"Yes, we will often talk of you, for what dearer theme to both could we choose; what purer recollections could our memories cherish than of the friend we both loved so much, and who so well deserved our love?"
"And I am forgiven, Harold?"
"Were there aught to be forgiven, I would forgive; but I have never harbored in my most secret heart one trace of anger or resentment toward you. Do not talk more, dear Arthur. To-morrow, perhaps, you will be stronger, and then we will speak again. Here comes your mother, and she will scold me for letting you fatigue yourself so much."
"Raise me a little on the pillow, please. I seem to breathe more heavily to-night. Thank you, I will sleep now. Good night, mother; I will eat the gruel when I wake. I had rather sleep now. Good night, Harold!"
He fell into a slumber almost immediately, and they would not disturb him, although his mother had prepared the food he had been used to take.
"I think he is better to-night. He seems to sleep more tranquilly," said Mrs. Wayne. "If you will step below, I have got a dish of tea for you, and some little supper."
Harold went down and refreshed himself at the widow's neat and hospitable board, and then walked out into the evening, to dissipate, if possible, the cloud that was lowering about his heart. He paced up and down the avenue of willows, and though the fresh night air soothed the fever of his brain, he could not chase away the gloom that weighed upon his spirit. His mind wandered among mournful memories—the field of battle, strewn with the dying and the dead; the hospital where brave suffering men were groaning under the surgeon's knife; the sick chamber, where his friend was dying.
"And I, too," he thought, "have become the craftsman of Death, training my arm and intellect to be cunning in the butchery of my fellows! Wearing the instrument of torture at my side, and using the faculties God gave me to mutilate His image. Yet, from the pulpit and the statesman's chair, and far back through ages from the pages of history, precept and example have sought to record its justification, under the giant plea of necessity. But is it justified? Has man, in his enlightenment, sufficiently studied to throw aside the hereditary errors that come from the past, clothed in barbarous splendors to mislead thought and dazzle conscience? Oh, for one glimpse of the Eternal Truth! to teach us how far is delegated to mortal man the right to take away the life he cannot give. When shall the sword be held accursed? When shall man cease to meddle with the most awful prerogative of his God? When shall our right hands be cleansed forever from the stain of blood, and homicide be no longer a purpose and a glory upon earth? I shudder when I look up at the beautiful serenity of this autumn sky, and remember that my deed has loosened an immortal soul from its clay, and hurled it, unprepared, into its Maker's presence. My conscience would rebuke my hand, should it willfully shatter the sculptor's marble wrought into human shape, or deface the artist's ideal pictured upon canvas, or destroy aught that is beautiful and costly of man's ingenuity and labor. And yet these I might replace with emptying a purse into the craftsman's hand. But will my gold recall the vital spark into those cold forms that, stricken by my steel or bullet, are rotting in their graves? The masterpiece of God I have destroyed. His image have I defaced; the wonderful mechanism that He alone can mold, and molded for His own holy purpose, have I shattered and dismembered; the soul, an essence of His own eternity, have I chased from its alotted earthly home, and I rely for my justification upon—what?—the fact that my victim differed from me in political belief. Must the hand of man be raised against the workmanship of God because an earthly bond has been sundered? Our statesmen teach us so, the ministers of our faith pronounce it just; but, oh God! should it be wrong! When the blood is hot, when the heart throbs with exaltation, when martial music swells, and the war-steed prances, and the bayonets gleam in the bright sunlight—then I think not of the doubt, nor of the long train of horrors, the tears, the bereavements, the agonies, of which this martial magnificence is but the vanguard. But now, in the still calmness of the night, when all around me and above me breathes of the loveliness and holiness of peace, I fear. I question nature, hushed as she is and smiling in repose, and her calm beauty tells me that Peace is sacred; that her Master sanctions no discords among His children. I question my own conscience, and it tells me that the sword wins not the everlasting triumph—that the voice of war finds no echo within the gates of heaven."
Ill-comforted by his reflections, he returned to the quiet dwelling, and entered the chamber of his friend.
The sufferer was still sleeping, and Mrs. Wayne was watching by the bedside. Harold seated himself beside her, and gazed mournfully upon the pale, still features that already, but for the expression of pain that lingered there, seemed to have passed from the quiet of sleep to the deeper calm of death.
"Each moment that I look," said Mrs. Wayne, wiping her tears away, "I seem to see the grey shadows of the grave stealing over his brow. The doctor was here a few moments before you came. The minister, too, sat with him all the morning. I know from their kind warning that I shall soon be childless. He has but a few hours to be with me. Oh, my son! my son!"
She bent her head upon the pillow, and wept silently in the bitterness of her heart. Harold forebore to check that holy grief; but when the old lady, with Christian resignation, had recovered her composure, he pressed her to seek that repose which her aged frame so much needed.
"I will sit by Arthur while you rest awhile; you have already overtasked your strength with vigil. I will awake you should there be a change."
She consented to lie upon the sofa, and soon wept herself to sleep, for she was really quite broken down with watching. Everything was hushed around, save the monotones of the insects in the fields, and the breathing of those that slept. If there is an hour when the soul is lifted above earth and communes with holy things, it is in the stillness of the country night, when the solitary watcher sits beside the pillow of a loved one, waiting the coming of the dark angel, whose footsteps are at the threshold. Harold sat gazing silently at the face of the invalid; sometimes a feeble smile would struggle with the lines of suffering upon the pinched and haggard lineaments, and once from the white lips came the murmur of a name, so low that only the solemn stillness made the sound palpable—the name of Oriana.
Toward midnight, Arthur's breathing became more difficult and painful, and his features changed so rapidly that Harold became fearful that the end was come. With a sigh, he stepped softly to the sofa, and wakened Mrs. Wayne, taking her gently by the hand which trembled in his grasp. She knew that she was awakened to a terrible sorrow—that she was about to bid farewell to the joy of her old age. Arthur opened his eyes, but the weeping mother turned from them; she could not bear to meet them, for already the glassy film was veiling the azure depths whose light had been so often turned to her in tenderness.
"Give me some air, mother. It is so close—I cannot breathe."
They raised him upon the pillow, and his mother supported the languid head upon her bosom.
"Arthur, my son! are you suffering, my poor boy?"
"Yes. It will pass away. Do not grieve. Kiss me, dear mother."
He was gasping for breath, and his hand was tightly clasped about his mother's withered palm. She wiped the dampness from his brow, mingling her tears with the cold dews of death.
"Is Harold there?"
"You will not forget? And you will love and guard her well?"
"Put away the sword, Harold; it is accursed of God. Is not that the moonlight that streams upon the bed?"
"Yes. Does it disturb you, Arthur?"
"No. Let it come in. Let it all come in; it seems a flood of glory."
His voice grew faint, till they could scarce hear its murmur. His breathing was less painful, and the old smile began to wreathe about his lips, smoothing the lines of pain.
"Kiss me, dear mother! You need not hold me. I am well enough—I am happy, mother. I can sleep now."
He slept no earthly slumber. As the summer air that wafts a rose-leaf from its stem, gently his last sigh stole upon the stillness of the night. Harold lifted the lifeless form from the mother's arms, and when it drooped upon the pillow, he turned away, that the parent might close the lids of the dead son.