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he described, until at last the morning paper turned the morning
sunshine into mockery and the songs of the birds into dirges. Captain
Nichol's name was on the list of the killed.

With something of the same jealousy, developed and intensified, which
he had experienced while watching Albert glide away on the ice with the
child adored in a dumb, boyish way, Hobart had seen his old schoolmate
depart for the front. Then his rival took the girl from him; now he
took her heart. Martine's lameness kept him from being a soldier. He
again virtually stood chilled on the bank, with a cold, dreary,
hopeless feeling which he believed would benumb his life. He did not
know, he was not sure that he had lost Helen beyond hope, until those
lurid days when men on both sides were arming and drilling for mutual
slaughter. She was always so kind to him, and her tones so gentle when
she spoke, that in love's fond blindness he had dared to hope. He
eventually learned that she was only sorry for him. He did not, could
not, blame her, for he needed but to glance at Nichol's stalwart form,
and recall the young soldier's record, in order to know that it would
be strange indeed if the girl had chosen otherwise. He would have been
more than human if there had not been some bitterness in his heart; but
he fought it down honestly, and while pursuing his peaceful avocations
engaged in what he believed would be a lifelong battle. He smiled at
the girl across the garden fence and called out his cheery
"Good-morning." He was her frequent companion by the fireside or on the
piazza, according to the season; and he alone of the young men was
welcome, for she had little sympathy for those who remained at home
without his excuse. He was so bravely her friend, keeping his great
love so sternly repressed that she only felt it like a genial warmth in
his tones and manner, and believed that he was becoming in truth what
he seemed, merely a friend.

On that terrible May morning he was out in the garden and heard her
wild, despairing cry as she read the fatal words. He knew that a heavy
battle had been begun, and was going down to the gate for his paper,
which the newsboy had just left. There was no need of opening it, for
the bitter cry he had heard made known to him the one item of
intelligence compared with which all else for the time became
insignificant. Was it the Devil that inspired a great throb of hope in
his heart? At any rate he thought it was, and ground his heel into the
gravel as if the serpent's head was beneath it, then limped to Mr.
Kemble's door.

The old banker came out to meet him, shaking his gray head and holding
the paper in his trembling hand. "Ah!" he groaned, "I've feared it,
I've feared it all along, but hoped that it would not be. You've seen
Nichol's name - " but he could not finish the sentence.

"No, I have seen nothing; I only heard Helen's cry. That told the whole
story."

"Yes. Well, her mother's with her. Poor girl! poor girl! God grant it
isn't her death-blow too. She has suffered too much under this long
strain of anxiety."

A generous resolve was forming in Martine's mind, and he said
earnestly, "We must tide her through this terrible shock. There may be
some mistake; he may be only wounded. Do not let her give up hope
absolutely. I'll drop everything and go to the battlefield at once. If
the worst has in truth happened, I can bring home his remains, and that
would be a comfort to her. A newspaper report, made up hastily in the
field, is not final. Let this hope break the cruel force of the blow,
for it is hard to live without hope."

"Well, Hobart, you ARE a true friend. God bless and reward you! If
nothing comes of it for poor Nichol, as I fear nothing will, your
journey and effort will give a faint hope to Nellie, and, as you say,
break the force of the blow. I'll go and tell her."

Martine went into the parlor, which Helen had decorated with mementoes
of her soldier lover. He was alone but a few moments before he heard
hasty steps. Helen entered with hot, tearless eyes and an agonized,
imploring expression.

"What!" she cried, "is it true that you'll go?"

"Yes, Helen, immediately. I do not think there's reason for despair."

"Oh, God bless you! friend, friend! I never knew what the word meant
before. Oh, Hobart, no sister ever lavished love on a brother as I will
love you if you bring back my Albert;" and in the impulse of her
overwhelming gratitude she buried her face on his shoulder and sobbed
aloud. Hope already brought the relief of tears.

He stroked the bowed head gently, saying, "God is my witness, Helen,
that I will spare no pains and shrink from no danger in trying to find
Captain Nichol. I have known of many instances where the first reports
of battles proved incorrect;" and he led her to a chair.

"It is asking so much of you," she faltered.

"You have asked nothing, Helen. I have offered to go, and I AM going.
It is a little thing for me to do. You know that my lameness only kept
me from joining Captain Nichol's company. Now try to control your
natural feelings like a brave girl, while I explain my plans as far as
I have formed them."

"Yes, yes! Wait a few moments. Oh, this pain at my heart! I think it
would have broken if you hadn't come. I couldn't breathe; I just felt
as if sinking under a weight."

"Take courage, Helen. Remember Albert is a soldier."

"IS, IS! Oh, thanks for that little word! You do not believe that he is
gone and lost to me?"

"I cannot believe it yet. We will not believe it. Now listen patiently,
for you will have your part to do."

"Yes, yes; if I could only do something! That would help me so much.
Oh, if I could only go with you!"

"That would not be best or wise, and might defeat my efforts. I must be
free to go where you could not - to visit places unsafe for you. My
first step must be to get letters to our State Senator. Your father can
write one, and I'll get one or two others. The Senator will give me a
letter to the Governor, who in turn will accredit me to the authorities
at Washington and the officer in command on the battlefield. You know I
shall need passes. Those who go to the extreme front must be able to
account for themselves. I will keep in telegraphic communication with
you, and you may receive additional tidings which will aid me in my
search. Mr. Kemble!" he concluded, calling her father from his
perturbed pacing up and down the hall.

"Ah!" said the banker, entering, "this is a hundred-fold better than
despairing, useless grief. I've heard the gist of what Hobart has said,
and approve it. Now I'll call mother, so that we may all take courage
and get a good grip on hope."

They consulted together briefly, and in the prospect of action, Helen
was carried through the first dangerous crisis in her experience.




CHAPTER III

"DISABLED"


Mrs. Martine grieved over her son's unexpected resolve. In her
estimation he was engaging in a very dangerous and doubtful expedition.
Probably mothers will never outgrow a certain jealousy when they find
that another woman has become first in the hearts of their sons. The
sense of robbery was especially strong in this case, for Mrs. Martine
was a widow, and Hobart an only and idolized child.

The mother speedily saw that it would be useless to remonstrate, and
tearfully aided him in his preparations. Before he departed, he won her
over as an ally. "These times, mother, are bringing heavy burdens to
very many, and we should help each other bear them. You know what Helen
is to me, and must be always. That is something which cannot be
changed. My love has grown with my growth and become inseparable from
my life. I have my times of weakness, but think I can truly say that I
love her so well that I would rather make her happy at any cost to
myself. If it is within my power, I shall certainly bring Nichol back,
alive or dead. Prove your love to me, mother, by cheering, comforting,
and sustaining that poor girl. I haven't as much hope of success as I
tried to give her, but she needs hope now; she must have it, or there
is no assurance against disastrous effects on her health and mind. I
couldn't bear that."

"Well, Hobart, if he is dead, she certainly ought to reward you some
day."

"We must not think of that. The future is not in our hands. We can only
do what is duty now."

Noble, generous purposes give their impress to that index of character,
the human face. When Martine came to say good-by to Helen, she saw the
quiet, patient cripple in a new light. He no longer secured her strong
affection chiefly on the basis of gentle, womanly commiseration. He was
proving the possession of those qualities which appeal strongly to the
feminine nature; he was showing himself capable of prompt, courageous
action, and his plain face, revealing the spirit which animated him,
became that of a hero in her eyes. She divined the truth - the love so
strong and unselfish that it would sacrifice itself utterly for her. He
was seeking to bring back her lover when success in his mission would
blot out all hope for him. The effect of his action was most salutary,
rousing her from the inertia of grief and despair. "If a mere friend,"
she murmured, "can be so brave and self-forgetful, I have no excuse for
giving away utterly."

She revealed in some degree her new impressions in parting. "Hobart,"
she said, holding his hand in both of hers, "you have done much to help
me. You have not only brought hope, but you have also shown a spirit
which would shame me out of a selfish grief. I cannot now forget the
claims of others, of my dear father and mother here, and I promise you
that I will try to be brave like you, like Albert. I shall not become a
weak, helpless burden, I shall not sit still and wring idle hands when
others are heroically doing and suffering. Good-by, my friend, my
brother. God help us all!"

He felt that she understood him now as never before; and the knowledge
inspired a more resolute purpose, if this were possible. That afternoon
he was on his way. There came two or three days of terrible suspense
for Helen, relieved only by telegrams from Martine as he passed from
point to point. The poor girl struggled as a swimmer breasts pitiless
waves intervening between him and the shore. She scarcely allowed
herself an idle moment; but her effort was feverish and in a measure
the result of excitement. The papers were searched for any scrap of
intelligence, and the daily mail waited for until the hours and minutes
were counted before its arrival.

One morning her father placed Nichol's letter in her hands. They so
trembled in the immense hope, the overwhelming emotion which swept over
her at sight of the familiar handwriting, that at first she could not
open it. When at last she read the prophetic message, she almost
blotted out the writing with her tears, moaning, "He's dead, he's
dead!" In her morbid, overwrought condition, the foreboding that had
been in the mind of the writer was conveyed to hers; and she
practically gave up hope for anything better than the discovery and
return of his remains. Her father, mother, and intimate friends tried
in vain to rally her; but the conviction remained that she had read her
lover's farewell words. In spite of the most pathetic and strenuous
effort, she could not keep up any longer, and sobbed till she slept in
utter exhaustion.

On the following day, old Mr. Wetherby came into the bank. The lines
about his mouth were rigid with suppressed feeling. He handed Mr.
Kemble a letter, saying in a husky voice, "Jim sent this. He says at
the end I was to show it to you." The scrawl gave in brief the details
about Captain Nichol already known to the reader, and stated also that
Sam Wetherby was missing. "All I know is," wrote the soldier, "that we
were driven back, and bullets flew like hail. The brush was so thick I
couldn't see five yards either way when I lost sight of Sam."

The colonel of the regiment also wrote to Captain Nichol's father,
confirming Private Wetherby's letter. The village had been thrown into
a ferment by the tidings of the battle and its disastrous consequences.
There was bitter lamentation in many homes. Perhaps the names of
Captain Nichol and Helen were oftenest repeated in the little
community, for the fact of their mutual hopes was no longer a secret.
Even thus early some sagacious people nodded their heads and remarked,
"Hobart Martine may have his chance yet." Helen Kemble believed without
the shadow of a doubt that all the heart she had for love had perished
in the wilderness.

The facts contained in Jim Wetherby's letter were telegraphed to
Martine, and he was not long in discovering confirmation of them in the
temporary hospitals near the battlefield. He found a man of Captain
Nichol's company to whom Jim had related the circumstances. For days
the loyal friend searched laboriously the horrible region of strife,
often sickened nearly unto death by the scenes he witnessed, for his
nature had not been rendered callous by familiarity with the results of
war. Then instead of returning home, he employed the influence given by
his letters and passes, backed by his own earnest pleading, to obtain
permission for a visit to Nichol's regiment. He found it under fire;
and long afterward Jim Wetherby was fond of relating how quietly the
lame civilian listened to the shells shrieking over and exploding
around him. Thus Martine learned all that could be gathered of Nichol's
fate, and then, ill and exhausted, he turned his face northward. He
felt that it would be a hopeless task to renew his search on the
battlefield, much of which had been burned over. He also had the
conviction it would be fatal to him to look upon its unspeakable
horrors, and breathe again its pestilential air.

He was a sick man when he arrived at home, but was able to relate
modestly in outline the history of his efforts, softening and
concealing much that he had witnessed. In the delirium of fever which
followed, they learned more fully of what he had endured, of how he had
forced himself to look upon things which, reproduced in his ravings,
almost froze the blood of his watchers.

Helen Kemble felt that her cup of bitterness had been filled anew, yet
the distraction of a new grief, in which there was a certain remorseful
self-reproach, had the effect of blunting the sharp edge of her first
sorrow. In this new cause for dread she was compelled in some degree to
forget herself. She saw the intense solicitude of her father and
mother, who had been so readily accessory to Martine's expedition; she
also saw that his mother's heart was almost breaking under the strain
of anxiety. His incoherent words were not needed to reveal that his
effort had been prompted by his love. She was one of his watchers,
patiently enduring the expressions of regret which the mother in her
sharp agony could not repress. Nichol's last letter was now known by
heart, its every word felt to be prophetic. She had indeed been called
upon to exercise courage and fortitude greater than he could manifest
even in the Wilderness battle. Although she often faltered, she did not
fail in carrying out his instructions. When at last Martine, a pallid
convalescent, could sit in the shade on the piazza, she looked older by
years, having, besides, the expression seen in the eyes of some women
who have suffered much, and can still suffer much more. In the matter
relating to their deepest consciousness, no words had passed between
them. She felt as if she were a widow, and hoped he would understand.
His full recognition of her position, and acceptance of the fact that
she did and must mourn for her lover, his complete self-abnegation,
brought her a sense of peace.

The old clock on the landing of the stairway measured off the hours and
days with monotonous regularity. Some of the hours and days had been
immeasurably longer than the ancient timekeeper had indicated; but in
accordance with usual human experiences, they began to grow shorter.
Poignant sorrow cannot maintain its severity, or people could not live.
Vines, grasses, and flowers covered the graves in Virginia; the little
cares, duties, and amenities of life began to screen at times the
sorrows that were nevertheless ever present.

"Hobart," Helen said one day in the latter part of June, "do you think
you will be strong enough to attend the commemorative services next
week? You know they have been waiting for you."

"Yes," he replied quietly; "'and they should not have delayed them so
long. It is very sad that so many others have been added since - since - "

"Well, you have not been told, for we have tried to keep every
depressing and disquieting influence from you. Dr. Barnes said it was
very necessary, because you had seen so much that you should try to
forget. Ah, my friend, I can never forget what you suffered for me!
Captain Nichol's funeral sermon was preached while you were so ill. I
was not present - I could not be. I've been to see his mother often, and
she understands me. I could not have controlled my grief, and I have a
horror of displaying my most sacred feelings in public. Father and the
people also wish you to be present at the general commemorative
services, when our Senator will deliver a eulogy on those of our town
who have fallen; but I don't think you should go if you feel that it
will have a bad effect on you."

"I shall be present, Helen. I suppose my mind has been weak like my
body; but the time has come when I must take up life again and accept
its conditions as others are doing. You certainly are setting me a good
example. I admit that my illness has left a peculiar repugnance to
hearing and thinking about the war; it all seemed so very horrible. But
if our brave men can face the thing itself, I should be weak indeed if
I could not listen to a eulogy of their deeds."

"I am coming to think," resumed Helen, thoughtfully, "that the battle
line extends from Maine to the Gulf, and that quiet people like you and
me are upon it as truly as the soldiers in the field. I have thought
that perhaps the most merciful wounds are often those which kill
outright."

"I can easily believe that," he said.

His quiet tone and manner did not deceive her, and she looked at him
wistfully as she resumed, "But if they do not kill, the pain must be
borne patiently, even though we are in a measure disabled."

"Yes, Helen; and you are disabled in your power to give me what I can
never help giving you. I know that. I will not misjudge or presume upon
your kindness. We are too good friends to affect any concealments from
each other."

"You have expressed my very thought. When you spoke of accepting the
conditions of life, I hoped you had in mind what you have said - the
conditions of life as they ARE, as we cannot help or change them. We
both have got to take up life under new conditions."

"You have; not I, Helen."

Tears rushed to her eyes as she faltered, "I would be transparently
false should I affect not to know. What I wish you to feel through the
coming months and years is that I cannot - that I am disabled by my
wound."

"I understand, Helen. We can go on as we have begun. You have lost, as
I have not, for I have never possessed. You will be the greater
sufferer; and it will be my dear privilege to cheer and sustain you in
such ways as are possible to a simple friend."

She regarded him gratefully, and for the first time since that terrible
May morning the semblance of a smile briefly illumined her face.




CHAPTER IV

MARTINE SEEKS AN ANTIDOTE


It can readily be understood that Martine in his expedition to the
South had not limited his efforts solely to his search for Captain
Nichol. Wherever it had been within his power he had learned all that
he could of other officers and men who had come from his native region;
and his letters to their relatives had been in some instances sources
of unspeakable comfort. In his visit to the front he had also seen and
conversed with his fellow-townsmen, some of whom had since perished or
had been wounded. As he grew stronger, Helen wrote out at his dictation
all that he could remember concerning these interviews; and these
accounts became precious heirlooms in many families.

On the Fourth of July the commemorative oration was delivered by the
Senator, who proved himself to be more than senator by his deep, honest
feeling and good taste. The "spread eagle" element was conspicuously
absent in his solemn, dignified, yet hopeful words. He gave to each
their meed of praise. He grew eloquent over the enlisted men who had so
bravely done their duty without the incentive of ambition. When he
spoke of the honor reflected on the village by the heroism of Captain
Nichol, the hearts of the people glowed with gratitude and pride; but
thoughts of pity came to all as they remembered the girl, robed in
black, who sat with bowed head among them.

"I can best bring my words to a close," said the Senator, "by reading
part of a letter written by one of your townsmen, a private in the
ranks, yet expressive of feelings inseparable from our common human
nature:

"DEAR FATHER - You know I ain't much given to fine feelings or fine
words. Poor Sam beat me all holler in such things; but I want you and
all the folks in Alton to know that you've got a regular soldier at
home. Of course we were all glad to see Bart Martine; and we expected
to have a good-natured laugh at his expense when the shells began to
fly. Soldiers laugh, as they eat, every chance they get, 'cause they
remember it may be the last one. Well, we knew Bart didn't know any
more about war than a chicken, and we expected to see him get very
nervous and limp off to the rear on the double quick. He didn't scare
worth a cent. When a shell screeched over our heads, he just waited
till the dinged noise was out of our ears and then went on with his
questions about poor Cap and Sam and the others from our town. We were
supporting a battery, and most of us lying down. He sat there with us a
good hour, telling about the folks at home, and how you were all
following us with your thoughts and prayers, and how you all mourned
with those who lost friends, and were looking after the children of the
killed and wounded. Fact is, before we knew it we were all on our feet
cheering for Alton and the folks at home and the little lame man, who
was just as good a soldier as any of us. I tell you he heartened up the
boys, what's left of us. I'm sorry to hear he's so sick. If he should
die, bury him with a soldier's honors. JAMES WETHERBY."

"These plain, simple, unadorned words," concluded the Senator, "need no
comment. Their force and significance cannot be enhanced by anything I
can say. I do not know that I could listen quietly to shrieking and
exploding shells while I spoke words of courage and good cheer; but I
do know that I wish to be among the foremost to honor your modest,
unassuming townsman, who could do all this and more."

Martine was visibly distressed by this unexpected feature in the
oration and the plaudits which followed. He was too sad, too weak in
body and mind, and too fresh from the ghastly battlefield, not to
shrink in sensitive pain from personal and public commendation. He
evaded his neighbors as far as possible and limped hastily away.

He did not see Helen again till the following morning, for her wound
had been opened afresh, and she spent the remainder of the day and
evening in the solitude of her room. Martine was troubled at this, and
thought she felt as he did.

In the morning she joined him on the piazza. She was pale from her long
sad vigil, but renewed strength and a gentle patience were expressed in
her thin face.

"It's too bad, Helen," he broke out in unwonted irritation. "I wouldn't
have gone if I had known. It was a miserable letting down of all that
had gone before - that reference to me."

Now she smiled brightly as she said, "You are the only one present who
thought so. Has this been worrying you?"

"Yes, it has. If the speaker had seen what I saw, he would have known
better. His words only wounded me."

"He judged you by other men, Hobart. His words would not have wounded
very many. I'm glad I heard that letter - that I have learned what I
never could from you. I'm very proud of my friend. What silly creatures
women are, anyway! They want their friends to be brave, yet dread the
consequences of their being so beyond words."

"Well," said Martine, a little grimly, "I'm going to my office
to-morrow. I feel the need of a long course of reading in Blackstone."

"You must help keep me busy also," was her reply.



Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeTaken Alive → online text (page 6 of 26)