, child," he said, "don't worry." And went out to the porch thoughtfully, gazing straight ahead of him as his horse was brought up. Then, gathering curb and snaffle, he set toe to stirrup and swung up into his saddle.
"Ormond!" he called.
Berkley rode up and saluted.
"Ride with me," said Colonel Arran calmly.
"Rein up on the left." And, turning in his saddle, he motioned back his escort twenty paces to the rear. Then he walked his big, bony roan forward.
"You ran the guard?"
Berkley was silent.
The Colonel turned in his saddle and scrutinised him. The lancer's visage was imperturbable.
"Ormond," he said in a low voice, "whatever you think of me—whatever your attitude toward me is, I would like you to believe that I wish to be your friend."
Berkley's expression remained unchanged.
"It is my desire," said the older man, "my—very earnest—desire."
The young lancer was mute.
Arran's voice fell still lower:
"Some day—if you cared to—if you could talk over some—matters with me, I would be very glad. Perhaps you don't entirely understand me. Perhaps I have given you an erroneous impression concerning—matters—which it is too late to treat differently—in the light of riper experience—and in a knowledge born of years—solitary and barren years——"
He bent his gray head thoughtfully, then, erect in his saddle again:
"I would like to be your friend," he said in a voice perceptibly under control.
"Why?" asked Berkley harshly. "Is there any reason on God's earth why I could ever forgive you?"
"No; no reason perhaps. Yet, you are wrong."
"I say so in the light of the past, Berkley. Once I also believed that a stern, uncompromising attitude toward error was what God required of an upright heart."
"Error! D-do you admit that?" stammered Berkley. "Are you awake at last to the deviltry that stirred you—the damnable, misguided, distorted conscience that twisted you into a murderer of souls? By God, are you alive to what you did to—her?"
Colonel Arran, upright in his saddle and white as death, rode straight on in front of him.. Beside him, knee to knee, rode Berkley, his features like marble, his eyes ablaze.
"I am not speaking for myself," he said between his teeth, "I am not reproaching you, cursing you, for what you have done to me—for the ruin you have made of life for me, excommunicating me from every hope, outlawing me, branding me! I am thinking, now, only of my mother. God!—to think—to think of it—of her——"
Arran turned on him a face so ghastly that the boy was silenced. Then the older man said:
"Do you not know that the hell men make for others is what they are destined to burn in sooner or later? Do you think you can tell me anything of eternal punishment?" He laughed a harsh, mirthless laugh. "Do you not think I have learned by this time that vengeance is God's—and that He never takes it? It is man alone who takes it, and suffers it. Humanity calls it justice. But I have learned that what the laws of men give you is never yours to take; that the warrant handed you by men is not for you to execute. I—have—learned—many things in the solitary years, Berkley. . . . But this—what I am now saying to you, here under the stars—is the first time I have ever, even to myself, found courage to confess Christ."
Very far away to the south a rocket rose—a slender thread of fire. Then, to the northward, a tiny spark grew brighter, flickered, swung in an arc to right, to left, dipped, soared, hung motionless, dipped again to right, to left, tracing faint crimson semicircles against the sky.
Two more rockets answered, towering, curving, fading, leaving blue stars floating in the zenith.
And very, very far away there was a dull vibration of thunder, or of cannon.
The tremendous exodus continued; regiment after regiment packed knapsacks, struck tents, loaded their waggons and marched back through the mud toward Alexandria, where transports were waiting in hundreds.
The 3rd Zouaves were scheduled to leave early. Celia had only a few hours now and then in camp with husband and son. Once or twice they came to the hospital in the bright spring weather where new blossoms on azalea and jasmine perfumed the fields and flowering peach orchards turned all the hills and valleys pink.
Walking with her husband and son that last lovely evening before the regiment left, a hand of each clasped in her own, she strove very hard to keep up the gaiety of appearances, tried with all her might to keep back the starting tears, steady the lip that quivered, the hands that trembled locked in theirs.
They were walking together in a secluded lane that led from behind the Farm Hospital barns to a little patch of woodland through which a clear stream sparkled, a silent, intimate, leafy oasis amid an army-ridden desert, where there was only a cow to stare at them, knee deep in young mint, only a shy cardinal bird to interrupt them with its exquisite litany.
Their talk had been of Paige and Marye, of Paigecourt and the advisability of selling all stock, dismissing the negroes, and closing the place with the exception of the overseer's house. And Celia had made arrangements to attend to it.
"I certainly do despise travelling," she said, "but while I'm so near, I reckon I'd better use my pass and papers and try to go through to Paigecourt. It's just as well to prepare for the impossible, I suppose."
Colonel Craig polished his eye-glasses, adjusted them, and examined the official papers that permitted his wife to go to her estate, pack up certain family papers, discharge the servants, close the house, and return through the Union lines carrying only personal baggage.
He said without enthusiasm: "It's inside their lines. To go there isn't so difficult, but how about coming back? I don't want you to go, Celia."
She explained in detail that there would be no difficulty—a little proudly, too, when she spoke of her personal safety among her own people.
"I understand all that," he said patiently, "but nobody except the commander-in-chief knows where this army is going. I don't want you to be caught in the zone of operations."
She flushed up with a defiant little laugh. "The war isn't going to Paigecourt, anyway," she said.
He smiled with an effort. "I am not sure, dearest. All I am sure of is that we march in the morning, and go aboard ship at Alexandria. I don't know where we are expected to land, or where we are going to march after we do land." . . . He smiled again, mischievously. "Even if you believe that a Yankee army is not likely to get very far into Virginia, Paigecourt is too near Richmond for me to feel entirely sure that you may not have another visit from Stephen and me before you start North."
"Listen to the Yankee!" she cried, laughing gaily to hide the sudden dimness in her blue eyes. "My darling Yankee husband is ve'y absurd, and he doesn't suspect it! Why! don't you perfec'ly ridiculous Zouaves know that you'll both be back in New York befo' I am—and all tired out keeping up with the pace yo' general sets you?"
But when it was time to say good-bye once more, her limbs grew weak and she leaned heavily on husband and son, her nerveless feet dragging across the spring turf.
"Oh, Curt, Curt," she faltered, her soft cheeks pressed against the stiff bullion on his sleeve and collar, "if only I had the wretched consolation of sending you away to fight fo' the Right—fo' God and country—There, darling! Fo'give me—fo'give me. I am yo' wife first of all—first of all, Curt. And that even comes befo' country and—God!—Yes, it does! it does, dear. You are all three to me—I know no holier trinity than husband, God, and native land. . . . Must you go so soon? So soon? . . . Where is my boy—I'm crying so I can't see either of you—Stephen! Mother's own little boy—mother's little, little boy—oh, it is ve'y hard—ve'y hard——"
"Steve—I think you'd better kiss your mother now"—his voice choked and he turned his back and stood, the sun glittering on the gold and scarlet of his uniform.
Mother and son clung, parted, clung; then Colonel Craig's glittering sleeve was flung about them both.
"I'll try to bring him through all right, Celia. You must believe that we are coming back."
So they parted.
And at three in the morning, Celia, lying in her bed, started to a sitting posture. Very far away in the night reveille was sounding for some regiment outward bound; and then the bugles blew for another regiment and another, and another, until everywhere the darkened world grew gaily musical with the bugle's warning.
She crept to the window; it was too dusky to see. But in obscurity she felt that not far away husband and son were passing through darkness toward the mystery of the great unknown; and there, in her night-dress, she knelt by the sill, hour after hour, straining her eyes and listening until dawn whitened the east and the rivers began to marshal their ghostly hosts. Then the sun rose, annihilating the phantoms of the mist and shining on columns of marching men, endless lines of waggons, horse-batteries, foot artillery, cavalry, engineers with gabions and pontoons, and entire divisions of blue infantry, all pouring steadily toward Alexandria and the river, where lay the vast transport fleet at anchor, destined to carry them whither their Maker and commanding general willed that they should go.
To Celia's wet eyes there seemed to be little variation in the dull blue columns with the glitter of steel flickering about them; yet, here and there a brilliant note appeared—pennons fluttering above lances, scarfs and facings of some nearer foot battery, and, far away toward Alexandria, vivid squares of scarlet in a green field, dimmed very little by the distance. Those were zouaves—her own, or perhaps the 5th, or the 9th from Roanoke, or perhaps the 14th Brooklyn—she could not know, but she never took her eyes from the distant blocks and oblongs of red against the green until the woods engulfed them.
Ailsa still lay heavily asleep. Celia opened the door and called her to the window.
"Honey-bud, darling," she whispered tearfully, "did you know the Lancers are leaving?"
Ailsa's eyes flew wide open:
"Not his regiment!"
"Are there two?"
"Yes," said Ailsa, frightened. "That must be the 6th Pennsylvania. . . . Because I think—somebody would have told me—Colonel Arran——"
She stared through eyes from which the mist of slumber had entirely cleared away. Then she sprang from her bed to the window:
"Oh—oh!" she said half to herself, "he wouldn't go away without saying something to me! He couldn't! . . . And—oh, dear—oh dear, their pennons are swallow-tailed and scarlet! It looks like his regiment—it does—it does! . . . But he wouldn't go without speaking to me——"
Celia turned and looked at her.
"Do you mean Colonel Arran?" And saw that she did not.
For a while they stood there silently together, the soft spring wind blowing over their bare necks and arms, stirring the frail, sheer fabric of their night-robes.
Suddenly the stirring music of cavalry trumpets along the road below startled them; they turned swiftly to look out upon a torrent of scarlet pennons and glancing lance points—troop after troop of dancing horses and blue-clad riders, their flat forage caps set rakishly, bit and spur and sabre hilt glistening, the morning sun flashing golden on the lifted trumpets.
On they came, on, on, horses' heads tossing, the ground shaking with the mellow sound of four thousand separate hoofs,—and passed, troop on troop, a lengthening, tossing wave of scarlet across the verdure.
Then, far away in the column, a red lance pennon swung in a circle, a blue sleeve shot up in salute and adieu. And Ailsa knew that Berkley had seen her, and that the brightness of the young world was leaving her, centred there in the spark of fire that tipped his lance.
Now she saw her lover turn in his saddle and, sitting so, ride on and on, his tall lance slanting from stirrup boot to arm loop, the morning sun bright across his face, and touching each metal button with fire from throat to belt.
So her lancer rode away into the unknown; and she sat on the edge of her bed, crying, until it was time to go on duty and sit beside the dying in the sick wards.
They brought her his last letter that evening.
"You wicked little thing," it ran, "if you hadn't taught me self-respect I'd have tried to run the guard to-night, and would probably have been caught and drummed out or shot. We're in a bustle; orders, totally unexpected, attach us to Porter's Corps, Sykes's division of regulars. Warren's brigade, which includes, I believe, the 5th Zouaves, the 10th Zouaves, 6th Pennsylvania Lancers, and 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery.
"We've scarcely time to get off; our baggage will never be ready, and how we're going to get to Alexandria and aboard ship is more than I know.
"And I'm simply furious; I'd counted on a dramatic situation, Ailsa—the soldiers farewell, loud sobs, sweetheart faints, lancer dashes away unmanly tears—'Be strong, be br-r-rave, dah-ling! Hevving watches over your Alonzo!'
"Not so. A big brawny brute in spurs comes in the dark to stir us with the toe of his boot. 'Silence,' he hisses, 'if you can't hear that damn reveille, I'll punch you in the snoot, an' then mebbe you'll spread them lop-ears o' yourn!'
"Heaven! Your Alonzo is derided by a hireling!
"'Pack up, you swallow-tailed, leather-seated, pig-prodding sons of galoots!' Thus, our first sergeant, recently of the regulars, roll-call having ended.
"Coffeeless, soupless, tackless, we leer furtively at the two days' rations in our haversacks which we dare not sample; lick our chops reflectively, are cruelly chidden by underlings in uniform, further insulted by other underlings, are stepped on, crowded, bitten, and kicked at by our faithful Arab steeds, are coarsely huddled into line, where officers come to gloat over us and think out further ingenious indignities to heap upon us while we stand to horse. And we stand there two hours!
"I can't keep up this artificial flow of low comedy. The plain fact of the situation is that we're being hustled toward an amphibious thing with paddle-wheels named The Skylark, and I haven't said good-bye to you.
"Ailsa, it isn't likely that anything is going to knock my head off or puncture vital sections of me. But in case the ludicrous should happen, I want you to know that a cleaner man goes before the last Court Marshal than would have stood trial there before he met you.
"You are every inch my ideal of a woman—every fibre in you is utterly feminine. I adore your acquired courage, I worship your heavenly inconsistencies. The mental pleasure I experienced with you was measured and limited only by my own perversity and morbid self-absorption; the splendour of the passion I divine in you, unawakened, awes me, leaves me in wonder. The spiritual tonic, even against my own sickly will has freshened me by mere contact with the world you live in; the touch of your lips and hands—ah, Ailsa—has taught me at last the language that I sneered at.
"Well—we can never marry. How it will be with us, how end, He who, after all is said and done, did construct us, knows now. And we will know some day, when life is burned out in us.
"Hours, days of bitter revolt come—the old madness for you, the old recklessness of desire, the savage impatience with life, assail me still. Because, Ailsa, I would—I could have made you a—well, an interesting husband, anyway. You were fashioned to be the divinest wife and . . . I'm not going on in this strain; I'll write you when I can. And for God's sake take care of your life. There's nothing left if you go—nothing.
"I've made a will. Trooper Burgess, a comrade—my former valet—carries a duplicate memorandum. Don't weep; I'll live to make another. But in this one I have written you that my mother's letters and pictures are to be yours—when I have a chance I'll draw it in legal form. And, dear, first be perfectly sure I'm dead, and then destroy my mother's letters without reading them; and then look upon her face. And I think you will forgive me when I tell you that it is for her sake that I can never marry. But you will not understand why."
Over this letter Ailsa had little time to wonder or to make herself wretched, for that week orders came to evacuate the Farm Hospital and send all sick and wounded to the General Hospital at Alexandria.
A telegram arrived, too, from Miss Dix, who was authorised to detail nurses by the Secretary of War, ordering the two nurses of Sainte Ursula's Sisterhood to await letters of recommendation and written assignments to another hospital to be established farther south. But where that hospital was to be built nobody seemed to know.
A week later a dozen Protestant women nurses arrived at Alexandria, where they were made unwelcome. Medical directors, surgeons, ward masters objected, bluntly declaring that they wouldn't endure a lot of women interfering and fussing and writing hysterical nonsense to the home newspapers.
For a while confusion reigned, intensified by the stupendous mobilisation going on all around.
A medical officer came to the Farm Hospital and angrily informed Ailsa that the staff had had enough of women in the wards; and from forty cots forty half-dead, ghastly creatures partly rose and cursed the medical gentleman till his ears burned crimson,
Ailsa, in her thin gray habit bearing the scarlet heart, stood in the middle of the ward and defied him with her credentials.
"The medical staff of the army has only to lay its case before the Secretary of War," she said, looking calmly at him, "and that is where the Sanitary Commission obtains its authority. Meanwhile our orders detail us here for duty."
"We'll see about that!" he snapped, backing away.
"So will we," said Ailsa, smiling. But that afternoon she and Letty took an ambulance and went, in great distress of mind, to see Mother Angela, Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who had arrived from Indiana ready to continue hospital duties on the Potomac if necessary.
The lovely Superieure, a lady of rare culture and ability, took Ailsa's hand in hers with a sad smile.
"Men's prejudices are hard to meet. The social structure of the world is built on them. But men's prejudices vanish when those same men fall sick. The War Department has regularised our position; it will authorise yours. You need not be afraid."
She smiled again reminiscently.
"When our Sisters of the Holy Cross first appeared in the wards, the patients themselves looked at us sullenly and askance. I heard one say: 'Why can't they take off those white-winged sun-bonnets in the wards?' And another sneered: 'Sun-bonnets! Huh! They look like busted white parasols!' But, Mrs. Paige, our white 'sun-bonnets' have already become to them the symbol they love most, after the flag. Be of good courage. Your silver-gray garb and white cuffs will mean much to our soldiers before this battle year is ended."
That evening Ailsa and Letty drove back to the Parm Hospital in their ambulance, old black Cassius managing his mules with alternate bursts of abuse and of praise. First he would beat upon his mules with a flat stick which didn't hurt, but made a loud racket; then, satisfied, he would loll in his seat singing in melodious and interminable recitative:
An' I hope to gain de prommis' lan', Yaas I do, 'Deed I do. Lor' I hope to gain de prommis' lan', Dat I do, An' dar I'll flap ma wings an' take ma stan', Yaas I will, 'Deed I will, An' I'll tune ma harp an' jine de Shinin' Ban' Glory, Glory, I hope to gain de prommis' lan'!
And over and over the same shouted melody, interrupted only by an outburst of reproach for his mules.
They drove back through a road which had become for miles only a great muddy lane running between military encampments, halted at every bridge and crossroads to exhibit their passes; they passed never-ending trains of army waggons cither stalled or rumbling slowly toward Alexandria. Everywhere were soldiers, drilling, marching, cutting wood, washing clothes, cooking, cleaning arms, mending, working on camp ditches, drains, or forts, writing letters at the edge of shelter tents, digging graves, skylarking—everywhere the earth was covered with them.
They passed the camp for new recruits, where the poor "fresh fish" awaited orders to join regiments in the field to which they had been assigned; they passed the camp for stragglers and captured deserters; the camp for paroled prisoners; the evil-smelling convalescent camp, which, still under Surgeon General Hammond's Department, had not yet been inspected by the Sanitary Commission.
An officer, riding their way, talked with them about conditions in this camp, where, he said, the convalescents slept on the bare ground, rain or shine; where there were but three surgeons for the thousands suffering from intestinal and throat and lung troubles, destitute, squalid, unwarmed by fires, unwashed, wretched, forsaken by the government that called them to its standard.
It was the first of that sort of thing that Ailsa and Letty had seen.
After the battles in the West—particularly after the fall of Fort Donnelson—terrible rumours were current in the Army of the Potomac and in the hospitals concerning the plight of the wounded—of new regiments that had been sent into action with not a single medical officer, or, for that matter, an ounce of medicine, or of lint in its chests.
They were grisly rumours. In the neat wards of the Farm Hospital, with its freshly swept and sprinkled floors, its cots in rows, its detailed soldier nurses and the two nurses from Sainte Ursula's Sisterhood, its sick-diet department, its medical stores, its two excellent surgeons, these rumours found little credence.
And now, here in the vicinity, Ailsa's delicate nostrils shrank from the stench arising from the "Four Camps"; and she saw the emaciated forms lining the hillside, and she heard the horrible and continuous coughing.
"Do you know," she said to Letty the next morning, "I am going to write to Miss Dix and inform her of conditions in that camp."
And she did so, perfectly conscious that she was probably earning the dislike of the entire medical department. But hundreds of letters like hers had already been sent to Washington, and already the Sanitary Commission was preparing to take hold; so, when at length one morning an acknowledgment of her letter was received, no notice was taken of her offer to volunteer for service in that loathsome camp, but the same mail brought orders and credentials and transportation vouchers for herself and Letty.
Letty was still asleep, but Ailsa went up and waked her when the hour for her tour of duty approached.
"What do you think!" she said excitedly. "We are to pack up our valises and go aboard the Mary Lane to-morrow. She sails with hospital stores. What do you think of that?"
"Where are we going?" asked Letty, bewildered.
"You poor, sleepy little thing," said Ailsa, sitting down on the bed's shaky edge, "I'm sure I don't know where we're going, dear. Two Protestant nurses are coming here to superintend the removal of our sick boys—and Dr. West says they are old and ugly, and that Miss Dix won't have any more nurses who are not over thirty and who are not most unattractive to look at."
"I wonder what Miss Dix would do if she saw us," said Letty naively, and sat up in bed; rubbing her velvety eyes with the backs of her hands. Then she yawned, looked inquiringly at Ailsa, smiled, and swung her slender body out of bed.
While she was doing her hair Ailsa heard her singing to herself. She was very happy; another letter from Dr. Benton had arrived.
Celia, who had gone to Washington three days before, to see Mr. Stanton, returned that evening with her passes and order for transportation; and to Ailsa's astonishment and delight she found that the designated boat was the Mary Lane.
But Celia was almost too nervous and too tired to talk over the prospects.
"My dear," she said wearily, "that drive from the Chain Bridge to Alexandria has mos'ly killed me. I vow and declare there was never one moment when one wheel was not in a mud hole. All my bones ache, Honey-bud, and I'm cross with talking to so many Yankees, and—do you believe me !—that ve'y horrid Stanton creature gave orders that I was to take the oath!"
"The—oath?" asked Ailsa, amazed.
"Certainly. And I took it," she added fiercely, "becose of my husband! If it had not been fo' Curt I'd have told Mr. Stanton what I thought of his old oath!"
"What kind of an oath was it, Celia?"
Celia repeated it haughtily:
"'I do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, to faithfully support the Constitution of the United States, and of the State of New York. So he'p me God.'"
"It is the oath of fealty," said Ailsa in a hushed voice.
"It was not necessa'y," said Celia coldly. "My husband is sufficient to keep me—harmless. . . . But I know what I feel in my heart, Honey-bud; and so does eve'y Southern woman—God help us all. . . . Is that little Miss Lynden going with us?"
"Letty? Yes, of course."
Celia began to undress. "She's a ve'y sweet little minx. . . . She is—odd, somehow. . . . So young—such a he'pless, cute little thing. . . Ailsa, in that child's eyes—or in her features somewhere, somehow, I see—I feel a—a sadness, somehow—like the gravity of expe'ience, the something that wisdom brings to the ve'y young too early. It is odd, isn't it."
"Letty is a strange, gentle little thing. I've often wondered——"
"I—don't know," said Ailsa vaguely. "It is not natural that a happy woman should be so solemnly affectionate to another. I've often thought that she must, sometime or other, have known deep unhappiness."
When Celia was ready to retire, Ailsa bade her good-night and wandered away down the stairs, Letty was still on duty; she glanced into the sick-diet kitchen as she passed and saw the girl bending over a stew-pan.
She did not disturb her. With evening a soft melancholy had begun to settle over Ailsa. It came in the evening, now, often—a sensation not entirely sad, not unwelcome, soothing her, composing her mind for serious thought, for the sweet sadness of memory.
Always she walked, now, companioned by memories of Berkley. Wherever she moved—in the quiet of the sick wards, in the silence of the moonlight, seated by smeared windows watching the beating rain, in the dead house, on duty in the kitchen contriving broths, or stretched among her pillows, always the memories came in troops to bear her company.
They were with her now as she paced the veranda to and fro, to and fro.
She heard Letty singing happily over her stew-pan in the kitchen; the stir and breathing of the vast army was audible all around her in the darkness. Presently she looked at her watch in the moonlight, returned it to her breast.
"I'm ready, dear," she said, going to the kitchen door.
And another night on duty was begun—the last she ever was to spend under the quiet roof of the Farm Hospital.
That night she sat beside the bed of a middle-aged man, a corporal in a Minnesota regiment whose eyes had been shot out on picket. Otherwise he was convalescent from dysentery. But Ailsa had seen the convalescent camp, and she would not let him go yet.
So she read to him in a low, soothing voice, glancing from time to time at the bandaged face. And, when she saw he was asleep, she sat silent, hands nervously clasped above the Bible on her knee. Then her lids closed for an instant as she recited a prayer for the man she loved, wherever he might be that moon-lit night.
A zouave, terribly wounded on Roanoke Island, began to fret; she rose and walked swiftly to him, and the big sunken eyes opened and he said, humbly:
"I am sorry to inconvenience you, Mrs. Paige. I'll try to keep quiet."
"You foolish fellow, you don't inconvenience me. What can I do for you?"
His gaze was wistful, but he said nothing, and she bent down tenderly, repeating her question.
A slight flush gathered under his gaunt cheek bones. "I guess I'm just contrary," he muttered. "Don't bother about me, ma'am."
"You are thinking of your wife; talk to me about her, Neil."
It was what he wanted; he could endure the bandages. So, her cool smooth hand resting lightly over his, where it lay on the sheets, she listened to the home-sick man until it was time to give another sufferer his swallow of lemonade.
Later she put on a gingham overgown, sprinkled it and her hands with camphor, and went into the outer wards where the isolated patients lay—where hospital gangrene and erysipelas were the horrors. And, farther on, she entered the outlying wing devoted to typhus. In spite of the open windows the atmosphere was heavy; everywhere the air seemed weighted with the odour of decay.
As always, in spite of herself, she hesitated at the door. But the steward on duty rose; and she took his candle and entered the place of death.
Toward morning a Rhode Island artilleryman, dying in great pain, relapsed into coma. Waiting beside him, she wrote to his parents, enclosing the little keepsakes he had designated when conscious, while his life flickered with the flickering candle. Her letter and his life ended together; dawn made the candle-light ghastly; a few moments later the rumble of the dead waggon sounded in the court below. The driver came early because there was a good deal of freight for his waggon that day. A few moments afterward the detail arrived with the stretchers, and Ailsa stood up, drew aside the screen, and went down into the gray obscurity of the court-yard.
Grave-diggers were at work on a near hillside; she could hear the clink clink of spade and pick; reveille was sounding from hill to hill; the muffled stirring became a dull, sustained clatter, never ceasing around her for one instant.
A laundress was boiling clothing over a fire near by; Ailsa slipped off her gingham overdress, unbound the white turban, and tossed them on the grass near the fire. Then, rolling back her sleeves, she plunged her arms into a basin of hot water in which a little powdered camphor was floating.
While busy with her ablutions the two new nurses arrived, seated on a battery limber; and, hastily drying her hands, she went to them and welcomed them, gave them tea and breakfast in Dr. West's office, and left them there while she went away to awake Celia and Letty, pack her valise for the voyage before her, and write to Berkley.
But it was not until she saw the sun low in the west from the deck of the Mary Lane, that she at last found a moment to write.
The place, the hour, her loneliness, moved depths in her that she had never sounded—moved her to a recklessness never dreamed of. It was an effort for her to restrain the passionate confessions trembling on her pen's tip; her lips whitened with the cry struggling for utterance.
"Dear, never before did I so completely know myself, never so absolutely trust myself to the imperious, almost ungovernable tide which has taken my destiny from the quiet harbour where it lay, and which is driving it headlong toward yours.
"You have left me alone, to wonder and to wonder. And while isolated, I stand trying to comprehend why it was that your words separated our destinies while your arms around me made them one. I am perfectly aware that the surge of life has caught me up, tossed me to its crest, and is driving me blindly out across the waste spaces of the world toward you—wherever you may be—whatever be the cost. I will not live without you.
"I am not yet quite sure what has so utterly changed me—what has so completely changed within me. But I am changed. Perhaps daily familiarity with death and pain and wretchedness, hourly contact with the paramount mystery of all, has broadened me, or benumbed me. I don't know. All I seem to see clearly—to clearly understand—is the dreadful brevity of life, the awful chances against living, the miracle of love in such a maelstrom, the insanity of one who dare not confess it, live for it, love to the uttermost with heart, soul, and body, while life endures,
"All my instincts, all principles inherent or inculcated; all knowledge spiritual and intellectual, acquired; all precepts, maxims, proverbs, axioms incorporated and lately a part of me, seem trivial, empty, meaningless in sound and in form compared to the plain truths of Death. For never until now did I understand that we walk always arm in arm with Death, that he squires us at every step, coolly joggles our elbow, touches our shoulder now and then, wakes us at dawn, puts out our night-light, and smooths the sheets we sleep under.
"I had thought of Death as something hiding very, very far away. Yet I had already seen him enter my own house. But now I understand how close he always is; and, somehow, it has changed—hardened, maybe—much that was vague and unformed in my character. And, maybe, the knowledge is distorting it; I don't know. All I know is that, before life ends, if there is a chance of fulfilment, I will take it. And fulfilment means you—my love for you, the giving of it, of myself, of all I am, all I desire, all I care for, all I believe, into your keeping—into your embrace. That, for me, is fulfilment of life.
"Even in your arms you tell me that there is to be no fulfilment. I have acquiesced, wondering, bewildered, confused. But, dear, you can never tell me so again—if we live—if I live to look into your eyes again—never, never. For I shall not believe it, nor shall I let you believe it, if only we can win through this deathly battle nightmare which is rising between us—if ever we can find each other again, touch each other through this red, unreal glare of war.
"Oh, Philip—Philip—only to have your arms around me! Only to touch you! You shall not tell me then that our destinies do not mingle. They shall mingle like two wines; they shall become utterly confused in one another; I was meant for that; I will not die, isolated by you, unknown to you, not belonging to you! I will not die alone this way in the world, with no deeper memory to take into the unknown than that you said you loved me.
"God alone knows what change misery and sorrow and love and death have accomplished in me; never have I stood so alone upon this earth; never have I cared so for life, never have I so desired to be a deathless part of yours.
"If you love me you will make me part of yours—somehow, some way. And, Philip, if there is no way, yet there is always one way if we both live. And I shall not complain—only, I cannot die—let life go out—so that you could ever forget that my life had been part of yours.
"Is it dreadful of me to think this? But the mighty domination of Death has dwarfed everything around me, dear; shrivelled the little man-made formulas and laws; the living mind and body seem more vital than the by-laws made to govern them. . . . God knows what I'm writing, but you have gone into battle leaving life unfulfilled for us both, and I assented—and my heart and soul are crying out to you, unreconciled—crying out my need of you across the smoke. . . .
"There is a battery at Cock-pit Point, firing, and the smoke of the guns drifts across the low-hanging sun. It must be only a salute, for our fleet of transports moves on, torrents of black smoke pouring out of every tall funnel, paddle-wheels churning steadily.
"When the fleet passed Mount Vernon the bells tolled aboard every boat; and we could see the green trees and a glimmer of white on shore, and the flag flying.
"What sadness! A people divided who both honour the sacredness of this spot made holy by a just man's grave—gathering to meet in battle—brother against brother.
"But Fate shall not longer array you and me against each other! I will not have it so! Neither my heart nor my soul could endure the cruelty of it, nor my reason its wickedness and insanity. From the first instant I met your eyes, Philip, somehow, within me, I knew I belonged to you. I do more hopelessly to-day than ever—and with each day, each hour, more and more until I die. You will not let me go to my end unclaimed, will you?—a poor ghost all alone, lost in the darkness somewhere among the stars—lacking that tie between you and it which even death does not know how to sever!
"I leave all to you, loving you, wishing what you wish, content with what you give—and take—so that you do give and take and keep and hold for life.
"It is very dusky; the lights, red and white, glimmer on every transport. We feel the sea-swell a little. Celia left us, going ashore at Acquia Creek. She takes the cars to Richmond and then to Paigecourt. Letty sits beside me on deck. There were two cases of fever aboard and we went down into a dreadfully ill-smelling cabin to do what we could. Now we are here on deck again. Some officers are talking very gaily with Letty. I am ending my letter to you—wherever you are, my darling, under these big, staring stars that look down at me out of space. I don't want my ghost to be blown about up there—unless it belongs to you. That is the only fear of death I ever have or ever had—that I might die before you had all of me there is to give."
Toward the end of June, as Claymore's new provisional brigade of Sykes's division, Fitz John Porter's superb corps d'armee, neared the designated rendezvous, some particularly dirty veteran regiments, bivouacked along the fields, crowded to the roadside, fairly writhing in their scorn and derision.
"Fresh fish! Oh—h! Fresh fi—sh!" they shouted. "My God, boys, just see them pretty red pants! Mother! Come and look. Oh, papa, what are they? Sa—ay, would you gentlemen kindly tell us poor old sodgers what kind ov a hell ov a, dressmaker cut out them pantalettes? I wish I could go out to play with these nice, perlite little boys? Oh, children! why didn't you bring your nursemaids with you?"
The 3rd Zouaves marched past the jeering veterans, grinding their teeth, but making no effort at retort. They knew well enough by this time that any attempt to retort would be worse than useless.
As the head of the column of the 8th Lancers appeared from the West at the forks of the other road, the dingy veterans fairly danced in malicious delight:
"Excuse us," they simpered, kissing their dirty finger-tips to the horsemen, "ex-cuse us, please, but do tell us how you left dear old Fift' Avenoo. Them rocking hosses need a leetle new paint where they sit down, me lords. Hey, you ain't got any old red silk stockings we can use for guidons, have you? Oh, Alonzo darling! curl my hair an' wet me with expensive cologne!"
Colonel Egerton's 20th Dragoons, being in blue and orange, got off easier, though the freshness of their uniforms was tremendously resented; but McDunn's 10th Flying Battery, in brand new uniforms, ran the full fierce fire of chaff; the indignant cannoneers were begged to disclose the name of the stage line which had supplied their battery horses; and Arthur Wye, driving the showy swing team of No. 6, Left Section, shouted back in his penetrating voice:
"If you want to know who sells broken-down nags to suckers, it's Simon Cameron!—you Dutch-faced, barrel-bellied, Pennsylvania scuts!"
A bull-like bellow of laughter burst from the battery; even Captain McDunn's grin neutralised the scowling visage he turned to conceal it. And the fury of the Pennsylvanians knew no bounds; for, from general to drummer boy, the troops of that great State were horribly sensitive to any comment on the Hon. Mr. Cameron's horse transactions.
Warren's matchless brigade followed; but the 6th Lancers had seen service and they were not jeered; nor were the 5th and 10th Zouaves, the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery and the Rhode Island Battery.
Berkley, riding with his troop, bridle loose in both gauntleted hands, lance swinging wide from stirrup and elbow loop, looked to the left and noticed Warren's regiments swinging out across the breezy uplands. Half an hour later he saw the 3rd Zouaves enter a wheat field to the left of the road, form on their colour front, unsling knapsacks, and stack arms. McDunn's battery found a gap in the fence and followed, the guns bumping and bouncing out over a potato field; and presently Egerton's Dragoons turned sharply to the right and entered a cool road that ran along a bushy hollow.
The 8th Lancers kept straight on for five or six hundred yards, until they encountered their regimental quartermaster and camping party. Then they wheeled to the right, passed through a thin belt of shade trees, across a splendid marl drive and a vast unkempt lawn. Beyond this they skirted a typical planter's house of the better class, with its white galleries, green blinds, quarters, smoke houses, barns, and outhouses innumerable; and halted, each troop moving to a point a little in the rear of where its horses were to be secured, and forming one rank. The bugles sounded "Dismount!" Eight hundred sun-burned riders set foot to sod, details were made to hold the horses, lances were stacked, picket ropes fixed, shelter tents erected, sabre and bridle hung on the twelve weapons of the troop-carbineers, and the standard carried to Colonel Arran's tent.
Directly to the right was a gentle declivity with a clear, rapid stream splashing the bottom grasses. Beyond the stream a low green hill rose, concealing the landscape and the river beyond.
And here, on the breezy meadow slope, Egerton's Dragoons went into camp and sent out their fatigue parties and grand guards.
Company and squadron streets were laid out, sinks dug, shelter tents pitched, firewood brought, horses picketed. Twenty paces in front of each pile of tents the kitchens were established; all the regimental cavalry waggons came up promptly and were parked in the rear of the picket line for sick horses; the belated and hated sutler of the 8th Lancers drove hastily in, deaf to the blandishments of veterans along the roadside, who eyed him malevolently and with every desire to work him substantial harm.
Late in the afternoon there was much visiting along the lines and between distant camps; the day was cloudless and perfect; magnolia and china-berry scented the winds which furrowed every grassy hillside; flags fluttered, breezy gusts of bugle music incited the birds to rivalry. Peace and sunshine lay over all, and there was nothing sinister to offend save, far along the horizon, the low, unbroken monotone of cannon, never louder, never lower, steady, dull, interminable; and on the southern horizon a single tall cloud, slanting a trifle to the east, like a silver pillar out of plumb.
Berkley's attention was directed to it by a suspicious comrade; they both gazed at it curiously, listening to the low mutter of the cannonade; then Berkley frowned, folded both gauntlets, placed them in his belt, passed his hand over his freshly shaven chin, and, pocketing his cob pipe, sauntered forth to visit and gossip with those he knew in other camps.
"Hello, Burgess," he said humorously; "how are you making out?"
His late valet's arm twitched instinctively toward the salute he dared not offer; he glanced stealthily right and left before answering:
"I am doing very well, sir, thank you."
"I told you to cut out the 'sir,' didn't I?"
"Yes, sir—beg pardon——"
Berkley eyed him. "You've got your chance," he said. "Your rank and mine are equal. Do you take pleasure in continually reminding yourself of your recent position of servitude?"
"Can't you help it? Is it born in you?"
Burgess stood silent, considering, then he lifted his ugly face and looked hard at Berkley.
"I am not ashamed of having served you. I am more comfortable under orders. . . . I liked to dress you up . . . I wish to God it was that way now."
"Don't you want your independence?"
"My independence," repeated Burgess, "I had it—more of it when I was looking out for you, sir, than I have now in this damn regiment——"
"Well, what did you enlist for?"
"You've asked me that many times, sir, and I don't know. . . . I'd rather be around, handy like——"
"You'll get killed some day, don't you know it?"
"No, sir. I guess you'll look out for me. You always did."
"How the devil can I prevent one of those big shells from knocking you off your horse!"
Burgess, patient, undisturbed, let the, question go with a slight smile.
"What a jackass you are!" said Berkley irritably; "here's a dollar to get some pie. And if you can cheat that cursed sutler, do it!"
He himself purchased two big pies from the sutler after an angry haggle in which he was easily worsted; and he munched away contentedly as he walked toward the lines of the 3rd Zouaves, his spurs and sabre jingling, Burgess following respectfully at heel.
"Hello, Steve!" he called out to a sun-burnt young zouave who was drying his freshly washed turban in the hill breeze. "I always heard you fellows wore infant's underclothes, but I never believed it before!"
"That's my turban, you idiot!" retorted Stephen, turning red as several of McDunn's artillerymen began to laugh. But he came over and shook hands and accepted a big piece of pie without further resentment. "Hello, Burgess," he added.
"How do you do, sir."
"That damned Dutch sutler of ours," commented Berkley, "puts clay in his pie-erust. We'll certainly have to fix him before long. How are you, Steve, anyway?"
"Both socks full of tallow; otherwise I'm feeling fine," said the boy. "Did you hear those dirty Bucktail veterans back there poking fun at us? Well, we never answer 'em nowadays; but the Zouaves are getting fearfully sick of it; and if we don't go into battle pretty soon there'll be a private war on—" he winked—"with those Pennsylvanians, you bet. And I guess the Lancers will be in it, too."
Berkley cast an evil eye on a pair of Pennsylvania soldiers who had come to see how the Zou-zous made camp; then he shrugged his shoulders, watching Burgess, who had started away to roam hungrily around the sutler's camp again.
"After all," he said, "these veterans have a right to jeer at us. They've seen war; and now they know whether they'll fight or run away. It's more than we know, so far."
"Well, I tell you," said Stephen candidly, "there's no chance of my running away. A fellow can't skedaddle when his father's looking at him. Besides, Phil, I don't know how it is, but I'm not very much afraid, not as much as I thought I'd be."
Berkley looked at him curiously. "Have you been much under fire?"
"Only that affair at the Blue Bridge—you know yourself how it was. After the first shell had made me rather sick at my stomach I was all right—except that I hated to see father sitting up there on his horse while we were all lying snug in the wheat. . . . How did you feel when the big shells came over?"
"Bad," said Berkley briefly.
"I don't see why you should feel queer, Phil—after that bully thing you did with the escort——"
"Oh, hell!" cut in Berkley savagely, "I'm sick of hearing about it. If you all knew that I was too scared to realise what I was doing you'd let up on that episode."
Stephen laughed. "I hope our boys get scared in the same way. . . . Hello, here's a friend of yours I believe——"
They turned to encounter Casson, the big dragoon, arm in arm with the artilleryman, Arthur Wye.
"Give us some pie, you son of a gun!" they suggested unceremoniously; and when supplied and munching, they all locked arms and strolled out across the grass toward the hill, where already, dark against the blinding blue, hundreds of idle soldiers had gathered to sit on the turf and stare at the tall cloud on the horizon, or watch the signal officer on the higher hill beyond, seated at his telescope, while, beside him, a soldier swung dirty square flags in the wind,
As they arrived on the crest a quick exclamation escaped them; for there, beyond, mile on mile, lay the armed host of which their regiments were tiny portions.
"Lord!" said Stephen in a low, surprised voice, "did you fellows know that the whole army was near here?"
"Not I," said Berkley, gazing spellbound out across the rolling panorama of river, swamp, woods, and fields. "I don't believe it occurs very often, either—the chance to see an entire army all at once, encamped right at your feet. What a lot of people and animals!"
They sat down, cross-legged, enjoying their pie, eyes wandering wonderingly over the magic landscape. Here and there a marquee marked some general's headquarters, but except for these there were no tents save shelter tents in sight, and not so many of these, because many divisions had bivouacked, and others were in cantonments where the white cupola of some house glimmered, or the thin spire of a church pierced green trees.
Here and there they noted and pointed out to each other roads over which cavalry moved or long waggon trains crept. Down along the swamps that edged the river they could see soldiers building corduroy, repairing bridges, digging ditches, and, in one spot, erecting a fort.
"Oh, hell," said Casson, whose regiment, dismounted, had served muddy apprenticeship along the York River, "if they're going to begin that kind of thing again I'd rather be at home laying gas pipes on Broadway!"
"What kind of thing?" demanded Stephen.
"That road making, swamp digging—all that fixing up forts for big guns that nobody has a chance to fire because the Johnnies get out just when everything's ready to blow 'em into the Union again. A—h!" he added in disgust, "didn't we have a dose of that at Yorktown and Williamsburg? Why doesn't Little Mac start us hell-bent for Richmond and let us catch 'em on the jump?"
For a while, their mouths full of pie, the soldiers, with the exception of Berkley, criticised their commander-in-chief, freely—their corps commanders, and every officer down to their particular corporals. That lasted for ten minutes. Then one and all began comparing these same maligned officers most favourably with other officers of other corps; and they ended, as usual, by endorsing their commander-in-chief with enthusiasm, and by praising every officer under whom they served.
Then they boasted of their individual regiments—all except Berkley—extolling their discipline, their marching, their foraging efficiency, their martyr-like endurance.
"What's your Colonel like, anyway?" inquired Casson, turning to Berkley.
"He's a good officer," said the latter indifferently.
"Do you like him?"
"Jerusalem!" laughed Wye, "if that isn't a kick in the seat of his pants!"
Berkley reddened. "You're mistaken, Arthur."
"Didn't you tell me at Alexandria that you hated him?"
"I said that—yes. I was disappointed because the Westchester Horse was not attached to John Casson's regiment. . . . I don't—dislike Colonel Arran."
Berkley was still red; he lay in the grass on his stomach, watching the big cloud pile on the horizon.
"You know," said Casson, "that part of our army stretches as far as that smoke. We're the rear-guard."
"Listen to the guns," said Wye, pretending technical familiarity even at that distance. "They're big fellows—those Dahlgrens and Columbiads——"
"Oh, bosh!" snapped Casson, "you can't tell a howitzer from a rocket!"
Wye sat up, thoroughly offended. "To prove your dense ignorance, you yellow-bellied dragoon, let me ask you a simple question: When a shell is fired toward you can you see it coming?"
"Certainly. Didn't we see the big shells at Yorktown——"
"Wait! When a solid shot is fired, can you see it when it is coming toward you?"
"No you can't, you ignoramus! You can see a shell coming or going; you can see a solid shot going—never coming from the enemy's guns. Aw! go soak that bull head of yours and wear a lady-like havelock!"
The bickering discussion became general for a moment, then, still disputing, Casson and Wye walked off toward camp, and Stephen and Berkley followed.
"Have you heard from your mother?" asked the latter, as they sauntered along over the grass.
"Yes, twice. Father was worried half to death because she hadn't yet left Paigecourt. Isn't it strange, Phil, that after all we're so near mother's old home? And father was all against her going, I tell you, I'm worried."
"She has probably gone by this time," observed Berkley.
The boy nodded doubtfully; then: "I had a fine letter from Ailsa. She sent me twenty dollars," he added naively, "but our sutler has got it all."
"What did Ailsa say?" asked Berkley casually.
"Oh, she enquired about father and me—and you, too, I believe. Oh, yes; she wanted me to say to you that she was well—-and so is that other girl—what's her name?"
"Oh, yes—Letty Lynden. They're in a horrible kind of a temporary hospital down on the York River along with the Sisters of Charity; and she said she had just received orders to pack up and start west with the ambulances."
"I believe so."
After a silence Berkley said:
"I heard from her yesterday."
"Yes. Unless your father already knows, it might be well to say to him that Ailsa's ambulance train is ordered to rendezvous in the rear of the 5th Provisional Corps head-quarters."
"That looks like it, doesn't it? The 5th Provisional Corps is Porter's." He turned and looked back, out across the country.
"She may be somewhere out yonder, at this very moment, Steve." He made a vague gesture toward the west, stood looking for a while, then turned and walked slowly on with head lowered.
"I wish my mother and Ailsa were back in New York," said the boy fretfully. "I don't see why the whole family should get into hot water at the same time."
"It wouldn't surprise me very much if Ailsa's ambulance landed beside your mother's door at Paigecourt," said Berkley. "The head-quarters of the 5th Corps cannot be very far from Paigecourt." At the cavalry lines he offered his hand to Stephen in farewell.
"Good-bye," said the boy. "I wish you the luck of the 6th Lancers. Since Hanover Court-House nobody calls 'em 'fresh fish'—just because they charged a few Johnnies with the lance and took a few prisoners and lost thirty horses."
Berkley laughed. "Thanks; and I wish you the luck of the 5th Zouaves. They're into everything, I hear, particularly hen-coops and pigpens. Casson says they live high in the 5th Zouaves. . . Good-bye, old fellow . . . will you remember me to your father?"
"I will when he lets me talk to him," grinned Stephen. "We're a disciplined regiment—I found that out right away—and there's nothing soft for me to expect just because my father is colonel and Josiah Lent happens to be major."
The regimental bands played the next day; the distant cannonade had ceased; sunshine fell from a cloudless sky, and the army watched a military balloon, the "Intrepid," high glistening above the river, its cables trailing in gracious curves earthward.
Porter's 5th Corps now formed the rear-guard of the army; entire regiments went on picket, even the two regiments of Lancers took their turn, though not armed for that duty. During the day there had been some unusually brisk firing along the river, near enough to cause regiments that had never been under fire to prick up a thousand pairs of ears and listen. As the day lengthened toward evening, picket firing became incessant, and the occasional solid report of a cannon from the shore opposite disclosed the presence of Confederate batteries, the nearness of which surprised many an untried soldier.
Toward sundown Berkley saw a business-like cavalry officer ride into camp with an escort of the 5th Regulars. Men around him said that the officer was General Philip St. George Cooke, and that the chances were that the regiments of the reserve were going into action pretty soon.
About 3 o'clock the next morning boots and saddles sounded from the head-quarters of the Cavalry Reserve brigade and the 5th and 6th United States Cavalry, followed by Colonel Rush's Lancers, rode out of their camp grounds and were presently followed by the 1st United States and a squadron of Pennsylvania carbineers.
The troopers of the 8th Lancers watched them ride away in the dawn; but mo orders came to follow them, and, discontented, muttering, they went sullenly about their duties, wondering why they, also, had not been called on.
That nobody had caught the great Confederate cavalryman did not console them; they had to listen to the jeers of the infantry, blaming them for Stuart's great raid around the entire Union army; in sickening reiteration came the question: "Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?" And, besides, one morning in a road near camp, some of the 8th Lancers heard comments from a group of general officers which were not at all flattering to their own cavalry.
"You see," said a burly colonel of engineers, "that this army doesn't know what real cavalry looks like—except when it gets a glimpse of Jeb Stuart's command."
An infantry colonel coincided with him, profanely:
"That damned rebel cavalry chases ours with a regularity and persistence that makes me ill. Did the world ever see the like of it? You send out one of our mounted regiments to look for a mounted rebel regiment, and the moment it finds what it's lookin' for the rebs give a pleased sort of yell, and ours turn tail. Because it's become a habit: that's why our cavalry runs! And then the fun begins! Lord God Almighty! what's the matter with our cavalry?"
"You can't make cavalry in a few months," observed a colonel of heavy artillery, stretching his fat, scarlet-striped legs in his stirrups. "What do you expect? Every man, woman, and child south of Mason and Dixon's Line knows how to ride. The Southerners are born horsemen. We in the North are not. That's the difference. We've got to learn to be. Take a raw soldier and send him forth mounted on an animal with which he has only a most formal acquaintance, and his terrors are increased twofold. When you give him a sabre, pistol, and carbine, to take care of when he has all he can do to take care of himself, those terrors increase in proportion. Then show him the enemy and send him into battle—and what is the result? Skedaddle!
"Don't make any mistake; we haven't any cavalry yet. Some day we will, when our men learn to ride faster than a walk."
"God!" muttered a brigadier-general under his white moustache; "it's been a bitter pill to swallow—this raid around our entire army by fifteen hundred of Jeb Stuart's riders and two iron guns!"
The half dozen lancers, lying on their bellies in the grass on the bank above the road where this discussion took place remained crimson, mute, paralysed with mortification. Was that what the army thought of them?
But they had little time for nursing their mortification that morning; the firing along the river was breaking out in patches with a viciousness and volume heretofore unheard; and a six-gun Confederate field battery had joined in, arousing the entire camp of Claymore's brigade. Louder and louder grew the uproar along the river; smoke rose and took silvery-edged shape in the sunshine; bugles were calling to the colours regiments encamped on the right; a light battery trotted out across a distant meadow, unlimbered and went smartly into action.
About noon the bugles summoned the 3rd Zouaves. As they were forming, the camps of the 8th Lancers and the 10th Light Battery rang with bugle music. Berkley, standing to horse, saw the Zouaves leaving the hill at a jog-trot, their red legs twinkling; but half way down the slope they were halted to dress ranks; and the Lancers, cantering ahead, turned westward and moved off along the edge of the river swamp toward the piled-up cloud of smoke down stream.
After them trotted the 10th New York Flying Battery as though on parade, their guidons standing straight out behind the red-and-white guidons of the Lancers.
The Zouaves had now reached wet land, where a staff officer met Colonel Craig and piloted him through a field of brush and wild grass, and under the parapets of an emplacement for big guns, on which men were nonchalantly working, to the beginning of a newly laid road of logs. The noise of musketry and the smoke had become prodigious. On the logs of the road lay the first big pool of blood that many of them had ever seen. What it had come from they could not determine; there was nothing dead or dying there.
The men glanced askance at the swamp where the black shining water had risen almost level with the edges of the road; but the Colonel and his staff, still mounted, rode coolly over it, and the regiment followed.
The corduroy road through the heavily wooded swamp which the 3rd Zouaves now followed was the only inlet to the noisy scene of local action, and the only outlet, too.
Except for watching the shells at Blue Bridge, the regiment had never been in battle, had never seen or heard a real battle; many had never even seen a wounded man. They understood that they were going into battle now; and now the regiment caught sight of its first wounded men. Stretchers passed close to them on which soldiers lay naked to the waist, some with breasts glistening red and wet from unstopped haemorrhage, some with white bodies marked only by the little round blue hole with its darker centre. Soldiers passed them, limping, bloody rags dripping from thigh or knee; others staggered along with faces the colour of clay, leaning on the arms of comrades, still others were carried out feet first, sagging, a dead-weight in the arms of those who bore them. One man with half his fingers gone, the raw stumps spread, hurried out, screaming, and scattering blood as he ran.
The regiment passed an artilleryman lying in the water whose head, except for the lower jaw, was entirely missing; and another on his back in the ooze whose bowels were protruding between his fingers; and he was trying very feebly to force them back, while two comrades strove in vain to lift him.
The regiment sickened as it looked; here and there a young zouave turned deathly pale, reeled out of the ranks, leaned against a tree, nauseated, only to lurch forward again at the summons of the provost guard; here and there a soldier disengaged his white turban from his fez and dropped it to form a sort of Havelock; for the vertical sun was turning the men dizzy, and the sights they saw were rapidly unnerving them.
They heard the tremendous thunder and felt the concussion of big guns; the steady raining rattle of musketry, the bark of howitzers, the sharp, clean crack of rifled field guns dismayed them. Sometimes, far away, they could distinguish the full deep cheering of a Union regiment; and once they caught the distant treble battle cry of the South. There were moments when a sudden lull in the noise startled the entire regiment. Even their officers looked up sharply at such times. But ahead they could still see Colonel Craig riding calmly forward, his big horse picking its leisurely way over the endless road of logs; they could see the clipped gray head of Major Lent under its red forage-cap, steady, immovable, as he controlled his nervous mount with practised indifference.
It was broiling hot in the swamp; the Zouaves stood bathed in perspiration as the regiment halted for a few minutes, then they moved forward again toward a hard ridge of grass which glimmered green beyond the tangled thicket's edges.
Here the regiment was formed in line of battle, and ordered to lie down.
Stephen wiped his sweaty hands on his jacket and, lifting his head from the grass, looked cautiously around. Already there had been fighting here; a section of a dismantled battery stood in the road ahead; dead men lay around it; smoke still hung blue in the woods. The air reeked.
The Zouaves lay in long scarlet rows on the grass; their officers stood leaning on their naked swords, peering ahead where the Colonel, Major, and a mounted bugler were intently watching something—the two officers using field glasses. In a few moments both officers dismounted, flung their bridles to an orderly, and came back, walking rather quickly. Major Lent drawing his bright, heavy sword and tucking up his gold-embroidered sleeves as he came on.
"Now, boys," said Colonel Craig cheerfully, "we are going in. All you've got to do can be done quickly and thoroughly with the bayonet. Don't cock your muskets, don't fire unless you're told to. Perhaps you won't have to fire at all. All I want of you is to keep straight on after me—right through those dry woods, there. Try to keep your intervals and alignment; don't yell until you sight the enemy, don't lose your heads, trust your officers. Where they go you are safest."
He dropped his eye-glasses into his slashed pocket, drew out and put on a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. The soldiers saw him smile and say something to Major Lent, saw him bare his handsome sword, saw the buglers setting the shining bugles to their lips.
"Now, charge, you red-legged rascals!" shouted Major Lent; and up from the grass rose a wave of scarlet and flashing steel.
Charge! Charge! echoed the bugles; a wailing storm, high among the tree tops, passed over them as they entered the dry woods on a run; branches crashed earthward, twig's and limbs crackled down in whirling confusion. But there was nothing in the woods except smoke—and the streaming storm shrilling overhead, raining down on them leaves and boughs and splintered sticks.
The belt of woodland was very narrow; already the men could see sunlight on the farther edge, and catch glimpses of fields; and still they ran forward, keeping their alignment as best they might among the trees; and came, very soon, to the wood's edge. Here they were halted and ordered to lie down again; and they lay there, close to the ground among the dead leaves, while from above living leaves rained on them in never-ending showers, and the wild tempest sped overhead unchecked.
Far out across the fields in the sunshine, looking diminutive as toys in the distance, four cannon puffed smoke toward them. The Zouaves could see the guns—see even the limbers and caissons behind, and the harnessed teams, and the cannoneers very busily at work in the sunshine. Then a long low wall of white smoke suddenly appeared along a rail fence in front of the guns, and at the same time the air thickened with bullets storming in all about them.
The Colonel and the Major had run hastily out into the field. "Get up! Get up!" shouted the company officers. "Left dress, there! Forward! Don't cock your rifles; don't fire until you're told to. Steady there on the left. Forward! Forward!"
"Now yell, you red-legs! Yell!"
As they started running, their regimental colours fell, man and nag sprawling in the grass; and the entire line halted, bewildered. The next instant a zouave had lifted the colours, and was running forward; and: "Get on there! Continue the movement! What in hell's the matter with you Zouaves!" shouted their lieutenant-colonel. And the sagging scarlet line bellied out, straightened as the flanks caught up, and swept out into the sunshine with a cheer—the peculiar Zouave cheer—not very full yet, for they had not yet lost the troubled wonder of things.
Stephen, running with shouldered musket, saw close ahead a long line of blue smoke and flame, but instead of the enemy there was nothing hidden behind the smoke except a long field-ditch in which dry brush was burning.
Into the ditch tumbled the regiment, and lay panting, coughing, kicking out the embers, and hugging the ground closely, because now the storm that had swept the tree tops was shaving the weeds and grass around them; and the drone of bullets streaming over the ditch rose to a loud, fierce whine.
Up in the blue sky little white clouds suddenly unfolded themselves with light reports, and disappeared, leaving jagged streamers of vapour afloat here and there; the near jarring discharge of artillery shook the ground till bits of sod fell in particles, crumbling from the ditch's edge; the outrageous racket of musketry never slackened.
Lying there, they heard a sudden burst of cheering, and far to the left saw another regiment come tumbling into the ditch and crouch, huddled there in a blue line stretching as far away as they could see. And again the firing increased to a stunning roar, and there were more cheers; and, to their right, another regiment came running and rolling into the ditch.
Officers, recklessly erect, stood here and there along the interior of the ditch; then from the lair of each regiment flags emerged, bugles blew clear and impatient; there came an upheaval of bayonets, and the three regiments scrambled to their feet, over the ditch's edge, and surged forward into the sunshine.
Across the fields Stephen saw guns being limbered up; and drivers lashing their horses to a gallop across a bridge. The regiment on their left was firing by wings as it advanced, the regiment on the right had broken into a heavy run, yelling: "Hey! We want them guns! Wait a second, will yer? Where you takin' them guns to?"
There was a new rail fence close in front of the Zouaves, barring their way to the bridge; and suddenly, from behind it, men arose with levelled muskets; and the Zouaves dropped flat to the volley that buried the fence in smoke.
"Now, boys!" cried Colonel Craig, "we've got to have that bridge! So we'll finish this business right here with the bayonet. Come on and let's end it now!"
Major Lent ran forward and started to climb the smoky fence; everywhere the Zouaves were swarming along the newly split rails or driving their bayonets through the smoke at the gray phantoms clustering behind. Shots rang out, the crack of stock against stock, the ringing clamour and click of steel filled the air.
The zouave next to Stephen lurched up against him spouting blood from the neck; on the other side of him another, a sergeant, too, had gone stark mad, apparently, and was swinging his terrible sabre bayonet without regard to friend or foe; and still another man of his squad, swearing horridly, had clutched a ghostly enemy in the smoke across the fence and was trying to strangle him with his bare hands.
Stephen, bewildered by a blow which glanced from his head to his left shoulder, clung to his musket and tried to stagger forward, but a bayonet seared his right temple, tearing the scalp and letting down a rush of blood all over his face and eyes. Blinded, the boy called instinctively: "Father! I'm hurt! Could you help me!"
Colonel Craig turned white under his tan, and looked back.
"I can't help you, my boy. Sergeant, will you look after my son?" And he ran forward into the infernal network of bayonets, calling out: "Get through there, boys. We might as well clean up this mess while we're about it. Pull down that fence! Never mind those men behind it!—rush it! Kick it over! Now come on! I don't ask you to do anything that I don't do. Major Lent and I will take you through. Come on and take that bridge!"
A captain, fighting back the bayonets with his sword, suddenly floundered to the fence top and clung, balanced on his belly, shouting hysterically:
"Look at the Lancers! Look at 'em coming! Now, Zouaves! Pull down the fence and give them a chance to charge the bridge!"
Over a low swell of land some horsemen trotted into view; behind them the horizon was suddenly filled with the swimming scarlet pennons of the Lancers. A thousand horses' heads shot up against the sky line, manes tossing; a thousand lance points fell to a glittering level.
They were cheering shrilly as they came on; the Zouaves heard them, the gray infantry regiment gave way, turned, filed off, retreating toward the bridge at a slow trot like some baffled but dangerous animal; and after it ran the Zouaves, firing, screaming, maddened to hysteria by their first engagement, until their panting officers and their bugles together barely managed to halt them short of the edges of utter annihilation just as a full Confederate brigade rose grimly from the wood's edge across the stream, ready to end their hysterical yelling for ever.
Stephen, sitting on the grass among the dead and stricken, tied his bloody turban, pulled the red fez close over it, smeared the blood from his eyes, and, clutching his musket, stood up unsteadily.
He could see the charge of the 8th Lancers—see the horsemen wheel and veer wildly as they received the fire of the Confederate troops from the woods across the stream, squadron after squadron sheering off at a gallop and driving past the infantry, pell-mell, a wild riot of maddened horses, yelling riders, and streaming scarlet pennons descending in one vivid, headlong torrent to the bridge. But the structure was already hopelessly afire; and the baffled carbineers of the advance reined up at the edge of the burning timbers and sent an angry volley after the gray infantry now jogging back into the woods beyond. Then, suddenly, the Zouaves heard the Lancers cheering wildly in the smoke of the burning structure, but did not know what it meant.
Fear had squired him that day. When the bugles sounded through the cannon thunder and his squadron trotted out, Fear, on a paler horse than Death bestrides, cantered with him, knee to knee. Fear's startled eyes looked into his through the jetted smoke of musketry, through the tumult of the horses and the trumpets; Fear made his voice light and thin, so that he scarcely heard it amid the fierce cheering of his comrades, the pounding of hoofs, the futile clattering of equipments.
It was all a swift and terrible nightmare to him—the squadrons breaking into a gallop, the woods suddenly belted with smoke, the thud and thwack of bullets pelting leather and living flesh, the frantic plunging of stricken horses, the lightning down-crash of riders hurled earthward at full speed, the brief glimpses of scarlet streaks under foot—of a horse's belly and agonised iron-shod feet, of a white face battered instantly into obliteration, of the ruddy smoke flowing with sparks amid which bugles rang above the clashing halt of maddened squadrons.
Then, through the rolling ocean of smoke, he saw officers and men trying to hack away and beat out the burning timbers—saw a reckless carbineer—his own tent-mate—dismount and run out across the planking which was already afire, saw him stumble and roll over as a bullet hit him, get to his knees blindly, trip and fall flat in the smoke. Then Fear bellowed in Berkley's ear; but he had already clapped spurs to his horse, cantering out across the burning planking and straight into the smoke pall.
"Where are you, Burgess?" he shouted. The Fear of Death stiffened his lips as he reined up in the whirling spark-shot obscurity. "Burgess—damn you—answer me, can't you!" he stammered, half strangled in the smoke, trying to master his terrified mount with rein and knee and heel.
Vaguely he heard comrades shouting for him to come back, heard shells exploding amid the smoke, wheeled his staggering horse, bent swiftly and grasped at an inanimate form in the smoke, missed, dismounted and clutched the senseless carbineer—his comrade—and once his valet.
Out of the fiery tunnel came tearing his terrified horse, riderless; out of the billowing, ruddy vapours reeled Berkley, dragging the carbineer.
It was the regiment cheering him that the Zouaves heard.
The fields were now swimming in bluish smoke; through it the Zouaves were reforming as they marched. Little heaps of brilliant colour dotting the meadow were being lifted and carried off the field by comrades; a few dismounted carbineers ran hither and thither, shooting hopelessly crippled horses. Here and there a dead lancer lay flat in the grass, his scarlet pennon a vivid spot beside him.
The hill road to the burning bridge was now choked with Colonel Arran's regiment, returning to the crest of the hill; through the blackish and rolling smoke from the bridge infantry were creeping swiftly forward toward the river bank, and very soon the intermittent picket firing began again, running up and down the creek bank and out across the swamp lands, noisily increasing as it woke up vicious volleys from the woods on the opposite bank, and finally aroused the cannon to thunderous anger.
Berkley, standing to horse with his regiment on the sparsely wooded hill crest, could see the crowding convolutions of smoke rising from the thickets, as each gun spoke from the Confederate batteries. But to him their thunder was like the thunder in a dream.
Hour after hour the regiment stood to horse; hour after hour the battle roared west and south of them. An irregular cloud, slender at the base, spreading on top, towered to mid zenith above the forest. Otherwise, save for the fleecy explosion of shells in the quivering blue vault above, nothing troubled the sunshine that lay over hill and valley, wood and river and meadowland.
McDunn's battery was not firing; the Zouaves lay dozing awake in the young clover, the Lancers, standing to horse, looked out across the world of trees and saw nothing stirring save a bird or two winging hastily northward.
Berkley could distinguish a portion of the road that ran down to the burning bridge, where part of McDunn's battery was in position. Across the hills to the left a scarlet windrow undulating on either flank of the battery marked the line of battle where the Zouaves lay in a clover-field, within supporting distance of the guns.
Except for these, and a glimpse of Lowe's balloon overhead, Berkley could not see anything whatever even remotely connected with the uproar which continued steadily in the west and south. Nobody seemed to know whose troops were engaged, where they came from, whither they were trying to force a fiery road through a land in arms against their progress.
At times, to Berkley, it seemed as though every tree, every hill, every thicket was watching him with sombre intent; as if Nature herself were hostile, stealthy, sinister, screening terrors yet unloosed, silently storing up violence in dim woods, aiding and abetting ambush with all her clustering foliage; and that every river, every swamp, every sunny vista concealed some hidden path to death.
He stood rigid at his horse's head, lance in hand, dirty, smoke-blackened, his ears deafened by the cannonade, his eyes cool and alert, warily scanning hill and hollow and thicket.
Dead men of his regiment were borne past him; he glanced furtively at them, not yet certain that the lower form of fear had left him, not yet quite realising that he had blundered into manhood—that for the first time in his life he was ready to take his chance with life.
But, little by little, as the hours passed, there in the trodden grass he began to understand something of the unformulated decision that had been slowly growing in him—of the determination, taking shape, to deal more nobly with himself—with this harmless self which had accepted unworthiness and all its attributes, and which riven pride would have flung back at the civilisation which branded him as base.
It came—this knowledge—like a slowly increasing flare of light; and at last he said under his breath, to himself:
"Nothing is unworthily born that is born of God's own law. I have been what I chose. I can be what I will."
A gracious phantom grew under his eyes taking exquisite shape before him; and dim-eyed, he stared at it till it dwindled, faded, dissolved into empty air and sunshine.
No; he could never marry without revealing what he was; and that he would never do because of loyalty to that tender ghost which he must shield for ever even as he would have shielded her in life.
No living soul had any right to know. No love of his for any woman could ever justify betrayal of what alone concerned the dead.
The shells, which, short fused, had been bursting high above the swamp to the right, suddenly began to fall nearer the cavalry, and after a while a shell exploded among them, killing a horse.
They retired by squadrons, leisurely, and in good order; but the shells followed them, searching them out and now and then finding them with a deafening racket and cloud of smoke, out of which mangled horses reared, staggered, and rolled over screaming; out of which a rider, here and there was hurled sideways, head first, or sent spinning and headless among his white-faced comrades.
McDunn's guns had opened now, attempting to extinguish the fire of the troublesome Confederate battery. Berkley, teeth set, pallid, kept his place in the ranks, and hung to his horse's head until he got the animal calmed again. One of his sleeves was covered with blood from a comrade's horse, blown into fragments beside him.
He could see McDunn's gunners working methodically amid the vapours steaming back from the battery as it fired by sections; saw the guns jump, buried in smoke; saw the long flames flicker, flicker, flicker through the cannon mist; felt the solid air strike him in the face at each discharge.
Hallam, white as a sheet, stood motionless at the head of his troop; a shell had just burst, but it was as though he dared not look back until Colonel Arran rode slowly over to the stricken company—and saw Berkley still standing at his horse's head, and gave him a look that the younger man never forgot.
Again, by troops, the Lancers retired; and again the yelling shells found them, and they retired to the base of a hill. And came upon a division in full panic.
Over a culvert and down a wooded road troops of all arms were riotously retreating, cavalry, baggage-waggons, battered fragments of infantry regiments, ambulances, all mixed and huddled pell-mell into a headlong retreat that stretched to the rear as far as the eye could see.
Astonished, the Lancers looked on, not understanding, fearful of some tremendous disaster. A regiment of regular cavalry of the Provost Guard was riding through the fugitives, turning, checking, cutting out, driving, separating the disorganised mob; but it was hard work, and many got away, and teamsters began to cut traces, and skulking cavalrymen clapped spurs and rode over screeching deserters who blocked their path. It was a squalid sight; the Lancers looked on appalled.
Colonel Arran rode his horse slowly along the front of his regiment, talking quietly to his men.
"It's only one or two of the raw brigades and a few teamsters and frightened sutlers—that's all. Better that the Provost Guard should let them through; better to sift out that kind of soldier." . . . He calmly turned his horse's head and rode back along the lines of horses and dismounted troopers, commenting reassuringly on what was taking place around them.
"There is never any safety in running away unless your officers order you to run. The discipline of a regiment is the only security for the individual. There is every chance of safety as long as a regiment holds together; no chance at all if it disintegrates.
"The regulars understand that; it is what makes them formidable; it is what preserves them individually, and every man knows it. The regulars don't run; it happens to be contrary to their traditions; but those traditions originated less in sentiment than in plain common-sense."
He turned his horse and walked the animal slowly along the lines.
"I am exceedingly gratified by the conduct of this regiment," he said. "You have done all that has been asked of you. To do more than is asked of you is not commendable in a soldier, though it may display individual courage. . . . The carbineer, Burgess, 10th troop, Captain Hallam, was foolhardy to attempt the bridge without orders. . . . The lancer, Ormond, 10th troop, Captain Hallam, however, did his full duty—admirably—when he faced death to rescue a wounded comrade from the flames. . . . In England a Victoria Cross is given for deeds of this kind. The regiment respects him—and respects itself. . . . I care to believe that there is not one officer or trooper in my command who is not ready to lay down his life for a friend. . . . I am happy in the consciousness that it is not courage which is lacking in this command; it is only experience. And that will come; it came with the shells on the slope yonder. There is no more severe test of a regiment's discipline than to endure the enemy's fire without being able to retaliate."
The regiment's eyes were fastened on their colonel's tall heavy figure as he walked his powerful horse slowly to and fro along their front, talking to them in his calm, passionless manner. Strained muscles and tense nerves relaxed; breath came more regularly and naturally; men ventured to look about them more freely, to loosen the spasmodic grip on curb and snaffle, to speak to comrades in low tones, inquiring what damage other troops had sustained.