So that was how poor Maidie's pistol happened to be picked up on the Calle Real and why one or two assertive officers lately connected with the provost-marshal's and secret-service department concluded that it might be well for them to try regimental duty awhile. That was how it happened, too, that Lieutenant Stuyvesant was prevailed on to take a short leave and run over to Hong Kong. But he came back in a hurry, for there was need of every man and trouble imminent "at the front."
The dawn of that memorable February day had come that saw Manila girdled by the flame of forty thousand rifles and shrouded in the smoke that drifted from the burning roofs of outlying villages from whose walls, windows, and church towers the insurgent islanders had poured their pitiless fire upon the ranks of the American soldiery.
In front of a stone-walled enclosure bordering the principal street in an eastward suburb two or three officers were in earnest consultation. From the ambulance close at hand the attendants were carefully lifting some sorely wounded men. Up the street farther east several little parties coming slowly, haltingly from the front, told that the incessant crash and rattle of musketry in that direction was no mere feu-de-joie, while every now and then the angry spat of the steel-clad Mauser on the stony road, the whiz and whirr about the ears of the few who for duty's sake or that of example held their ground in the highway, gave evidence that the Tagal marksmen had their eyes on every visible group of Americans.
In the side streets at right angles to the main thoroughfare reserve battalions were crouching, sheltered from the leaden storm, and awaiting the longed-for order to advance and sweep the field at the front. From the grim, gray walls of the great church and convent, which for weeks had been strictly guarded by order of the American generals against all possible intrusion or desecration on part of their men, came frequent flash and report and deadly missile aimed at the helpless wounded, the hurrying ambulances, even at a symbol as sacred as that which towered above its altars—the blood-red cross of Geneva.
It was the Tagal's return for the honor and care and consideration shown the Church of Rome. As another ambulance came swiftly to the spot, its driver swayed, clasped his hands upon his breast, and, with the blood gushing from his mouth, toppled forward into the arms of the hospital attendants. It was more than flesh and blood or the brigade commander could stand.
"Burn that church!" was the stern order as the general spurred on to the front, and a score of soldiers, leaping from behind the stone walls, dashed at the barricaded doors. A young staff officer, galloping down the road, reined in at sight of the little party and whirled about by the general's side.
"It's perfectly true, sir," said he. "Right across the bridge in front of the block-house you can hear him plainly. It's a white man giving orders to the Filipinos." The general nodded.
"We'll get him presently. Do they understand the orders on the left?"
"Everywhere, sir. All are ready and eager," and even the native pony ridden by the aide seemed quivering with excitement as, horse and rider, they fell back and joined the two officers following their chief.
"Hot in front, Stuyvie?" queried the first in undertone, as a Mauser zipped between their heads to the detriment of confidential talk, and a great burst of cheers broke from the blue line crouching just ahead across the open field. "Why, d—n it, man, you're hit now!"
"Hush!" answered Stuyvesant imploringly, as he pressed a gauntleted hand to his side. "Don't let the general know. I want to join Vinton in a moment. It's only a tear along the skin." But blood was soaking through the serge of his blue sack-coat and streaking the loose folds of his riding-breeches, and the bright color in his clear skin was giving way to pallor.
"Tear, indeed! Here! Quick, orderly! Help me there on the other side!" and the captain sprang from saddle. A soldier leaped forward, turning loose his pony, and as the general, with only one aide and orderly, rode on into the smoke-cloud overhanging the line, Gerard Stuyvesant, fainting, slid forward into the arms of his faithful friends.
A few hours later, "lined up" along the river-bank, a great regiment from the far West, panting and exultant, stood resting on its arms and looking back over the field traversed in its first grand charge. Here, there, everywhere it was strewn with insurgent dead and sorely wounded. Here, there, and everywhere men in American blue were flitting about from group to group, tendering canteens of cold water to the wounded, friend and enemy alike.
Far back towards the dusty highway where the ambulances were hurrying, and close to the abutments of a massive stone bridge that crossed a tributary of the Pasig, three officers, a surgeon, and half-a-dozen soldiers were grouped about a prostrate form in the pale blue uniform, with the gold embroidery and broad stripes of a Filipino captain, but the face was ghastly white, the language ghastly Anglo-Saxon.
With the blood welling from a shothole in his broad, burly chest and the seal of death already settling on his ashen brow, he was scowling up into the half-compassionate, half-contemptuous faces about him. Here lay the "Capitan Americano" of whom the Tagal soldiers had been boasting for a month—a deserter from the army of the United States, a commissioned officer in the ranks of Aguinaldo, shot to death in his first battle in sight of some who had seen and known him "in the blue."
Lieutenant Stuyvesant, revived by a long pull at the doctor's flask, his bleeding stanched, had again pressed forward to take his part in the fight, but now lay back in the low Victoria that the men had run forward from the village, and looked down upon the man who in bitter wrath and hatred had vowed long months before to have his heart's blood,—the man who had so nearly done him to death in Honolulu. Even now in Sackett's dying eyes something of the same brutal rage mingled with the instant gleam of recognition that for a moment flashed across his distorted features. It seemed retribution indeed that his last conscious glance should fall upon the living face of the man to whom he owed his rescue from a fearful death that night in far-away Nevada.
But, badly as he was whipped that brilliant Sunday, "Johnny Filipino" had the wit to note that Uncle Sam had hardly a handful of cavalry and nowhere near enough men to follow up the advantages, and hence the long campaign of minor affairs that had to follow. In that campaign Sandy Ray was far too busy at the front to know very much of what was going on at the rear in Manila. He listened with little sympathy to Farquhar's brief disposition of poor Foster's case. "They could remove the desertion and give him a commission, but they couldn't make Wally a soldier. He went home when the fighting had hardly begun." Somebody was mean enough to say if he hadn't his mother would have come for him.
There was no question as to the identity of the soldier who died in Filipino uniform. Not only did Stuyvesant recognize him, but so did Ray and Trooper Mellen, and Connelly, fetched over from the north side to make assurance doubly sure. It was Sackett-Murray, gambler, horse-thief, house-robber, deserter, biter, murderer, and double-dyed traitor. He had fled to the insurgents in dread of discovery and death at the hands of Benton's comrades.
And perhaps it was just as well. Foster knew of his hapless end before he took steamer homeward; knew, too, of Stuyvesant's wound, and—possibly it had something to do with his departure—of the disposition made of that fortunately wounded officer. Miss Ray, it seems, was regularly on duty now, with other Red Cross nurses, and Stuyvesant went to the "First Reserve" and stayed there a whole week, and even Dr. Wells came and smiled on him, and Miss Porter beamed, and still he was not happy—for Maidie came not. She was busy as she could be at the farther end of the other wards.
And so Stuyvesant grew impatient of nursing, declared he was well, and still was far from happy, for at that time Foster was still hovering about the premises, and Stuyvesant could see only one possible explanation for that. They moved him back to his breezy quarters at Malate. But presently a trap was sprung, mainly through Mrs. Brent's complicity, for once or twice a week it was Maidie's custom to go to her old friend's roof for rest and tea. And one evening, seems to me it was Valentine's Day, just before sunset, they were in the veranda,—the colonel and his kindly wife,—while Maid Marion the Second was in her own room donning a dainty gown for change from the Red Cross uniform, when a carriage whirled up to the entrance underneath, and Mrs. Brent, leaning over the rail, smiled on its sole occupant and nodded reassuringly.
Stuyvesant came up slowly, looking not too robust, and said it was awfully good of Mrs. Brent to take pity on his loneliness and have him round to tea. Other nice women, younger, more attractive personally than Mrs. Brent, had likewise bidden him to tea just so soon as he felt able, but Stuyvesant swore to himself he couldn't be able and wouldn't if he could. Yet when Mrs. Brent said "Come," he went, though never hoping to see Marion, whom he believed to be engrossed in duties at the First Reserve, and on the verge of announcement of her engagement to "that young man Foster."
Presently Brent said if Stuyvesant had no objection he'd take his trap and drive over Intra muros and get the news from MacArthur's front,—for Mac was hammering at the insurgent lines about Caloocan,—and Stuyvesant had no objection whatever. Whereupon Mrs. Brent took occasion to say in the most casual way in the world:
"Oh, you might send a line to Colonel Martindale, dear. You know Mr. Foster goes home by the Sonoma—oh, hadn't you heard of it, Mr. Stuyvesant? Oh, dear, yes. He's been ready to go ever since the fighting began, but there was no boat."
And then she too left Stuyvesant,—left him with the New York Moon bottom topmost in his hand and a sensation as of wheels in his head. She proceeded, furthermore, to order tea on the back gallery and Maidie to the front. But tea was ready long before Maidie.
Far out at the lines of San Pedro Macati Dyer's guns had sighted swarms of rebels up the Pasig, and with placid and methodical precision were sending shrapnel in that direction and dull, booming concussions in the other. An engagement of some kind was on at San Pedro, and Stuyvesant twitched with nervous longing to get there, despite the doctors, and sat wondering was another engagement off at Manila. Just what to do he had not decided. The Moon and his senses were still upside-down when Sing came in with the transferred tea things and Mrs. Brent with the last thing Stuyvesant was thinking to see—Maid Marion, all smiles, congratulation, and cool organdie.
Ten minutes' time in which to compose herself gives a girl far too great an advantage under such circumstances.
"I—I'm glad to see you," said Stuyvesant helplessly. "I thought you were wearing yourself out at nursing."
"Oh, it agrees with me," responded Maidie blithely.
"I suppose it must. You certainly look so."
"Merci du compliment, Monsieur," smiled Miss Ray, with sparkling eyes and the prettiest of courtesies. She certainly did look remarkably well.
It was time for Stuyvesant to be seated again, but he hovered there about that tea-table, for Mrs. Brent made the totally unnecessary announcement that she would go in search of the spoons.
"You had no time—I suppose—to look in on anybody but your assigned vict—patients, I mean," hazarded Stuyvesant, weakening his tentative by palpable display of sense of injury.
"Well, you were usually asleep when I cal—inquired, I mean. One or two lumps, Mr. Stuyvesant?" And the dainty little white hand hovered over the sugar-bowl.
"You usually chose such times, I fancy. One lump, thanks." There was another, not of sugar, in his throat and he knew it, and his fine blue eyes and thin, sad face were pathetic enough to move any woman's heart had not Miss Ray been so concerned about the tea.
"You would have been able to return to duty days ago," said she, tendering the steaming cup and obviously ignoring his remark, "had you come right to hospital as Dr. Shiels directed, instead of scampering out to the front again. You thought more of the brevet, of course, than the gash. What a mercy it glanced on the rib! Only—such wounds are ever so much harder to stanch and dress."
"You—knew about it, then?" he asked with reviving hope.
"Of course. We all knew," responded Miss Ray, well aware of the fact that he would have been unaccountably and infinitely happier had it been she alone. "That is our profession. But about the brevet. Surely you ought to be pleased. Captain in your first engagement!"
"Oh, it's only a recommendation," he answered, "and may be as far away as—any other engagement—of mine, that is." And in saying it poor Stuyvesant realized it was an asinine thing. So, alack, did she! An instant agone she was biting her pretty red lips for letting the word escape her, but his fatuity gave her all the advantage in spite of herself. It was the play to see nothing that called for reply in his allusion. So there was none.
A carriage was coming up the Luneta full tilt, and though still six hundred yards away, she saw and knew it to be Stuyvesant's returning. But he saw nothing beyond her glowing face. Mrs. Brent began to sing in the salon, a symptom so unusual that it could only mean that she contemplated coming back and was giving warning. Time was priceless, yet here he stood trembling, irresolute. Would nothing help him?
"You speak of my—engagement," he blundered blindly on. "I wish you'd tell me—about yours."
"Mine? Oh,—with the Red Cross, you mean? And shame be to you, Maidie Ray, you knew—you well knew—he didn't."
"I mean—to Mr. Foster. Mrs. Brent has just told me——"
"Mrs. Brent!" interposes Miss Ray in a flutter of amaze. That carriage is coming nearer every instant, driving like mad, Brent on the back seat and a whip-lashing demon on the box. There will be no time for love-tales once that burly warrior returns to his own. Yet she is fencing, parrying, holding him at bay, for his heart is bubbling over with the torrent of its love and yearning and pleading.
What are bullet-wounds and brevets to this one supreme, sublime encounter? His heart was high, his voice rang clear and exultant, his eyes flashed joy and fire and defiance in the face of a thousand deaths two weeks ago. But here in the presence of a slender girl he can do naught but falter and stammer and tremble.
Crack, crack, spatter, clatter, and crash comes the little carriage and team whirling into the San Luis. He hears it now. He knows what it means to him—Brent back and the pent-up words still unspoken! It nerves him to the test, it spurs him to the leap, it drives the blood bounding through his veins, it sends him darting round the table to her side, penning her, as it were, between him and the big bamboo chair. And now her heart, too, is all in a flutter, for the outer works were carried in his impetuous dash, the assailant is at the very citadel.
"Marion!" he cried, "tell me, was there—tell me, there was no engagement! Tell me there is a little hope for me! Oh, you are blind if you do not see, if you have not seen all along, that I've loved you ever since the first day I ever saw you. Tell me—quick!"
Too late. Up comes Brent on the run, and Marion springs past the would-be detaining arm. "Where's Mrs. B.?" pants the warrior. "Hullo, Stuyvie! I was afraid you'd got the news and gone out in a cab. M'ria, I want my belt and pistol!"
"Where you going?" bursts in the lady of the house—the spoons forgotten.
"Out to San Pedro! It's only three miles. Our fellows are going to drive 'em out of Guadaloupe woods. Ready, Sty? Of course you want to see it. Drive'll do you good, too. Come on."
"Indeed, you don't stir a step, Colonel Brent!—not a step! What business have you going into action? You did enough fighting forty years ago." Brent, deaf to her expostulation, is rushing to the steps, buckling his belt on the run, but "M'ria" grabs the slack of the Khaki coat and holds him. Stuyvesant springs for his hat. It has vanished. Marion, her hands behind her, her lips parted, her heart pounding hard, has darted to the broad door to the salon, and there, leaning against the framing, she confronts him.
At the rear of the salon Thisbe has grappled Pyramus and is being pulled to the head of the stairs; at the head, Beatrice, with undaunted front, concealing a sinking heart, defies Benedick.
"My hat, please," he demands, his eyes lighting with hope and promise of victory.
"You have no right," she begins. "You are still a patient." But now, with bowed head, she is struggling, for he has come close to her, so close that his heart and hers might almost meet in their wild leaping, so close that in audacious search for the missing headgear his hands are reaching down behind the shrinking, slender little form, and his long, sinewy arms almost encircling her. The war of words at the back stairs "now trebly thundering swelled the gale," but it is not heard here at the front.
His hands have grasped her wrists now. His blond head is bowed down over hers, so that his lips hover close to the part of the dusky hair. "My hat, Maidie," he cries, "or I'll—I'll take what I want!" Both hands tugging terrifically at those slender wrists now, and yet not gaining an inch. "Do you hear?—I'll—I'll take——"
"You sha'n't!" gasps Miss Ray, promptly burying her glowing face in the breast of that happy Khaki, and thereby tacitly admitting that she knows just what he wants so much more than that hat.
And then the long, white hands release their hold of the slim, white wrists; the muscular arms twine tight about her, almost lifting her from her feet; the bonny brown head bows lower still, his mustache brushing the soft, damask-rose-like cheek. "I must go, Maidie,—darling!" he whispers, "without the hat if need be, but not without—this—and this—and this—and this," and the last one lingers long just at the corner of the warm, winsome, rosy lips. She could not prevent it—perhaps she did not try.