"Oh, I shall always be comparatively insignificant," replied Graham, laughing. "Wait till Hilland wears the stars, as he surely will, and then you'll see a soldier."
"We see far more than a soldier in you, Alford," said Grace, earnestly. "Your men told Warren of your almost miraculous leap across the ditch; and Warren has again and again described your appearance as you rushed by him on his pursuers. Oh, I've seen the whole thing in my dreams so often!"
"Yes, Graham; you looked like one possessed. You reminded me of the few occasions when, in old college days, you got into a fury."
A frown as black as night lowered on Graham's brow, for they were recalling the most hateful memory of his life—a thought for which he felt he ought to die; but it passed almost instantly, and in the most prosaic tones he said, "Good friends, I'm hungry. I've splashed through Virginia mud twelve mortal hours to-day. Grace, be prepared for such havoc as only a cavalryman can make. We don't get such fare as this at the front."
She, with the pretty housewifely bustle which he had admired years ago, rang the bell and made preparations for a feast.
"Every fatted calf in Washington should be killed for you," she cried— "prodigal that you are, but only in brave deeds. Where's Iss? I want to see and feast him also."
"I left him well provided for in the lower regions, and astounding the 'cullud bredren' with stories which only the African can swallow. He shall come up by and by, for I have my final orders to give. He leads my horse back to the regiment in the morning, and takes care of him in my absence. I hope to spend a month with aunt."
"And how much time with us?" asked Hilland, eagerly.
"Now, Graham, I protest—"
"Now, Hilland, I'm ravenous, and here's a dinner fit for the Great Mogul."
"Oh, I know you of old. When you employ a certain tone you intend to have your own way; but it isn't fair."
"Don't take it to heart. I'll make another raid on you when I return, and then we shall soon be at the front together again. Aunty's lonely, you know."
"Grace and I don't count, I suppose," said the major.
"I had a thousand questions to ask you;" and he looked so aggrieved that Graham compromised and promised to spend the next day with him.
Then he gave an almost hilarious turn to the rest of the evening, and one would have thought that he was in the high spirits natural to any young officer with a month's leave of absence. He described the "woodchuck hole" which had been his hiding-place, sketched humorously the portraits of Iss, Aunt Sheba, who was now his aunt's cook, and gave funny episodes of his midnight prowlings while waiting for a chance to reach the Union lines. Grace noted how skilfully he kept his own personality in the background unless he appeared in some absurd or comical light; and she also noted that his eyes rested upon her less and less often, until at last, after Iss had had his most flattering reception, he said good-night rather abruptly.
The next day he entertained the major in a way that was exceedingly gratifying and flattering to the veteran. He brought some excellent maps, pointed out the various lines of march, the positions of the opposing armies, and showed clearly what had been done and what might have been. He next became the most patient and absorbed listener, as the old gentleman, by the aid of the same maps, planned a campaign which during the coming year would have annihilated the Confederacy. Grace, sitting near the window, might have imagined herself almost ignored. But she interpreted him differently. She now had the key which explained his conduct, and more than once tears came into her eyes.
Hilland returned early, having hastened through his duties, and was in superb spirits. They spent an afternoon together which stood out in memory like a broad gleam of sunshine in after years; and then Graham took his leave with messages from all to Mrs. Mayburn, who was to return with him.
As they were parting, Grace hesitated a moment, and then stepping forward impulsively she took Graham's hand in both of hers, and said impetuously: "You have seen how very, very happy we all are. Do you think that I forget for a moment that I owe it to you?"
Graham's iron nerves gave way. His hand trembled. "Don't speak to me in that way," he murmured. "Come, Hilland, or I shall miss the train;" and in a moment he was gone.
Mrs. Mayburn never forgot the weeks he spent with her. Sometimes she would look at him wonderingly, and once she said: "Alford, it is hard for me to believe that you have passed through all that you have. Day after day passes, and you seem perfectly content with my quiet, monotonous life. You read to me my old favorite authors. You chaff me and Aunt Sheba about our little domestic economies. Beyond a hasty run through the morning paper you scarcely look at the daily journals. You are content with one vigorous walk each day. Indeed you seem to have settled down and adapted yourself to my old woman's life for the rest of time. I thought you would be restless, urging my earlier return to Washington, or seeking to abridge your leave, so that you might return to the excitement of the camp."
"No, aunty dear, I am not restless. I have outlived and outgrown that phase of my life. You will find that my pulse is as even as yours. Indeed I have a deep enjoyment of this profound quiet of our house. I have fully accepted my lot, and now expect only those changes that come from without and not from within. To be perfectly sincere with you, the feeling is growing that this profound quietude that has fallen upon me may be the prelude to final rest. It's right that I should accustom your mind to the possibilities of every day in our coming campaign, which I well foresee will be terribly severe. At first our generals did not know how to use cavalry, and beyond escort and picket duty little was asked of it. Now all this is changed. Cavalry has its part in every pitched battle, and in the intervals it has many severe conflicts of its own. Daring, ambitious leaders are coming to the front, and the year will be one of great and hazardous activity. My chief regret is that Hilland's wound did not disable him wholly from further service in the field. Still he will come out all right. He always has and ever will. There are hidden laws that control and shape our lives. It seems to me that you were predestined to be just what you are. Your life is rounded out and symmetrical according to its own law. The same is true of Hilland and of myself thus far. The rudiments of what we are to-day were clearly apparent when we were boys. He is the same ardent, jolly, whole-souled fellow that clapped me on the back after leaving the class-room. Everybody liked him then, everything favored him. Often when he had not looked at a lesson he would make a superb recitation. I was moody and introspective; so I am to-day. Even the unforeseen events of life league together to develop one's characteristics. The conditions of his life today are in harmony with all that has been; the same is true of mine, with the strange exception that I have found a home and a dear staunch friend in one who I supposed would ever be a stranger. See how true my theory is of Grace and her father. Her blithesome girlhood has developed into the happiest wifehood. Her brow is as smooth as ever, and her eyes as bright. They have only gained in depth and tenderness as the woman has taken the place of the girl. Her form has only developed into lovelier proportions, and her character into a more exquisite symmetry. She has been one continuous growth according to the laws of her being; and so it will be to the end. She will be just as beautiful and lovable in old age as now; for nature, in a genial mood, infused into her no discordant, disfiguring elements. The major also is completing his life in consonance with all that has gone before."
"Alford, you are more of a fatalist than a materialist. In my heart I feel, I know, you are wrong. What you say seems so plausible as to be true; but my very soul revolts at it all. There is a deep undertone of sadness in your words, and they point to a possibility that would imbitter every moment of the remnant of my life. Suppose you should fall, what remedy would there be for me? Oh, in anguish I have learned what life would become then. I am a materialist like yourself, although all the clergymen in town would say I was orthodox. From earliest recollection mere things and certain people have been everything to me; and now you are everything, and yet at this hour the bullet may be molded which will strike you down. Grace, with her rich, beautiful life, is in equal danger. Hilland will go into the field and will expose himself as recklessly as yourself. I have no faith in your obscure laws. Thousands were killed in the last campaign, thousands are dying in hospitals this moment, and all this means thousands of broken hearts, unless they are sustained by something I have not. This world is all very well when all is well, but it can so easily become an accursed world!" The old lady spoke with a strange bitterness, revealing the profound disquietude that existed under the serene amenities of her age and her methodical life.
Graham sought to give a lighter tone to their talk and said: "Oh, well, aunty, perhaps we are darkening the sun with our own shadows. We must take life as we find it. There is no help for that. You have done so practically. With your strong good sense you could not do otherwise. The trouble is that you are haunted by old-time New England beliefs that, from your ancestry, have become infused into your very blood. You can't help them any more than other inherited infirmities which may have afflicted your grandfather. Let us speak of something else. Ah, here is a welcome diversion—the daily paper—and I'll read it through to you, and we'll gain another hint as to the drift of this great tide of events."
The old lady shook her head sadly; and the fact that she watched the young man with hungry, wistful eyes, often blinded with tears, proved that neither state nor military policy was uppermost in her mind.
On Christmas morning Graham found his breakfast-plate pushed back, and in its place lay a superb sword and belt, fashioned much like the one he had lost in the rescue of his friend. With it was a genial letter from Hilland, and a little note from Grace, which only said:
"You will find my name engraved upon the sword with Warren's. We have added nothing else, for the good reason that our names mean everything—more than could be expressed, were the whole blade covered with symbols, each meaning a volume. You have taught us how you will use the weapon, my truest and best of friends. GRACE HILLAND."
His eyes lingered on the name so long that his aunt asked: "Why don't you look at your gift?"
He slowly drew the long, keen, shining blade, and saw again the name "Grace Hilland," and for a time he saw nothing else. Suddenly he turned the sword and on the opposite side was "Warren Hilland," and he shook his head sadly.
"Alford, what is the matter?" his aunt asked impatiently.
"Why didn't they have their names engraved together?" he muttered slowly, "It's a bad omen. See, a sword is between their names. I wish they had been together. Oh, I wish Hilland could be kept out of the field!"
"There it is, Alford," began his aunt, irritably; "you men who don't believe anything are always the victims of superstition. Bad omen, indeed!"
"Well, I suppose I am a fool; but a strange chill at heart struck me for which I can't account;" and he sprang up and paced the floor uneasily. "Well," he continued, "I would bury it in my own heart rather than cause her one hour's sorrow, but I wish their names had been together." Then he took it up again and said: "Beautiful as it is, it may have to do some stern work, Grace—work far remote from your nature. All I ask is that it may come between Hilland and danger again. I wish I had not had that strange, cursed presentiment"
"Oh, Alford! I never saw you in such a mood, and on Christmas morning, too!"
"That is just what I don't like about it—it's not my habit to indulge such fancies, to say the least. Come what may, however, I dedicate the sword to her service without counting any cost;" and he kissed her name, and laid the weapon reverently aside.
"You are morbid this morning. Go to the door and see my present to you. You will find no bad omens on his shining coat."
Graham felt that it was weak to entertain such impressions as had mastered him, and hastened out. There, pawing the frozen ground, was a horse that satisfied even his fastidious eye. There was not a white hair in the coal-black coat. In his enthusiasm he forgot his hat, and led the beautiful creature up and down, observing with exultation his perfect action, clean-cut limbs, and deep, broad chest.
"Bring me a bridle," he said to the man in attendance, "and my hat."
A moment later he had mounted.
"Breakfast is getting cold," cried his aunt from the window, delighted, nevertheless, at the appreciation of her gift.
"This horse is breakfast and dinner both," he shouted, as he galloped down the path.
Then, to the old lady's horror, he dashed through the trees and shrubbery, took a picket-fence in a flying leap, and circled round the house till Mrs. Mayburn's head was dizzy. Then she saw him coming toward the door as if he would ride through the house; but the horse stopped almost instantly, and Graham was on his feet, handing the bridle to the gaping groom.
"Take good care of him," he said to the man, "for he is a jewel."
"Alford," exclaimed his aunt, "could you make no better return for my gift than to frighten me out of my wits?"
"Dear aunty, you are too well supplied ever to lose them for so slight a cause. I wanted to show the perfection of your gift, and how well it may serve me. You don't imagine that our cavalry evolutions are all performed on straight turnpike roads, do you? Now you know that you have given me an animal that can carry me wherever a horse can go, and so have added much to my chances of safety. I can skim out of a melee like a bird with Mayburn—for that shall be his name—where a blundering, stupid horse would break my neck, if I wasn't shot. I saw at once from his action what he could do. Where on earth did you get such a creature?"
"Well," said the old lady, beaming with triumphant happiness, "I have had agents on the lookout a long time. The man of whom you had your first horse, then called Firebrand, found him; and he knew well that he could not impose any inferior animal upon you. Are you really sincere in saying that such a horse as this adds to your chances of safety?"
"Certainly. That's what I was trying to show you. Did you not see how he would wind in and out among the trees and shrubbery—how he would take a fence lightly without any floundering? There is just as much difference among horses as among men. Some are simply awkward, heavy, and stupid; others are vicious; more are good at times and under ordinary circumstances, but fail you at a pinch. This horse is thoroughbred and well broken. You must have paid a small fortune for him."
"I never invested money that satisfied me better."
"It's like you to say so. Well, take the full comfort of thinking how much you have added to my comfort and prospective well-being. That gallop has already done me a world of good, and given me an appetite. I'll have another turn across the country after breakfast, and throw all evil presentiments to the winds."
"Why, now you talk sense. When you are in any more such moods as this morning I shall prescribe horse."
Before New Year's day Graham had installed his aunt comfortably in rooms adjoining the Hillands', and had thanked his friends for their gift in a way that proved it to be appreciated. Mrs. Mayburn had been cautioned never to speak of what he now regarded as a foolish and unaccountable presentiment, arising, perhaps, from a certain degree of morbidness of mind in all that related to Grace. Iss was on hand to act as groom, and Graham rode out with Hilland and Grace several times before his leave expired. Even at that day, when the city was full of gallant men and fair women, many turned to look as the three passed down the avenue.
Never had Grace looked so radiantly beautiful as when in the brilliant sunshine of a Washington winter and in the frosty air she galloped over the smooth, hard roads. Hilland was proud of the almost wondering looks of admiration that everywhere greeted her, and too much in love to note that the ladies they met looked at him in much the same way. The best that was said of Graham was that he looked a soldier, every inch of him, and that he rode the finest horse in the city as if be had been brought up in a saddle. He was regarded by society as reserved, unsocial, and proud; and at two or three receptions, to which he went because of the solicitation of his friends, he piqued the vanity of more than one handsome woman by his courteous indifference.
"What is the matter with your husband's friend?" a reigning belle asked Grace. "One might as well try to make an impression on a paving- stone."
"I think your illustration unhappy," was her quiet reply. "I cannot imagine Mr. Graham at any one's feet."
"Not even your own?" was the malicious retort.
"Not even my own," and a flash of anger from her dark eyes accompanied her answer.
Still, wherever he went he awakened interest in all natures not dull or sodden. He was felt to be a presence. There was a consciousness of power in his very attitudes; and one felt instinctively that he was far removed from the commonplace—that he had had a history which made him different from other men.
But before this slight curiosity was kindled to any extent, much less satisfied, his leave of absence expired; and with a sense of deep relief he prepared to say farewell. His friends expected to see him often in the city; he knew they would see him but seldom, if at all. He bad made his visit with his aunt, and she understood him. His quiet poise was departing, and he longed for the stern, fierce excitement of active service.
Before he joined his regiment he spent the day with his friends, and took occasion once, when alone with Hilland, to make an appeal that was solemn and almost passionate in its earnestness, adjuring him to remain employed in duties like those which now occupied him. But he saw that his efforts were vain.
"No, Graham," was Hilland's emphatic reply; "just as soon as there is danger at the front I shall be with my regiment Now I can do more here."
With Grace he took a short ride in the morning while Hilland was engaged in his duties, and he looked at the fair woman by his side with the thought that he might never see her again. It almost seemed as if Grace understood him, for although the rich color mantled in her cheeks and she abounded in smile and repartee, a look of deep sadness rarely left her eyes.
Once she said abruptly, "Alford, you will come and see us often before the campaign opens? Oh, I dread this coming campaign. You will come often?"
"I fear not, Grace," he said, gravely and gently, "I will try to come, but not often." Then he added, with a short, abrupt laugh, "I wish I could break Hilland's leg." In answer to a look of surprise he continued, "Could not your father procure an order that would keep him in the city? He would have to obey orders."
"Ah, I understand you," and there was a quick rush of tears to her eyes. "It's of no use. I have thought of everything, but Warren's heart is set on joining his regiment in the spring."
"I know it. I have said all that I could say to a brother on the subject."
"From the first, Alford, you have tried to make the ordeal of this war less painful to me, and how well you have succeeded! You have been our good genius. Warren, in his impetuous, chivalrous feeling, would have gone into it unadvisedly, hastily; and before this might—Oh, I can't even think of it," she said with a shudder. "But years have passed since your influence guided him into a wiser and more useful course, and think how much of the time I have been able to be with him! And it has all been due to you, Alford. But the war seems no nearer its end. It rather assumes a larger and more threatening aspect Why do not men think of us poor women before they go to war?"
"You think, then, that even your influence cannot keep him from the field?"
"No, it could not. Indeed, beyond a certain point I dare not exert it. I should be dumb before questions already asked, 'Why should I shrink when other husbands do not? What would be said of me here? what by my comrades in the regiment? What would your brave father think, though he might acquiesce? Nay, more, what would my wife think in her secret heart?' Alas! I find I am not made of such stern stuff as are some women. Pride and military fame could not sustain me if—if—"
"Do not look on the gloomy side, Grace. Hilland will come out of it all a major-general."
"Oh, I don't know, I don't know. I do know that he will often be in desperate danger; what a dread certainty that is for me! Oh, I wish you could be always near him; and yet 'tis a selfish wish, for you would not count the cost to yourself."
"No, Grace; I've sworn that on the sword you gave me."
"I might have known as much." Then she added earnestly, "Believe me, if you should fall it would also imbitter my life."
"Yes, you would grieve sincerely; but there would be an infinite difference, an infinite difference. One question, however, is settled beyond recall. If my life can serve you or Hilland, no power shall prevent my giving it. There is nothing more to be said: let us speak of something else."
"Yes, Alford, one thing more. Once I misjudged you. Forgive me;" and she caused her horse to spring into a gallop, resolving that no commonplace words should follow closely upon a conversation that had touched the most sacred feelings and impulses of each heart.
For some reason there was a shadow over their parting early in the evening, for Graham was to ride toward the front with the dawn. Even Hilland's genial spirits could not wholly dissipate it. Graham made heroic efforts, but he was oppressed with a despondency which was wellnigh overwhelming. He felt that he was becoming unmanned, and in bitter self-censure resolved to remain with his regiment until the end came, as he believed would be the case with him before the year closed.
"Alford, remember your promise. We all may need you yet," were his aunt's last words in the gray of the morning.
AN IMPROVISED PICTURE GALLERY
Much to Graham's satisfaction, his regiment, soon after he joined it, was ordered into the Shenandoah Valley, and given some rough, dangerous picket duty that fully accorded with his mood. Even Hilland could not expect a visit from him now; and he explained to his friend that the other officers were taking their leaves of absence, and he, in turn, must perform their duties. And so the winter passed uneventfully away in a cheerful interchange of letters. Graham found that the front agreed with him better than Washington, and that his pulse resumed its former even beat A dash at a Confederate picket post on a stormy night was far more tranquilizing than an evening in Hilland's luxurious rooms.
With the opening of the spring campaign Hilland joined his regiment, and was eager to remove by his courage and activity the slightest impression, if any existed, that he was disposed to shun dangerous service. There was no such impression, however; and he was most cordially welcomed, for he was a great favorite with both officers and men.
During the weeks that followed, the cavalry was called upon to do heavy work and severe fighting; and the two friends became more conspicuous than ever for their gallantry. They seemed, however, to bear charmed lives, for, while many fell or were wounded, they escaped unharmed,
At last the terrific and decisive campaign of Gettysburg opened; and from the war-wasted and guerilla-infested regions of Virginia the Northern troops found themselves marching through the friendly and populous North. As the cavalry brigade entered a thriving village in Pennsylvania the people turned out almost en masse and gave them more than an ovation. The troopers were tired, hungry, and thirsty; and, since from every doorway was offered a boundless hospitality, the column came to a halt. The scene soon developed into a picturesque military picnic. Young maids and venerable matrons, gray-bearded fathers, shy, blushing girls, and eager-eyed children, all vied with each other in pressing upon their defenders every delicacy and substantial viand that their town could furnish at the moment. A pretty miss of sixteen, with a peach-like bloom in her cheeks, might be seen flitting here and there among the bearded troopers with a tray bearing goblets of milk. When they were emptied she would fly back and lift up white arms to her mother for more, and the almost equally blooming matron, smiling from the window, would fill the glasses again to the brim. The magnates of the village with their wives were foremost in the work, and were passing to and fro with great baskets of sandwiches, while stalwart men and boys were bringing from neighboring wells and pumps cool, delicious water for the horses. How immensely the troopers enjoyed it all! No scowling faces and cold looks here. All up and down the street, holding bridle- reins over their arms or leaning against the flanks of their horses, they feasted as they had not done since their last Thanksgiving Day at home. Such generous cups of coffee, enriched with cream almost too thick to flow from the capacious pitchers, and sweetened not only with snow-white sugar, but also with the smiles of some gracious woman, perhaps motherly in appearance, perhaps so fair and young that hearts beat faster under the weather-stained cavalry jackets.
"How pretty it all is!" said a familiar voice to Graham, as he was dividing a huge piece of cake with his pet Mayburn; and Hilland laid his hand on his friend's shoulder,
"Ah, Hilland, seeing you is the best part of this banquet a la militaire. Yes, it is a heavenly change after the dreary land we've been marching and fighting in. It makes me feel that I have a country, and that it's worth all it may cost."
"Look, Graham—look at that little fairy creature in white muslin, talking to that great bearded pard of a sergeant. Isn't that a picture? Oh, I wish Grace, with her eye for picturesque effects, could look upon this scene."
"Nonsense, Hilland! as if she would look at anybody or anything but you! See that white-haired old woman leading that exquisite little girl to yonder group of soldiers. See how they doff their hats to her. There's another picture for you."
Hilland's magnificent appearance soon attracted half a dozen village belles about him, each offering some dainty; and one—a black-eyed witch a little bolder than the others—offered to fasten a rose from her hair in his button-hole.
He entered into the spirit of the occasion with all the zest of his old student days, professed to be delighted with the favor as she stood on tiptoe to reach the lappet of his coat; and then he stooped down and pressed his lips to the fragrant petals, assuring the blushing little coquette, meanwhile, that it was the next best thing to her own red lips.
How vividly in after years Graham would recall him, as he stood there, his handsome head thrown back, looking the ideal of an old Norse viking, laughing and chatting with the merry, innocent girls around him, his deep-blue eyes emitting mirthful gleams on every side! According to his nature, Graham drew off to one side and watched the scene with a smile, as he had viewed similar ones far back in the years, and far away in Germany. He saw the ripples of laughter that his friend's words provoked, and recognized the old, easy grace, the light, French-like wit, that was wholly free from the French double entendre, and he thought: "Would that Grace could see him now, and she would fall in love with him anew, for her nature is too large for petty jealousy at a scene like that Oh, Hilland! you and the group around you make the finest picture of this long improvised gallery of pictures."
Suddenly there was a loud report of a cannon from a hill above the village, and a shell shrieked over their heads. Hilland's laughing aspect changed instantly. He seemed almost to gather the young girls in his arms as he hurried them into the nearest doorway, and then with a bound reached Graham, who held his horse, vaulted into the saddle, and dashed up the street to his men who were standing in line.
Graham sprang lightly on his horse, for in the scenes resulting from the kaleidoscopic change that had taken place he would be more at home.
"Mount!" he shouted; and the order, repeated up and down the street, changed the jolly, feasting troopers of a moment since into veterans who would sit like equestrian statues, if so commanded, though a hundred guns thundered against them.
From the further end of the village came the wild yell characteristic of the cavalry charges of the Confederates, while shell after shell shrieked and exploded where had just been unaffected gayety and hospitality.
The first shot had cleared the street of all except the Union soldiers; and those who dared to peep from window or door saw, with dismay, that the defenders whom they had so honored and welcomed were retreating at a gallop from the Rebel charge.
They were soon undeceived, however, for at a gallop the national cavalry dashed into an open field near by, formed with the precision of machinery, and by the time that the Rebel charge had wellnigh spent itself in the sabring or capture of a few tardy troopers, Hilland with platoon after platoon was emerging upon the street again at a sharp trot, which soon developed into a furious gallop as he dashed against their assailants; and the pretty little coquette, bold not only in love but in war, saw from a window her ideal knight with her red rose upon his breast leading a charge whose thunder caused the very earth to tremble; and she clapped her hands and cheered so loudly as he approached that he looked up, saw her, and for an instant a sunny smile passed over the visage that had become so stern. Then came the shock of battle.
Graham's company was held in reserve, but for some reason his horse seemed to grow unmanageable; and sabres had scarcely clashed before he, with the blade on which was engraved "Grace Hilland," was at her husband's side, striking blows which none could resist. The enemy could not stand the furious onset, and gave way slowly, sullenly, and at last precipitately. The tide of battle swept beyond and away from the village; and its street became quiet again, except for the groans of the wounded.
Mangled horses, mangled men, some dead, some dying, and others almost rejoicing in wounds that would secure for them such gentle nurses, strewed the streets that had been the scene of merry festivity.
The pretty little belle never saw her tawny, bearded knight again. She undoubtedly married and tormented some well-to-do dry-goods clerk; but a vision of a man of heroic mold, with a red rose upon his breast, smiling up to her just as he was about to face what might be death, will thrill her feminine soul until she is old and gray.
That night Graham and Hilland talked and laughed over the whole affair as they sat by a camp-fire.
"It has all turned out as usual," said Graham, ruefully. "You won a victory and no end of glory; I a reprimand from my colonel."
"If you have received nothing worse than a reprimand you are fortunate," was Hilland's response. "The idea of any horse becoming unmanageable in your hands! The colonel understands the case as well as I do, and knows that it was your own ravenous appetite for a fight that became unmanageable. But I told him of the good service you rendered, and gave him the wink to wink also. You were fearfully rash to-day, Graham. You were not content to fight at my side, but more than once were between me and the enemy. What the devil makes you so headlong in a fight—you that are usually so cool and self- controlled?"
Graham's hand rested on a fair woman's name engraved upon his sword, but he replied lightly: "When you teach me caution in a fight I'll learn."
"Well, excuse me, old fellow, I'm going to write to Grace. May not have a chance very soon again. I say, Graham, we'll have the battle of the war in a day or two."
"I know it," was the quiet response.
"And we must win, too," Hilland continued, "or the Johnnies will help themselves to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and perhaps New York. Every man should nerve himself to do the work of two. As I was saying, I shall write to Grace that your horse ran away with you and became uncontrollable until you were directly in front of me, when you seemed to manage him admirably, and struck blows worthy of the old French duellist who killed a man every morning before breakfast. I think she'll understand your sudden and amazingly poor horsemanship as well as I do."
She did, and far better.
Hilland's prediction proved true. The decisive battle of Gettysburg was fought, and its bloody field marked the highest point reached by the crimson tide of the Rebellion. From Cemetery Ridge it ebbed slowly and sullenly away to the south.
The brigade in which were the friends passed through another fearful baptism of fire in the main conflict and the pursuit which followed, and were in Virginia again, but with ranks almost decimated. Graham and Hilland still seemed to bear charmed lives, and in the brief pause in operations that followed, wrote cheerful letters to those so dear, now again at their seaside resort. Grace, who for days had been so pale, and in whose dark eyes lurked an ever-present dread of which she could not speak, smiled again. Her husband wrote in exuberant spirits over the victory, and signed himself "Lieutenant-Colonel." Graham in his letter said jestingly to his aunt that he had at last attained his "majority," and that she might therefore look for a little more discretion on his part.
"How the boys are coming on!" exulted the old major. "They will both wear the stars yet. But confound it all, why did Meade let Lee escape? He might have finished the whole thing up."
Alas! the immeasurable price of liberty was not yet paid.
One morning Hilland's and Graham's regiments were ordered out on what was deemed but a minor reconnoissance; and the friends, rested and strong, started in high spirits with their sadly shrunken forces. But they knew that the remaining handfuls were worth more than full ranks of untrained, unseasoned men. All grow callous, if not indifferent, to the vicissitudes of war; and while they missed regretfully many familiar faces, the thought that they had rendered the enemy's lines more meagre was consoling.
Graham and Hilland rode much of the long day together. They went over all the past, and dwelt upon the fact that their lives had been so different from what they had planned.
"By the way, Graham," said Hilland, abruptly, "it seems strange to me that you are so indifferent to women. Don't you expect ever to marry?"
Graham burst into a laugh as he replied: "I thought we had that subject out years ago, under the apple-tree—that night, you remember, when you talked like a schoolgirl till morning—"
"And you analyzed and philosophized till long after midnight—"
"Well, you knew then that Grace had spoiled me for every one else; and she's been improving ever since. When I find her equal I'll marry her, if I can."
"Poor, forlorn old bachelor that you are, and ever will be!" cried Hilland. "You'll never find the equal of Grace Hilland."
"I think I shall survive, Hilland. My appetite is good. As I live, there are some Confederates in yonder clump of trees;" and he put spurs to his horse on a little private reconnoissance. The few horsemen vanished, in the thick woods beyond, the moment they saw that they were perceived; and they were regarded as prowling guerillas only.
That night they bivouacked in a grove where two roads intersected, threw out pickets and patrols, and kindled their fires, for they did not expect to strike the enemy in force till some time on the following day.
Graham and his friend had bidden each other an early and cordial good- night, for the entire force under the command of Hilland's colonel was to resume its march with the dawn. Although no immediate danger was apprehended, caution had been learned by long experience. The detachment was comparatively small, and it was far removed from any support; and while no hints of the presence of the enemy in formidable numbers had been obtained during the day, what was beyond them could not be known with any certainty. Therefore the horses had been carefully rubbed down, and the saddles replaced. In many instances the bridles also had been put on again, with the bit merely slipped from the mouth. In all cases they lay or hung within reach of the tired troopers, who, one after another, were dropping off into the catlike slumber of a cavalry outpost.
As the fires died down, the shadows in the grove grew deeper and more obscure, and all was quiet, except when the hours came round for the relief of pickets and the men who were patrolling the roads. Graham remembered the evanescent group of Confederates toward whom he had spurred during the day. He knew that they were in a hostile region, and that their movements must be already well known to the enemy if strong in their vicinity. Therefore all his instincts as a soldier were on the alert. It so happened that he was second in command of his regiment on this occasion, and he felt the responsibility. He had been his own groom on their arrival at the grove, and his faithful charger, Mayburn, now stood saddled and bridled by his side, as he reclined, half dozing, again thinking deeply, by the low, flickering blaze of his fire. He had almost wholly lost the gloomy presentiments that had oppressed him at the beginning of the year. Both he and Hilland had passed through so many dangers that a sense of security was begotten. Still more potent had been the influence of his active out-of-door life. His nerves were braced, while his soldier's routine and the strong excitement of the campaign had become a preoccupying habit.
Only those who brood in idleness over the misfortunes and disappointments of life are destroyed by them.
He had not seen Grace for over half a year; and while she was and ever would be his fair ideal, he could now think of her with the quietude akin to that of the devout Catholic who worships a saint removed from him at a heavenly distance. The wisdom of this remoteness became more and more clear to him; for despite every power that he could put forth as a man, there was a deeper, stronger manhood within him which acknowledged this woman as sovereign. He foresaw that his lot would be one of comparative exile, and he accepted it with a calm and inflexible resolution.
Hearing a step he started up hastily, and saw Hilland approaching from the opposite side of his fire.
"Ah, Graham, glad you are not asleep," said his friend, throwing himself down on the leaves, with his head resting on his hands. "Put a little wood on the fire, please; I'm chilly in the night air, and the dews are so confoundedly heavy."
"Why, Hilland, what's the matter?" Graham asked, as he complied. "You are an ideal cavalryman at a nap, and can sleep soundly with one eye open. It has seemed to me that you never lost a wink when there was a chance for it, even under fire."
"Why are you not sleeping?"
"Oh, I have been, after my fashion, dozing and thinking by turns. I always was an owl, you know. Moreover, I think it behooves us to be on the alert. We are a good way from support if hard pressed; and the enemy must be in force somewhere to the west of us."
"I've thought as much myself. My horse is ready, as yours is, and I left an orderly holding him. I suppose you will laugh at me, but I've had a cursed dream; and it has shaken me in spite of my reason. After all, how often our reason fails us at a pinch! I wish it was morning and we were on the road. I've half a mind to go out with the patrols and get my blood in circulation. I would were it not that I feel I should be with my men."
"Where's your colonel?"
"The old war-dog is sleeping like a top. Nothing ever disturbs him, much less a dream. I say, Graham, I made a good selection in him, didn't I?"
"Yes, but he'll be promoted soon, and you will be in command. What's more, I expect to see a star on your shoulder in less than six months."
"As I feel to-night, I don't care a picayune for stars or anything else relating to the cursed war. I'd give my fortune to be able to kiss Grace and tell her I'm well."
"You are morbid, Hilland. You will feel differently to-morrow, especially if there's a chance for a charge."
"No doubt, no doubt. The shadow of this confounded grove seems as black as death, and it oppresses me. Why should I, without apparent cause, have had such a dream?"
"Your supper and fatigue may have been the cause. If you don't mind, tell me this grisly vision."
"While you laugh at me as an old woman—you, in whom reason ever sits serene and dispassionate on her throne, except when you get into a fight."
"My reason's throne is often as rickety as a two-legged stool. No, I won't laugh at you. There's not a braver man in the service than you. If you feel as you say, there's some cause for it; and yet so complex is our organism that both cause and effect may not be worthy of very grave consideration, as I have hinted."
"Think what you please, this was my dream. I had made my dispositions for the night, and went to sleep as a matter of course. I had not slept an hour by my watch—I looked at it afterward—when I seemed to hear some one moaning and crying, and I thought I started up wide awake, and I saw the old library at home—the room you know so well. Every article of furniture was before me more distinctly than I can see any object now, and on the rug before the open fire Grace was crouching, while she moaned and wrung her hands and cried as if her heart was breaking. She was dressed in black—Oh, how white her hands and neck and face appeared against that mournful black—and, strangest of all, her hair fell around her snowy white, like a silver veil. I started forward to clasp her in my arms, and then truly awoke, for there was nothing before me but my drooping horse, a few red coals of my expiring fire, and over all the black, black shadow of this accursed grove. Oh, for sunlight! Oh, for a gale of wind, that I might breathe freely again!" and the powerful man sprang to his feet and threw open his coat at his breast.
As he ceased speaking, the silence and darkness of the grove did seem ominous and oppressive, and Graham's old wretched presentiment of Christmas morning returned, but he strove with all the ingenuity in his power to reason his friend out of his morbid mood, as he termed it. He kindled his fire into a cheerful blaze, and Hilland cowered and shivered over it; then looking up abruptly, he said, "Graham, you and I accepted the belief long ago that man was only highly organized matter. I must admit to you that my mind has often revolted at this belief; and the thought that Grace was merely of the earth has always seemed to me sacrilegious. She never was what you would call a religious girl; but she once had a quiet, simple faith in a God and a hereafter, and she expected to see her mother again. I fear that our views have troubled her exceedingly; although with that rare reserve in a woman, she never interfered with one's strong personal convictions. The shallow woman tries to set everybody right with the weighty reason, 'Oh, because it IS so; all good people say it is so.' I fear our views have unsettled hers also. I wish they had not; indeed I wish I could believe somewhat as she did.
"Once, only once, she spoke to me with a strange bitterness, but it revealed the workings of her mind. I, perhaps, was showing a little too much eagerness in my spirit and preparation for active service, and she broke out abruptly, 'Oh, yes, you and Alford can rush into scenes of carnage very complacently. You believe that if the bullet is only sure enough, your troubles are over forever, as Alford once said. I suppose you are right, for you learned men have studied into things as we poor women never can. If it's true, those who love as we do should die together.' It has often seemed that her very love—nay, that mine—was an argument against our belief. That a feeling so pure, vivid, and unselfish, so devoid of mere earthiness—a feeling that apparently contains within itself the very essence of immortality—can be instantly blotted out as a flame is extinguished, has become a terrible thought. Grace Hilland is worthy of an immortal life, and she has all the capacity for it. It's not her lovely form and face that I love so much as the lovely something—call it soul, spirit, or what you choose—that will maintain her charm through all the changes from youth to feeble and withered age. How can I be sure that the same gentle, womanly spirit may not exist after the final change we call death, and that to those worthy of immortal life the boon is not given? Reason is a grand thing, and I know we once thought we settled this question; but reason fails me to-night, or else love and the intense longings of the heart teach a truer and deeper philosophy—
"You are silent, Graham. You think me morbid—that wishes are fathers of my thoughts. Well, I'm not. I honestly don't know what the truth is. I only wish to-night that I had the simple belief in a reunion with Grace which she had with regard to her mother. I fear we have unsettled her faith; not that we ever urged our views—indeed we have scarcely ever spoken of them—but there has been before her the ever- present and silent force of example. It was natural for her to believe that those were right in whom she most believed; and I'm not sure we are right—I'm not sure. I've not been sure for a long time."
"My dear Warren, you are not well. Exposure to all sorts of weather in this malarial country is telling on you; and I fear your feelings to- night are the prelude of a fever. You shall stay and sleep by my fire, and if I hear the slightest suspicious sound I will waken you. You need not hesitate, for I intend to watch till morning, whether you stay or not."
"Well, Graham, I will. I wish to get through this horrible night in the quickest way possible. But I'll first go and bring my horse here, so the poor orderly can have a nap."
He soon returned and lay down close to the genial fire, and Graham threw over him his own blankets.
"What a good, honest friend you are, Graham!—too honest even to say some hollow words favoring my doubts of my doubt and unbelief. If it hadn't been for you, I should have been dead long ago. In my blind confidence, I should have rushed into the war, and probably should have been knocked on the head at Bull Run. How many happy months I've passed with Grace since then!—how many since you virtually gave your life for me last autumn! You made sure that I took a man's, not a fool's, part in the war. Oh, Grace and I know it all and appreciate it; and—and—Alford, if I should fall, I commend Grace to your care."
"Hilland, stop, or you will unman me. This accursed grove is haunted, I half believe; and were I in command I would order 'Boots and Saddles' to be sounded at once. There, sleep, Warren, and in the morning you will be your own grand self. Why speak of anything I could do for you and Grace? How could I serve myself in any surer way? As schoolgirls say, 'I won't speak to you again.' I'm going to prowl around a little, and see that all is right;" and he disappeared among the shadowy boles of the trees.
When he returned from his rounds his friend was sleeping, but uneasily, with sudden fits and starts.
"He is surely going to have a fever," Graham muttered. "I'd give a year's pay if we were safe back in camp." He stood before the fire with folded arms, watching his boyhood's friend, his gigantic shadow stretching away into the obscurity as unwaveringly as those of the tree-trunks around him. His lips were compressed. He sought to make his will as inflexible as his form. He would not think of Grace, of danger to her and Hilland; and yet, by some horrible necromancy of the hour and place, the scene in Hilland's dream would rise before him with a vividness that was overawing. In the sighing of the wind through the foliage, he seemed to hear the poor wife's moans.
"Oh," he muttered, "would that I could die a thousand deaths to prevent a scene like that!"
When would the interminable night pass? At last he looked at his watch and saw that the dawn could not be far distant. How still everything had become! The men were in their deepest slumber. Even the wind had died out, and the silence was to his overwrought mind like the hush of expectancy.
This silence was at last broken by a shot on the road leading to the west. Other shots followed in quick succession.
Hilland was on his feet instantly. "We're attacked," he shouted, and was about to spring upon his horse when Graham grasped his hand in both of his as he said, "In the name of Grace Hilland, be prudent"
Then both the men were in the saddle, Hilland dashing toward his own command, and each shouting, "Awake! Mount!"
At the same instant the bugle from headquarters rang through the grove, giving the well-known order of "Boots and Saddles."
In place of the profound stillness of a moment before, there were a thousand discordant sounds—the trampling of feet, the jingling of sabres, the champing of bits by aroused, restless horses that understood the bugle call as well as the men, hoarse, rapid orders of officers, above all which in the distance could be heard Hilland's clarion voice.
Again and again from headquarters the brief, musical strains of the bugle echoed through the gloom, each one giving to the veterans a definite command. Within four minutes there was a line of battle on the western edge of the grove, and a charging column was in the road leading to the west, down which the patrols were galloping at a headlong pace. Pickets were rushing in, firing as they came. To the uninitiated it might have seemed a scene of dire confusion. In fact, it was one of perfect order and discipline. Even in the darkness each man knew just what to do and where to go, as he heard the bugle calls and the stern, brief, supplementary orders of the officers.
Graham found himself on the line of battle at the right of the road, and the sound that followed close upon the sharp gallop of the patrol was ominous indeed. It was the rushing, thunderous sound of a heavy body of cavalry—too heavy, his ear soon foretold him, to promise equal battle.
The experienced colonel recognized the fact at the same moment, and would not leave his men in the road to meet the furious onset. Again, sharp, quick, and decisive as the vocal order had been, the bugle rang out the command for a change of position. Its strains had not ceased when the officers were repeating the order all down the column that had been formed in the road for a charge, and scarcely a moment elapsed before the western pike was clear, and faced by a line of battle a little back among the trees. The Union force would now ask nothing better than that the enemy should charge down that road within pointblank range.
If the Nationals were veterans they were also dealing with veterans who were masters of the situation in their overwhelming force and their knowledge of the comparative insignificance of their opponents, whose numbers had been quite accurately estimated the day before.
The patrols were already within the Union lines and at their proper places when the Confederate column emerged into the narrow open space before the grove. Its advance had subsided into a sharp trot; but, instead of charging by column or platoon, the enemy deployed to right and left with incredible swiftness. Men dismounted and formed into line almost instantly, their gray forms looking phantom-like in the gray dawn that tinged the east.
The vigilant colonel was as prompt as they, and at the first evidence of their tactics the bugle resounded, and the line of battle facing the road which led westward wheeled at a gallop through the open trees and formed at right angles with the road behind the first line of battle. Again there was a bugle call. The men in both lines dismounted instantly, and as their horses were being led to the rear by those designated for the duty, a Union volley was poured into the Confederate line that had scarcely formed, causing many a gap. Then the first Union line retired behind the second, loading as they went, and, with the ready instinct of old fighters, putting trees between themselves and the swiftly advancing foe while forming a third line of battle. From the second Union line a deadly volley blazed in the dim obscurity of the woods. It had no perceptible effect in checking the impetuous onset of the enemy, who merely returned the fire as they advanced.
The veteran colonel, with cool alertness, saw that he was far outnumbered, and that his assailants' tactics were to drive him through the grove into the open fields, where his command would be speedily dispersed and captured. His only chance was to run for it and get the start. Indeed the object of his reconnoissance seemed already accomplished, for the enemy was found to be in force in that direction. Therefore, as he galloped to the rear his bugler sounded "Retreat" long and shrilly.
The dim Union lines under the trees melted away as by magic, and a moment later there was a rush of horses through the underbrush that fringed the eastern side of the grove. But some men were shot, some sabred, and others captured before they could mount and extricate themselves. The majority, however, of the Union forces were galloping swiftly away, scattering at first rather than keeping together, in order to distract the pursuit which for a time was sharp and deadly. Not a few succumbed; others would turn on their nearest pursuer in mortal combat, which was soon decided in one way or the other. Graham more than once wheeled and confronted an isolated foe, and the sword bearing the name of the gentle Grace Hilland was bloody indeed.
All the while his eye was ranging the field for Hilland, and with his fleet steed, that could soon have carried him beyond all danger, he diverged to right and left, as far as their headlong retreat permitted, in his vain search for his friend.
Suddenly the bugle from the Confederate side sounded a recall. The enemy halted, fired parting shots, and retired briskly over the field, gathering up the wounded and the prisoners. The Union forces drew together on a distant eminence, from which the bugler of the colonel in command was blowing a lively call to rendezvous.
"Where, Hilland?" cried Graham, dashing up.
The colonel removed a cigar from his mouth and said, "Haven't seen him since I ordered the retreat. Don't worry. He'll be here soon. Hilland is sure to come out all right. It's a way he has. 'Twas a rather rapid change of base, Major Graham. That the enemy should have ceased their pursuit so abruptly puzzles me. Ah, here comes your colonel, and when Hilland puts in an appearance we must hold a brief council, although I suppose there is nothing left for us but to make our way back to camp and report as speedily as possible. I'd like to come back with a division, and turn the tables on those fellows. I believe we fought a divis—"
"Hilland!" shouted Graham, in a voice that drowned the colonel's words, and echoed far and wide.
There was no answer, and the fugitives were nearly all in.
Graham galloped out beyond the last lagging trooper, and with a cry that smote the hearts of those that heard it he shouted, "Hilland!" and strained his eyes in every direction. There was no response—no form in view that resembled his friend.
At wild speed he returned and rode among Hilland's command. His manner was so desperate that he drew all eyes upon him, and none seemed able or willing to answer. At last a man said, "I heard his voice just as we were breaking from that cursed grove, and I've seen or heard nothing of him since. I supposed he was on ahead with the colonel;" and that was all the information that could be obtained.
The men looked very downcast, for Hilland was almost idolized by them. Graham saw that there was an eager quest of information among themselves, and he waited with feverish impatience for further light; but nothing could be elicited from officers or privates beyond the fact that Hilland had been bravely doing his duty up to the moment when, as one of the captains said, "It was a scramble, 'each man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.'"
As long as there had been a gleam of hope that Hilland had escaped with the rest, Graham had been almost beside himself in his feverish impatience.
He now rode to where the two colonels were standing, and the senior began rapidly, "Major Graham, we sympathize with you deeply. We all, and indeed the army, have sustained a severe loss in even the temporary absence of Lieutenant-Colonel Hilland; for I will not believe that worse has happened than a wound and brief captivity. The enemy has acted peculiarly. I have fears that they may be flanking us and trying to intercept us on some parallel road. Therefore I shall order that we return to camp in the quickest possible time. Good God, Graham! don't take it so to heart. You've no proof that Hilland is dead. You look desperate, man. Come, remember that you are a soldier and that Hilland was one too. We've had to discount such experiences from the start."
"Gentlemen," said Graham, in a low, concentrated voice, and touching his hat to the two colonels, "I am under the command of you both—one as my superior officer, the other as leader of the expedition. I ask permission to return in search of my friend."
"I forbid it," they both cried simultaneously, while the senior officer continued, "Graham, you are beside yourself. It would be almost suicide to go back. It would certainly result in your capture, while there is not one chance in a thousand that you could do Hilland any good."
Graham made no immediate reply, but was studying the ill-omened grove with his glass. After a moment he said, "I do not think there will be any further pursuit. The enemy are retiring from the grove. My explanation of their conduct is this: There is some large decisive movement in progress, and we were merely brushed out of the way that we might learn nothing of it. My advice is that we retain this commanding position, throw out scouts on every side, and I doubt whether we find anything beyond a small rearguard in ten miles of us within a few hours."
"Your anxiety for your friend warps your judgment, and it is contrary to my instructions, which were simply to learn if there was any considerable force of the enemy in this region. Your explanation of the enemy's conduct is plausible, and has already occurred to me as a possibility. If it be the true explanation, all the more reason that we should return promptly and report what we know and what we surmise. I shall therefore order 'Retreat' to be sounded at once."
"And I, Major Graham," said his own colonel, "must add, that while you have my sympathy, I nevertheless order you to your place in the march. Rather than permit you to carry out your mad project, I would place you under arrest."
"Gentlemen, I cannot complain of your course, or criticise your military action. You are in a better condition of mind to judge what is wise than I; and under ordinary circumstances I would submit without a word. But the circumstances are extraordinary. Hilland has been my friend since boyhood. I will not remain in suspense as to his fate; much less will I leave his wife and friends in suspense. I know that disobedience of orders in the face of the enemy is one of the gravest offences, but I must disobey them, be the consequences what they may."
As he wheeled his horse, his colonel cried, "Stop him. He's under arrest!" But Mayburn, feeling the touch of the spur, sprang into his fleet gallop, and they might as well have pursued a bird.
They saw this at once, and the colonel in command only growled, "—- this reconnoissance. Here we've lost two of the finest officers in the brigade, as well as some of our best men. Sound 'Retreat.'"
There was a hesitancy, and a wild impulse among Hilland's men to follow Graham to the rescue, but it was sternly repressed by their officers, and the whole command was within a few moments on a sharp trot toward camp.
Graham soon slackened his pace when he found that he was not pursued, and as his friends disappeared he returned warily to the brow of the eminence and watched their rapid march away from the ill-fated locality. He rode over the brow of the hill as if he was following, for he had little doubt that the movements of the Union force were watched. Having tied his horse where he could not be seen from the grove, he crept back behind a sheltering bush, and with his glass scanned the scene of conflict. In the road leading through the grove there were ambulances removing the wounded. At last these disappeared, and there was not a living object in sight. He watched a little longer, and buzzards began to wheel over and settle upon the battleground—sure evidence that for the time it was deserted.
He hesitated no longer. Mounting his horse he continued down the hill so as to be screened from any possible observers, then struck off to his left to a belt of woods that extended well up to the vicinity of the grove. Making his way through this bit of forest, he soon came to an old wood-road partially grown up with bushes, and pushed his way rapidly back toward the point he wished to attain. Having approached the limits of the belt of woods, he tied his horse in a thicket, listened, then stole to the edge nearest the grove. It appeared deserted. Crouching along a rail fence with revolver in hand, he at last reached its fatal shade, and pushing through its fringe of lower growth, peered cautiously around. Here and there he saw a lifeless body or a struggling, wounded horse, over which the buzzards hovered, or on which they had already settled. Disgusting as was their presence, they reassured him, and he boldly and yet with an awful dread at heart began his search, scanning with rapid eye each prostrate form along the entire back edge of the grove through which the Union forces had burst in their swift retreat.
He soon passed beyond all traces of conflict, and then retraced his steps, uttering half-unconsciously and in a tone of anguish his friend's name. As he approached what had been the extreme right of the Union line in their retreat, and their left in the advance, he beheld a dead horse that looked familiar. He sprang forward and saw that it was Hilland's.
"Hilland! Warren!" he shouted, wild with awful foreboding.
From a dense thicket near he heard a feeble groan. Rushing into it, he stumbled against the immense mossy trunk of a prostrate, decaying tree. Concealed beyond it lay his friend, apparently dying.
"Oh, Warren!" he cried, "my friend, my brother, don't you know me? Oh, live, live! I can rescue you."
There was no response from the slowly gasping man.
Graham snatched a flask from his pocket and wet the pallid lips with brandy, and then caused Hilland to swallow a little. The stimulant kindled for a few moments the flame of life, and the dying man slowly became conscious.
"Graham," he murmured feebly—"Graham, is that you?"
"Yes, yes, and I'll save you yet. Oh, in the name of Grace, I adjure you to live."
"Alas for Grace! My dream—will come true."
"Oh, Hilland, no, no! Oh, that I could die in your place! What is my life to yours! Rally, Warren, rally. My fleet horse is tied near, or if you are too badly wounded I will stay and nurse you. I'll fire a pistol shot through my arm, and then we can be sent to the hospital together. Here, take more brandy. That's right. With your physique you should not think of death. Let me lift you up and stanch your wound."
"Don't move me, Graham, or I'll bleed to death instantly, and—and—I want to look in your face—once more, and send my—true love to Grace. More brandy, please. It's getting light again. Before it was dark—oh, so dark! How is it you are here?"
"I came back for you. Could I ride away and you not with me? Oh, Warren! I must save your life. I must, I must!"
"Leave me, Graham; leave me at once. You will be captured, if not killed," and Hilland spoke with energy.
"I will never leave you. There, your voice proves that your strength is coming back. Warren, Warren, can't you live for Grace's sake?"
"Graham," said Hilland, solemnly, "even my moments are numbered. One more gush of blood from my side and I'm gone. Oh, shall I become nothing? Shall I be no more than the decaying tree behind which I crawled when struck down? Shall I never see my peerless bride again? She would always have been a bride to me. I can't believe it. There must be amends somewhere for the agony of mind, not body, that I've endured as I lay here, and for the anguish that Grace will suffer. Oh, Graham, my philosophy fails me in this strait, my whole nature revolts at it. Mere corruption, chemical change, ought not to be the end of a man."
"Do not waste your strength in words. Live, and in a few short weeks Grace may be your nurse. Take more brandy, and then I'll go for assistance."
"No, Graham, no. Don't leave me. Life is ebbing again. Ah, ah! farewell—true friend. Un—bounded love—Grace. Commit—her—your care!"
There was a convulsive shudder and the noble form was still.
Graham knelt over him for a few moments in silent horror. Then he tore open Hilland's vest and placed his hand over his heart. It was motionless. His hand, as he withdrew it, was bathed in blood. He poured brandy into the open lips, but the powerful stimulant was without effect. The awful truth overwhelmed him.
Hilland was dead.
He sat down, lifted his friend up against his breast, and hung over him with short, dry sobs—with a grief far beyond tears, careless, reckless of his own safety.
The bushes near him were parted, and a sweet girlish face, full of fear, wonder, and pity, looked upon him. The interpretation of the scene was but too evident, and tears gushed from the young girl's eyes.
"Oh, sir," she began in a low, faltering voice.
The mourner paid no heed.
"Please, sir," she cried, "do not grieve so. I never saw a man grieve like that. Oh, papa, papa, come, come here."
The quick pride of manhood was touched, and Graham laid his friend reverently down, and stood erect, quiet, but with heaving breast. Hasty steps approached, and a gray-haired man stood beside the young girl.
"I am your prisoner, sir," said Graham, "but in the name of humanity I ask you to let me bury my dead."
"My dear young sir, in the name of humanity and a more sacred Name, I will do all for you in my power. I am a clergyman, and am here with a party from a neighboring village, charged with the office of burying the dead with appropriate rites. I have no desire to take you prisoner, but will be glad to entertain you as my guest if the authorities will permit. Will you not give me some brief explanation of this scene while they are gathering up the dead?"
Graham did so in a few sad words. The daughter sat crying on the mossy log meanwhile, and the old man wiped his eyes again and again.
"Was there ever a nobler-looking man?" sobbed the girl; "and to think of his poor wife! Papa, he must not be buried here. He must be taken to our little cemetery by the church, and I will often put flowers on his grave."
"If you will carry out this plan, sweet child" said Graham, "one broken-hearted woman will bless you while she lives."
"Think, papa," resumed the girl—"think if it was our Henry what we would wish."
"I'm glad you feel as you do, my child. It proves that this horrible war is not hardening your heart or making you less gentle or compassionate. I will carry out your wishes and yours, sir, and will use my whole influence to prevent your noble fidelity to your friend from becoming the cause of your captivity. I will now summon assistance to carry your friend to the road, where a wagon can take him to the village."
In a few moments two negro slaves, part of the force sent to bury the dead, with their tattered hats doffed out of respect, slowly bore the body of Hilland to the roadside. Graham, with his bare head bowed under a weight of grief that seemed wellnigh crushing, followed closely, and then the old clergyman and his daughter. They laid the princely form down on the grass beside a dark-haired young Confederate officer, who was also to be taken to the cemetery.
The sad rites of burial which the good old man now performed over both friend and foe of subordinate rank need not be dwelt upon. While they were taking place Graham stood beside his friend as motionless as if he had become a statue, heedless of the crowd of villagers and country people that had gathered to the scene.
At last a sweet voice said: "Please, sir, it's time to go. You ride with papa. I am young and strong and can walk."
His only response was to take her hand and kiss it fervently. Then he turned to her father and told him of his horse that was hidden in the nearest edge of the belt of woods, and asked that it might be sent for by some one who was trustworthy.
"Here is Sampson, one of my own people; I'd trust him with all I have;" and one of the negroes who had borne the body of Hilland hastened away as directed, and soon returned with the beautiful horse that awakened the admiration of all and the cupidity of a few of the nondescript characters that had been drawn to the place.
A rude wagon was drawn to the roadside, its rough boards covered with leafy boughs, and the Union and the Confederate officer were placed in it side by side. Then the minister climbed into his old-fashioned gig, his daughter sprang lightly in by his side, took the reins and slowly led the way, followed by the extemporized hearse, while Graham on his horse rode at the feet of his friend, chief mourner in bitter truth. The negroes who had buried the dead walked on either side of the wagon bareheaded and oblivious of the summer sun, and the country people and villagers streamed along the road after the simple procession.
The bodies were first taken to the parsonage, and the stains of battle removed by an old colored aunty, a slave of the clergyman. Graham gave into the care of the clergyman's daughter Hilland's sword and some other articles that he did not wish to carry on his return to the Union lines. Among these was an exquisite likeness of Grace smiling in her happy loveliness.
Tears again rushed into the young girl's eyes as she asked in accents of deepest commiseration: "And will you have to break the news to her?"
"No," said Graham hoarsely; "I could not do that. I'd rather face a thousand guns than that poor wife."
"Why do you not keep the likeness?"
"I could not look upon it and think of the change which this fatal day will bring to those features. I shall leave it with you until she comes for his sword and to visit his grave. No one has a better right to it than you, and in this lovely face you see the promise of your own womanhood reflected. You have not told me your name. I wish to know it, for I shall love and cherish it as one of my most sacred memories."
"Margarita Anderson," was the blushing reply. "Papa and my friends call me Rita."
"Let me call you what your name signifies, and what you have proved yourself to be—Pearl. Who is Henry?"
"My only brother. He is a captain in our army."
"You are a true Southern girl?"
"Yes, in body and soul I'm a Southern girl;" and her dark eyes flashed through her tears.
"So was the original of this likeness. She is kin to you in blood and feeling as well as in her noble qualities; but she loved her Northern husband more than the whole world, and all in it was nothing compared with him. She will come and see you some day, and words will fail her in thanks."
"And will you come with her?"
"I don't know. I may be dead long before that time."
The young girl turned away, and for some reason her tears flowed faster than ever before.
"Pearl, my tender-hearted child, don't grieve over what would be so small a grief to me. This evil day has clouded your young life with the sadness of others. But at your age it will soon pass;" and he returned to his friend and took from him the little mementoes that he knew would be so dear to Grace.
Soon after, the two bodies were borne to the quaint old church and placed before the altar. Both were dressed in their full uniforms, and there was a noble calmness on the face of each as they slumbered side by side in the place sacred to the God of peace, and at peace with each other for evermore.
For an hour the bell tolled slowly, and the people passed in at one door, looked upon the manly forms, and with awed faces crept out at the other.
It was indeed a memorable day for the villagers. They had been awakened in the dawn by sounds of distant conflict. They had exulted over a brilliant victory as the Confederate forces came marching rapidly through their streets.
They had been put on the qui vive to know what the rapid movement of their troops meant. Some of the most severely wounded had been left in their care. The battlefield with its horrors had been visited, and there was to be a funeral service over two actors in the bloody drama, whose untimely fate excited not only sympathy, but the deep interest and curiosity which ever attend upon those around whom rumor has woven a romantic history. The story of Graham's return in search of his friend, of the circumstances of their discovery by Rita, of the likeness of the lovely wife who would soon be heart-broken from the knowledge of what was known to them, had got abroad among the people, and their warm Southern hearts were more touched by the fate of their Northern foe than by that of the officer wearing the livery of their own service, but of whom little was known.
Graham's profound grief also impressed them deeply; and the presence of a Union officer, sitting among them, forgetful of his danger, of all except that his friend was dead, formed a theme which would be dwelt upon for months to come.
Near the close of the day, after some appropriate words in the church, the venerable clergyman, with his white locks uncovered, led the way through the cemetery to its further side, where, under the shade of an immense juniper-tree, were two open graves. As before, Graham followed his friend, and after him came Rita with a number of her young companions, dressed in white and carrying baskets of flowers. After an impressive burial service had been read, the young girls passed to and fro between the graves, throwing flowers in each and singing as they went a hymn breathing the certainty of the immortality that had been the object of poor Hilland's longing aspiration. Graham's heart thrilled as he heard the words, for they seemed the answer to his friend's questions. But, though his feelings might be touched deeply, he was the last man to be moved by sentiment or emotion from a position to which his inexorable reason had conducted him.
The sun threw its level rays over a scene that he never forgot—the white-haired clergyman standing between the open graves; the young maidens, led by the dark-eyed Rita, weaving in and out, their white hands and arms glowing like ivory as they strewed the flowers, meanwhile singing with an unconscious grace and pathos that touched the rudest hearts; the concourse of people, chiefly women, old men, and children, for the young and strong were either mouldering on battlefields or marching to others; the awed sable faces of the negroes in the further background; the exquisite evening sky; the songs of unheeding birds, so near to man in their choice of habitation, so remote from his sorrows and anxieties—all combined to form a picture and a memory which would be vivid and real to his latest day.
The graves were at last filled and piled up with flowers. Then Graham, standing uncovered before them all, spoke slowly and earnestly:
"People of the South, you see before you a Northern man, an officer in the Union army; but as I live I cherish no thought of enmity toward one of you. On the contrary, my heart is overwhelmed with gratitude. You have placed here side by side two brave men. You have rendered to their dust equal reverence and honor. I am in accord with you. I believe that the patriotism of one was as sincere as that of the other, the courage of one as high as that of the other, that the impulses which led them to offer up their lives were equally noble. In your generous sympathy for a fallen foe you have proved yourselves Americans in the best sense of the word. May the day come when that name shall suffice for us all. Believe me, I would defend your homes and my own with equal zeal;" and with a bow of profound respect he turned to the grave of his friend.
With a delicate appreciation of his wish, the people, casting backward lingering, sympathetic glances, ebbed away and he was soon left alone.
A SOUTHERN GIRL
When Graham was left alone he knelt and bowed his head in the flowers that Rita had placed on Hilland's grave, and the whole horrible truth seemed to grow, to broaden and deepen, like a gulf that had opened at his feet. Hilland, who had become a part of his own life and seemed inseparable from all its interests, had disappeared forever. But yesterday he was the centre of vast interests and boundless love; now he had ceased to be. The love would remain, but oh, the torture of a boundless love when its object has passed beyond its reach!
The thought of Grace brought to the mourner an indescribable anguish. Once his profound love for her had asserted itself in a way that had stung him to madness, and the evil thought had never returned. Now she seemed to belong to the dead husband even more than when he was living. The thought that tortured him most was that Grace would not long survive Hilland. The union between the two had been so close and vital that the separation might mean death. The possibility overwhelmed him, and he grew faint and sick. Indeed it would seem that he partially lost consciousness, for at last he became aware that some one was standing near and pleading with him. Then he saw it was Rita.
"Oh, sir," she entreated, "do not grieve so. It breaks my heart to see a man so overcome. It seems terrible. It makes me feel that there are depths of sorrow that frighten me. Oh, come with me—do, please. I fear you've eaten nothing to-day, and we have supper all ready for you."
Graham tottered to his feet and passed his hand across his brow, as if to brush away an evil dream.
"Indeed, sir, you look sick and faint. Take my arm and lean on me. I assure you I am very strong."
"Yes, Pearl, you are strong. Many live to old age and never become as true a woman as you are to-day. This awful event has wellnigh crushed me, and, now I think of it, I have scarcely tasted food since last evening. Thank you, my child, I will take your arm. In an hour or two I shall gain self-control."
"My heart aches for you, sir," she said, as they passed slowly through the twilight.
"May it be long before it aches from any sorrow of your own, Pearl."
The parsonage adjoined the church. The old clergyman abounded in almost paternal kindness, and pressed upon Graham a glass of home-made wine. After he had taken this and eaten a little, his strength and poise returned, and he gave his entertainers a fuller account of Hilland and his relations, and in that Southern home there was as genuine sympathy for the inmates of the Northern home as if they all had been devoted to the same cause.
"There are many subjects on which we differ," said his host. "You perceive that I have slaves, but they are so attached to me that I do not think they would leave me if I offered them their freedom. I have been brought up to think slavery right. My father and grandfather before me held slaves and always treated them well. I truly think they did better by them than the bondmen could have done for themselves. To give them liberty and send them adrift would be almost like throwing little children out into the world. I know that there are evils and abuses connected with our system, but I feel sure that liberty given to a people unfitted for it would be followed by far greater evils."
"It's a subject to which I have given very little attention," Graham replied. "I have spent much of my life abroad, and certainly your servants are better off than the peasantry and very poor in many lands that I have visited."
With a kind of wonder, he thought of the truth that Hilland, who so hated slavery, had been lifted from the battlefield by slaves, and that his remains had been treated with reverent honor by a slave- holder.
The old clergyman's words also proved that, while he deprecated the war unspeakably, his whole sympathy was with the South. His only son, of whom neither he nor Rita could speak without looks of pride and affection kindling in their faces, was in the Confederate service, and the old man prayed as fervently for success to the cause to which he had devoted the treasure of his life as any Northern father could petition the God of nations for his boy and the restoration of the Union. At the same time his nature was too large, too highly ennobled by Christianity, for a narrow vindictive bitterness. He could love the enemy that he was willing his son should oppose in deadly battle.