"Well, Gracie, dear," the old major would reply, chuckling at his well-worn joke, "the colonel was only a cavalryman, you know. He's not up in infantry tactics."
One morning Grandma Mayburn opened a high conclave in regard to the baby's name, and sought to settle the question in advance by saying, "Of course it should be Grace."
"Indeed, madam," differed the major, gallantly, "I think it should be named after its grandmother."
Grace lifted her eyes inquiringly to her husband, who stood regarding what to him was the Madonna and child.
"I have already named her," he said, quietly.
"You, you!" cried his aunt, brusquely. "I'd have you know that this is an affair for grave and general deliberation."
"Alford shall have his way," said the mother, with quiet emphasis, looking down at the child, while pride and tenderness blended sweetly in her face.
"Her name is Hilda, in memory of the noblest man and dearest friend I have ever known."
Instantly she raised her eyes, brimming with tears, to his, and faltered, "Thank you, Alford"; and she clasped the child almost convulsively to her breast, proving that there was one love which no other could obliterate.
"That's right, dear Grace. Link her name with the memory of Warren. She will thus make you happier, and it's my wish."
The conclave ended at once. The old major took off his spectacles to wipe his eyes, and Mrs. Mayburn stole away.
From that hour little Hilda pushed sorrow from Grace's heart with her baby hands, as nothing had ever done before, and the memory of the lost husband ceased to be a shadow in the background. The innocent young life was associated with his, and loved the more intensely.
Graham had spoken from the impulse of a generous nature, too large to feel the miserable jealousies that infest some minds; but he had spoken more wisely than he knew. Thereafter there was a tenderness in Grace's manner toward him which he had never recognized before. He tasted a happiness of which he had never dreamed, alloyed only by the thought that his treasures were mortal and frail. But as the little one thrived, and his wife bloomed into the most exquisite beauty seen in this world, that of young and happy motherhood, he gave himself up to his deep content, believing that fate at last was appeased. The major grew even hilarious, and had his morning and evening parades, as he called them, when the baby, in its laces and soft draperies, was brought for his inspection. Mrs. Mayburn, with all the accumulated maternal yearnings of her heart satisfied, would preside at the ceremony. Grace, happy and proud, would nod and smile over her shoulder at her husband, who made a poor pretence of reading his paper, while the old veteran deliberately adjusted his spectacles and made comments that in their solemn drollery and military jargon were irresistible to the household that could now laugh so easily. The young life that had come had brought a new life to them all, and the dark shadows of the past shrank further and further into the background.
But they were there—all the sad mysteries of evil that had crushed the mother's heart. Once they seemed to rush forward and close around her. Little Hilda was ill and Grace in terror. But Dr. Markham speedily satisfied her that it was a trivial matter, and proved it to be so by his remedies. The impression of danger remained, however, and she clung to her little idol more closely than ever; and this was true of all.
Time sped tranquilly on. Hilda grew in endearing ways, and began to have knowing looks and smiles for each. Her preference for her grandfather with his great frosty eyebrows pleased the old gentleman immensely. It was both droll and touching to observe how one often so irascible would patiently let her take off his spectacles, toy with and often pull his gray locks, and rumple his old-fashioned ruffles, which he persisted in wearing on state occasions. It was also silently noted that the veteran never even verged toward profanity in the presence of the child.
Each new token of intelligence was hailed with a delight of which natures coarse or blunted never know. The Wise Men of old worshipped the Babe in the manger, and sadly defective or perverted in their organizations are those who do not see something divine in a little innocent child.
Henry and Rita Anderson, at the urgent solicitation of Graham and his wife, came on in the autumn to make a visit, and, by a very strange coincidence, Graham's favorite captain, a manly, prosperous fellow, happened to be visiting him at the time. By a still more remarkable conjunction of events, he at once shared in his former colonel's admiration of the dark-eyed Southern girl. She was very shy, distant, and observant at first, for this fortuitous captain was a Northerner. But the atmosphere of the two cottages was not in the least conducive to coolness and reserve. The wood fires that crackled on the hearth, or something else, thawed perceptibly the spirited girl. Moreover, there were walks, drives, horseback excursions, daily; and Iss shone forth in a glory of which he had never dreamed as a plantation hand. There were light steps passing to and fro, light laughter, cheery, hearty voices—in which the baby's crowing and cooing were heard as a low, sweet chord—music and whist to the major's infinite consent. The shadows shrank further into the background than ever before. No one thought of or heeded them now; but they were there, cowering and waiting.
Only Aunt Sheba was ill at ease. Crooning her quaint lullabies to the baby, she would often lift her eyes to heaven and sigh, "De good Lord hab marcy on dem! Dey's all a drinkin' at de little shaller pools dat may dry up any minit. It's all ob de earth; it's all ob tings, nothin' but tings which de eyes can see and de han's can touch. De good Lord lift dar eyes from de earth widout takin' dat mos' dear!"
But no one thought of old Aunt Sheba except as a faithful creature born to serve them in her humble way.
The Northern captain soon proved that he had not a little Southern dash and ardor, and he had already discovered that his accidental visit to Graham was quite providential, as he had been taught to regard events that promised favorably. He very significantly asked Colonel Anderson to take a gallop with him one morning, but they had not galloped far before he halted and plumply asked the brother's permission, as the present representative of her father, to pay his addresses to Rita. Now Captain Windom had made a good impression on the colonel, which Graham, in a very casual way, had been at pains to strengthen; and he came back radiant over one point gained. But he was more afraid of that little Virginian girl than he had ever been of all her Southern compatriots. He felt that he must forego his cavalry tactics and open a regular siege; but she, with one flash of her mirthful eyes, saw through it all, laughed over it with Grace, whom from worshipping as a saint she now loved as a sister. Amid the pauses in their mutual worship of the baby, they talked the captain over in a way that would have made his ears tingle could he have heard them; but Grace, underneath all her good-natured criticism, seconded her husband's efforts with a mature woman's tact. Rita should be made happy in spite of all her little perversities and Southern prejudices, and yet the hands that guided and helped her should not be seen.
The captain soon abandoned his siege tactics, in which he was ill at ease, and resumed his old habit of impetuous advances in which Graham had trained him. Time was growing short. His visit and hers would soon be over. He became so downright and desperately in earnest that the little girl began to be frightened. It was no laughing matter now, and Grace looked grave over the affair. Then Rita began to be very sorry for him, and at last, through Graham's unwonted awkwardness and inattention to his guests, the captain and Rita were permitted to take a different road from the others on an equestrian party. When they appeared the captain looked as if he were returning from a successful charge, and Rita was as shy and blushing as one of the wild roses of her native hills. She fled to Grace's room, as if it were the only refuge left in the world, and her first breathless words were: "I haven't promised anything—that is, nothing definite. I said he might come and see me in Virginia and talk to papa about it, and I'd think it over, and—and—Well, he was so impetuous and earnest! Good heavens! I thought the Northern people were cold, but that captain fairly took away my breath. You never heard a man talk so."
Grace had put down the baby, and now stood with her arm around her friend, smiling the sweetest encouragement.
"I'll explain it all to you, Miss Rita," began Graham's deep voice, as he advanced from a recess.
"Oh, the powers! are you here?" and she started back and looked at him with dismay.
"Yes," said he, "and I merely wished to explain that my friend Windom was in the cavalry, and from much fighting with your brave, impetuous hard-riders we gradually fell into their habits."
"I half believe that you are laughing at me—that you are in league with him, and have been all along."
"Yes, Rita, noble little woman, truest friend at the time of my bitter need, I am in league with any man worthy of you—that is, as far as a man can be who seeks to make you happy;" and he took her hand and held it warmly.
"Here come my silly tears again," and she dashed them to right and left. Then, looking up at him shyly, she faltered, "I must admit that I'm a little bit happy."
"I vowed you should be, all through that dark ride on which you led me away from cruel enemies; and every flower you have placed on the grave of that noble man that Grace and I both loved has added strength to my vow."
"Oh, Rita, Rita, darling!" cried Grace, clasping her in close embrace; "do you think we ever forget it?"
"Can you think, Rita, that in memory of that never-to-be-forgotten day I would give Captain Windom the opportunities he has enjoyed if I did not think he would make you happy? One cannot live and fight side by side with a man for years and not know his mettle. He was lion-like in battle, but he will ever be gentleness itself toward you. Best of all, he will appreciate you, and I should feel like choking any fellow who didn't."
"But indeed, indeed, I haven't promised anything; I only said—"
"No matter what you said, my dear, so long as the captain knows. We are well assured that your every word and thought and act were true and maidenly. Let Windom visit you and become acquainted with your father. The more you all see of him the more you will respect him."
"You are wonderfully reassuring," said the young girl, "and I learned to trust you long ago. Indeed, after your course toward Henry, I believe I'd marry any one you told me to. But to tell the truth, I have felt, for the last few hours, as if caught up by a whirlwind and landed I don't know where. No one ever need talk to me any more about cold-blooded Northerners. Well, I must land at the dinner-table before long, and so must go and dress. It's proper to eat under the circumstances, isn't it?"
"I expect to," said Graham, laughing, "and I'm more in love than you are."
"Little wonder!" with a glance of ardent admiration toward Grace, and she whisked out. In a moment she returned and said, "Now, Colonel, I must be honest, especially as I think of your vow in the dark woods. I am very, very happy;" and then in a meteoric brilliancy of smiles, tears, and excitement, she vanished.
On the day following Captain Windom marched triumphantly away, and his absence proved to Rita that the question was settled, no matter what she had said when having little breath left to say anything.
She and her brother followed speedily, and Graham accompanied them, to superintend in person the setting up of a beautiful marble column which he and Grace had designed for Hilland's grave.
It was a time of sad, yet chastened, memories to both. In their consciousness Hilland had ceased to exist. He was but a memory, cherished indeed with an indescribable honor and love—still only a memory. There was an immense difference, however, in the thoughts of each as they reverted to his distant grave. Graham felt that he had there closed a chapter of his life—a chapter that he would ever recall with the deep melancholy that often broods in the hearts of the happiest of men whose natures are large enough to be truly impressed by life's vicissitudes. Grace knew that her girlhood, her former self, was buried in that grave, and with her early lover had vanished forever. Graham had, in a sense, raised her from the dead. His boundless love and self-sacrifice, his indomitable will, had created for her new life, different from the old, yet full of tranquil joys, new hopes and interests. He had not rent the new from the old, but had bridged with generous acts the existing chasm. He was doing all within his power, not jealously to withdraw her thoughts from that terrible past, but to veil its more cruel and repulsive features with flowers, laurel wreaths, and sculptured marble; and in her heart, which had been dead, but into which his love had breathed a new life, she daily blessed him with a deeper affection.
He soon returned to her from Virginia, and by his vivid descriptions made real to her the scenes he had visited. He told her how Rita and her brother had changed the plot in which slept the National and the Confederate officer into a little garden of blossoming greenery; how he had arranged with Colonel Anderson to place a fitting monument over the young Confederate officer, whose friends had been impoverished by the war; and he kissed away the tears, no longer bitter and despairing, evoked by the memories his words recalled. Then, in lighter vein, he described the sudden advent of the impetuous captain; the consternation of the little housekeeper, who was not expecting him so soon; her efforts to improvise a feast for the man who would blissfully swallow half-baked "pones" if served by her; her shy presentation of her lover to the venerable clergyman, which he and Henry had witnessed on the veranda through the half-closed blinds, and the fond old man's immense surprise that his little Rita should have a lover at all.
"My dear sir," he said, "this is all very premature. You must wait for the child to grow up before imbuing her mind with thoughts beyond her years."
"'My dear Dr. Anderson,' had pleaded the adroit Windom, 'I will wait indefinitely, and submit to any conditions that you and Miss Rita impose. If already she has impressed me so deeply, time can only increase my respect, admiration, and affection, if that were possible. Before making a single effort to win your daughter's regard, I asked permission of her brother, since you were so far away. I have not sought to bind her, but have only revealed the deep feeling which she has inspired, and I now come to ask your sanction also to my addresses.'
"'Your conduct,' replied the old gentleman, unbending urbanely toward the young man, 'is both honorable and considerate. Of course you know that my child's happiness is my chief solicitude. If, after several years, when Rita's mind has grown more mature, her judgment confirms— '
"Here Rita made a little moue which only her red lips could form, and Henry and I took refuge in a silent and precipitate retreat, lest our irreverent mirth should offend the blind old father, to whom Rita is his little Rita still. You know well how many years, months rather, Windom will wait.
"Well, I left the little girl happier than the day was long, for I believe her eyes sparkle all through the night under their long lashes. As for Windom, he is in the seventh heaven. 'My latest campaign in Virginia,' he whispered to me as I was about to ride away; 'good prospects of the best capture yet won from the Confederacy.'"
And so he made the place familiar to her, with its high lights and deep shadows, and its characters real, even down to old Jehu and his son Huey.
A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
Autumn merged imperceptibly into winter, and the days sped tranquilly on. With the exception of brief absences on business, Graham was mostly at home, for there was no place like his own hearth. His heart, so long denied happiness, was content only at the side of his wife and child. The shadows of the past crouched further away than ever, but even their own health and prosperity, their happiness, and the reflected happiness of others could not banish them wholly. The lights which burned so brightly around them, like the fire on their hearth, had been kindled and were fed by human hands only, and were ever liable to die out. The fuel that kept them burning was the best that earth afforded, but the supply had its inherent limitations. Each new tranquil day increased the habitual sense of security. Graham was busy with plans of a large agricultural enterprise in Virginia. The more he saw of Henry Anderson the more he appreciated his sterling integrity and fine business capabilities, and from being an agent he had become a partner. Grace's writing-desk, at which Graham had cast a wistful glance the first time he had seen it, was often covered with maps of the Virginia plantation, which he proposed to develop into its best capabilities. Grace had a cradle by the library fire as well as in her room. Beside this the adopted grandmother knitted placidly, and the major rustled his paper softly lest he should waken the little sleeper. Grace, who persisted in making all of her little one's dainty plumage herself, would lift her eyes from time to time, full of genuine interest in his projects and in his plans for a dwelling on the plantation, which should be built according to her taste and constructed for her convenience.
The shadows had never been further away. Even old Aunt Sheba was lulled into security. Into her bereaved heart, as into the hearts of all the others, the baby crept; and she grew so bewitching with her winsome ways, so absorbing in her many little wants and her need of watching, as with the dawning spirit of curiosity she sought to explore for herself what was beyond the cradle and the door, that Aunt Sheba, with the doting mother, thought of Hilda during all waking hours and dreamed of her in sleep.
At last the inconstant New England spring passed away, and June came with its ever-new heritage of beauty. The baby's birthday was to be the grand fete of the year, and the little creature seemed to enter into the spirit of the occasion. She could now call her parents and grandparents by name, and talk to them in her pretty though senseless jargon, which was to them more precious than the wisdom of Solomon.
It was a day of roses and rose-colors. Roses banked the mantelpieces, wreathed the cradle, crowned the table at which Hilda sat in state in her high chair, a fairy form in gossamer laces, with dark eyes— Grace's eyes—that danced with the unrestrained delight of a child.
"She looks just like my little Grace of long, long years ago," said the major, with wistful eyes; "and yet, Colonel, it seems but yesterday that your wife was the image of that laughing little witch yonder."
"Well, I can believe," admitted Grandma Mayburn, "that Grace was as pretty—a tremendous compliment to you, Grace—but there never was and never will be another baby as pretty and cunning as our Hilda."
The good old lady never spoke of the child as Grace's baby. It was always "ours." In Graham, Grace, and especially Hilda, she had her children about her, and the mother-need in her heart was satisfied.
"Yes, Hilda darling," said the colonel, with fond eyes, "you have begun well. You could not please me more than by looking like your mother; the next thing is to grow like her."
"Poor blind papa, with the perpetual glamour on his eyes! He will never see his old white-haired wife as she is."
He looked at her almost perfect features with the bloom of health upon them, into her dark eyes with their depths of motherly pride and joy, at her snowy neck and ivory arms bare to the summer heat, and longest at the wavy silver of her hair, that crowned her beauty with an almost supernatural charm.
"Don't I see you as you are, Grace?" he said. "Well, I am often spellbound by what I do see. If Hilda becomes like you, excepting your sorrows, my dearest wish in her behalf will be fulfilled."
Old Aunt Sheba, standing behind the baby's chair, felt a chill at heart as she thought: "Dey'se all a-worshippin' de chile and each oder. I sees it so plain dat I'se all ob a-tremble."
Surely the dark shadows of the past have no place near that birthday feast, but they are coming nearer, closing in, remorseless, relentless as ever, and among them are the gloomy rivals against whom Graham struggled so long. He thought he had vanquished them, but they are stealing upon him again like vindictive, unforgiving savages.
There was a jar of thunder upon the still air, but it was not heeded. The room began to darken, but they thought only of a shower that would banish the sultriness of the day. Darker shadows than those of thunder-clouds were falling upon them, had they known it.
The wine was brought, and the health of the baby drank. Then Graham, ordering all glasses to be filled, said reverently: "To the memory of Warren Hilland! May the child who is named for him ever remind us of his noble life and heroic death."
They drank in silence, then put down the glasses and sat for moments with bowed heads, Grace's tears falling softly. Without, nature seemed equally hushed. Not a breath stirred the sultry air, until at last a heavier and nearer jar of thunder vibrated in the distance.
The unseen shadows are closing around the little Hilda, whose eyelids are heavy with satiety. Aunt Sheba is about to take her from her chair, when a swift gust, cold and spray-laden, rushes through the house, crushing to the doors and whirling all light articles into a carnival of disorder.
The little gossamer-clad girl shivered, and, while others hastily closed windows, Grace ran for a shawl in which to wrap her darling.
The shower passed, bringing welcome coolness. Hilda slept quietly through its turmoil and swishing torrents—slept on into the twilight, until Aunt Sheba seemed a shadow herself. But there were darker shadows brooding over her.
Suddenly, in her sleep, the child gave an ominous barking cough.
"Oh, de good Lor'!" cried Aunt Sheba, springing to her feet. Then with a swiftness in which there was no sign of age, she went to the landing and called, "Mas'r Graham."
Grace was in the room before him. "What is it?" she asked breathlessly.
"Well, Missy Grace, don't be 'larmed, but I tinks Mas'r Graham 'ud better sen' for de doctor, jes' for caution like."
Again came that peculiar cough, terror-inspiring to all mothers.
"Alford, Alford, lose not a moment!" she cried. "It's the croup."
The soldier acted as if his camp were attacked at midnight. There were swift feet, the trampling of a horse; and soon the skill of science, the experience of age, and motherly tenderness confronted the black shadows, but they remained immovable.
The child gasped and struggled for life. Grace, half frantic, followed the doctor's directions with trembling hands, seeking to do everything for her idol herself as far as possible. Mrs. Mayburn, gray, grim, with face of ashen hue, hovered near and assisted. Aunt Sheba, praying often audibly, proved by her deft hands that the experience of her long-past motherhood was of service now. The servants gathered at the door, eager and impatient to do something for "de bressed chile." The poor old major thumped restlessly back and forth on his crutches in the hall below, half swearing, half praying. Dr. Markham, pale with anxiety, but cool and collected as a veteran general in battle, put forth his whole skill to baffle the destroyer. Graham, standing in the background with clenched hands, more excited, more desperate than he had ever been when sitting on his horse waiting for the bugle to sound the charge, watched his wife and child with eyes that burned in the intensity of his feeling.
Time, of which no notice was taken, passed, although moments seemed like hours. The child still struggled and gasped, but more and more feebly. At last, in the dawn, the little Hilda lay still, looked up and smiled. Was it at her mother's face, or something beyond?
"She is better," cried Grace, turning her imploring eyes to the physician, who held the little hand.
Alas! it was growing cold in his. He turned quickly to Graham and whispered: "Support your wife. The end is near."
He came mechanically and put his arm around her.
"Grace, dear Grace," he faltered, hoarsely, "can you not bear this sorrow also for my sake?"
"Alford!" she panted with horror in her tones—"Alford! why, why, her hand is growing cold!"
There was a long low sigh from the little one, and then she was still.
"Take your wife away," said Dr. Markham, in a low, authoritative tone.
Graham sought to obey in the same mechanical manner. She sprang from him and stood aloof. There was a terrible light in her eyes, before which he quailed.
"Take me away!" she cried, in a voice that was hoarse, strained, and unnatural. "Never! Tell me the belief of your heart. Have I lost my child forever? Is that sweet image of my Hilda nothing but clay? Is there nothing further for this idol of my heart but horrible corruption? If this is true, no more learned jargon to me about law and force! If this is true, I am the creation of a fiend who, with all the cruel ingenuity of a fiend, has so made me that he can inflict the utmost degree of torture. If this is true, my motherhood is a lie, and good is punished, not evil. If this is true, there is neither God nor law, but only a devil. But let me have the truth: have I lost that child forever?"
He was dumb, and an awful silence fell upon the chamber of death.
Graham's philosophy failed him at last. His own father-heart could not accept of corruption as the final end of his child. Indeed, it revolted at it with a resistless rebound as something horrible, monstrous, and, as his wife had said, devilish. His old laborious reasoning was scorched away as by lightning in that moment of intense consciousness when his soul told him that, if this were true, his nature also was a lie and a cheat. He knew not what he believed, or what was true. He was stunned and speechless.
Despair was turning his wife's face into stone, when old Aunt Sheba, who had been crouching, sobbing and praying at the foot of the little couch, rose with streaming eyes and stretched out her hands toward the desperate mother.
"No, Missy Grace," she cried, in tones that rang through the house; "no, no, no. Your chile am not lost to you; your chile am not dead. She on'y sleeps. Did not de good Lord say: 'Suffer de little chillen ter come unter Me'? An' Hilda, de dear little lamb, hab gone ter Him, an' is in de Good Shepherd's arms. Your little chile am not lost to you, she's safe at home, de dear bressed home ob heben, whar your moder is Missy Grace. De Hebenly Father say, 'Little Hilda, you needn't walk de long flinty, thorny path and suffer like you'se dear moder. You kin come home now, and I'se 'll take keer ob ye till moder comes.' Bress de little lamb, she smile when de angels come fer her, an' she's safe, safe for ebermore. No tears fer little Hilda, no heartbreak in all her 'ternal life. Dear Missy Grace, my little baby die, too, but I hain't los' it. No, no. De Good Shepherd is a keepin' it safe fer me, an' I shall hab my baby again."
It is impossible to describe the effect of this passionate utterance of faith as it came warm and direct from the heart of another bereaved mother, whose lowliness only emphasized the universal human need of something more than negations and theories of law and force. The major heard it in the hall below, and was awed. Mrs. Mayburn and the servants sobbed audibly. The stony look went out of Grace's face; tears welled up into her hot, dry eyes, and she drew near and bent over her child with an indescribable yearning in her face. Aunt Sheba ceased, sank down on the floor, and throwing her apron over her face she rocked back and forth and prayed as before.
Suddenly Grace threw herself on the unconscious little form, and cried with a voice that pierced every heart: "O God, I turn to Thee, then. Is my child lost to me forever, or is she in Thy keeping? Was my mother's faith true? Shall I have my baby once more? Jesus, art Thou a Shepherd of the little ones? Hast Thou suffered my Hilda to come unto Thee? Oh, if Thou art, Thou canst reveal Thyself unto me and save a broken-hearted mother from despair. This child was mine. Is it mine still?" and she clasped her baby convulsively to her bosom.
"Suffer de little chillen ter come unter me, and forbid dem not,'" repeated Aunt Sheba in low tones.
Again a deep, awed silence fell upon them all. Grace knelt so long with her own face pressed against her child's that they thought she had fainted. The physician motioned Graham to lift her up, but he shook his head. He was crushed and despairing, feeling that in one little hour he had lost the belief of his manhood, the child that had brought into his home a heaven that he at least could understand, and as he heard his wife's bitter cry he felt that her life and reason might soon go also. He recognized again the presence of his bitter rivals, Grief and Death, and felt that at last they had vanquished him. He had not the courage or the will to make another effort.
"Mrs. Graham, for your husband's sake—" began Dr. Markham.
"Ah! forgive me, Alford," she said, rising weakly; "I should not have forgotten you for a moment."
She took an uncertain step toward him, and he caught her in his arms.
Laying her head upon his breast, she said gently, "Alford, our baby is not dead."
"Oh, Grace, darling!" he cried in agony, "don't give way, or we are both lost. I have no strength left. I cannot save you again. Oh! if the awful past should come back!"
"It now can never come back. Alford, we have not lost our child. Aunt Sheba has had a better wisdom than you or I, and from this hour forth my mother's faith is mine. Do not think me wild or wandering. In my very soul has come the answer to my cry. Horrible corruption is not the end of that lovely life. You can't believe it, any more than I. Dear little sleeper, you are still my baby. I shall go to you, and you will never suffer as I have suffered. God bless you, Aunt Sheba! your heaven-inspired words have saved me from despair. Alford, dear Alford, do not give way so; I'll live and be your true and faithful wife. I'll teach you the faith that God has taught me."
He drew long, deep breaths. He was like a great ship trying to right itself in a storm. At last he said, in broken tones:
"Grace, you are right. It's not law or force. It's either God, who in some way that I can't understand, will bring good out of all this evil, or else it's all devilish, fiendish. If after this night you can be resigned, patient, hopeful, your faith shall be mine."
The shadows, affrighted, shrank further away than ever before. "I take you at your word," she replied, as she drew him gently away. "Come, let us go and comfort papa."
One after another stole out after them until Mrs. Mayburn was alone with the dead. Long and motionless she stood, with her eyes fixed on the quiet, lovely face.
"Hilda," at last she moaned, "little Hilda, shall poor old grandma ever see our baby again?"
At that moment the sun rose high enough to send a ray through the lattice, and it lighted the baby's face with what seemed a smile of unearthly sweetness.
A few moments later Aunt Sheba found the aged woman with her head upon little Hilda's bosom, and there she received a faith that brought peace.
A few evenings later there was a grassy mound, covered with roses, under the apple-tree by the rustic seat; and at the head of the little grave there was placed a block of marble bearing the simple inscription:
"Here sleeps our Baby Hilda."
* * * * * * *
Years have passed. The little monument is now near another and a stately one in a Virginia cemetery. Fresh flowers are on it, showing that "Our Baby Hilda" is never forgotten. Fresh flowers are beneath the stately column, proving that the gallant soldier sleeping under it is never forgotten. Fresh flowers are on the young Confederate's grave, commemorating a manly and heroic devotion to a cause that was sacred to him. The cause was lost; and had he lived to green old age he would have thanked God for it. Not least among the reasons for thankfulness is the truth that to men and peoples that which their hearts craved is often denied.
Not far away is a home as unostentatious as the Northern cottage, but larger, and endowed with every homelike attribute. Sweet Grace Graham is its mistress. Her lovely features are somewhat marked by time and her deep experiences, but they have gained a beauty and serenity that will defy time. Sounds of joyous young life again fill the house, and in a cradle by her side "little Grace" is sleeping. Grandma Mayburn still knits slowly by the hearth, but when the days are dry and warm it is her custom to steal away to the cemetery and remain for hours with "Our Baby." The major has grown very feeble, but his irritable protest against age and infirmity has given place to a serene, quiet waiting till he can rest beside the brave soldiers who have forgotten their laurels.
Colonel Anderson, now a prosperous planter, has his own happy home life, and his aged father shares the best there is in it. He still preaches in the quaint old church, repaired but not modernized, and his appearance and life give eloquence to his faltering words. The event of the quiet year is the annual visit of Rita and Captain Windom with their little brood. Then truly the homes abound in breezy life; but sturdy, blue-eyed Warren Graham is the natural leader of all the little people's sport. The gallant black horse Mayburn is still Iss's pride, but he lets no one mount him except his master. Aunt Sheba presides at the preparation of state dinners, and sits by the cradle of baby Grace. She is left, however, most of the time, to her own devices, and often finds her way also to the cemetery to "wisit dat dear little lamb, Hilda," murmuring as she creeps slowly with her cane, "We'se all a-followin' her now, bress de Lord."
Jinny's stories of what she saw and of her experiences abroad have become so marvellous that they might be true of some other planet, but not of ours. Dusky faces gather round her by the kitchen fire, and absolute faith is expressed by their awed looks. Old Jehu has all the chickens and "sass" he wants without working for them, and his son Huey has settled down into a steady "hand," who satisfies his former ruling passion with an occasional coon-hunt. Both of the colonels have the tastes of sportsmen, and do all in their power to preserve the game in their vicinity. They have become closer friends with the lapsing years, and from crossing swords they look forward to the time when they can cross their family escutcheons by the marriage of the sturdy Warren with another little Rita, who now romps with him in a child's happy unconsciousness.
There are flecks of gray in Graham's hair and beard, and deep lines on his resolute face, but he maintains his erect, soldierly bearing even when superintending the homely details of the plantation. Every one respects him; the majority are a little afraid of him, for where his will has sway there is law and order, but to the poor and sorrowful he gives increasing reason to bless his name. His wife's faith has become his. She has proved it true by the sweet logic of her life. In their belief, the baby Hilda is only at home before them, and the soldier without fear and without reproach has found the immortality that he longed for in his dying moments. He is no longer a cherished, honored memory only; he is the man they loved, grown more manly, more noble in the perfect conditions of a higher plane of life. The dark mysteries of evil are still dark to them—problems that cannot be solved by human reason. But in the Divine Man, toward whose compassionate face the sorrowful and sinful of all the centuries have turned, they have found One who has mastered the evil that threatened their lives. They are content to leave the mystery of evil to Him who has become in their deepest consciousness Friend and Guide. He stands between them and the shadows of the past and the future.