Robert W. Chambers.

Ailsa Paige online

. (page 25 of 28)
Online LibraryRobert W. ChambersAilsa Paige → online text (page 25 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


"Of whom are you speaking - in God's name!" he breathed.

Panting, flushed, flat against the wall, she looked back out of
eyes that had become dark and wide, fumbling in the bosom of her
gray garb. And, just where the scarlet heart was stitched across
her breast, she drew out a letter, and, her fascinated gaze still
fixed on him, extended her arm.

He took the crumpled sheets from her in a dazed sort of way, but
did not look at them.

"_Who_ is there - across the road?" he repeated stupidly.

"Ask - Miss - Lynden."

"Letty!"

But she suddenly turned and slipped swiftly past him, leaving him
there in the corridor by the open window, holding the letter in his
hand.

For a while he remained there, leaning against the wall. Sounds
from the other ward came indistinctly - a stifled cry, a deep groan,
the hurried tread of feet, the opening or closing of windows. Once
a dreadful scream rang out from a neighbouring ward, where a man
had suddenly gone insane; and he could hear the sounds of the
struggle, the startled orders, the shrieks, the crash of a cot;
then the dreadful uproar grew fainter, receding. He roused
himself, passed an unsteady hand across his eyes, looked blindly at
the letter, saw only a white blurr, and, crushing it in his
clenched fist, he went down the kitchen stairs and out across the
road.

A hospital guard stopped him, but on learning who he was and that
he had business with Miss Lynden, directed him toward a low,
one-storied, stone structure, where, under the trees, a figure
wrapped in a shawl lay asleep in a chair.

"She's been on duty all night," observed the guard. "If you've got
to speak to her, go ahead."

"Yes," said Berkley in a dull voice, "I've got to speak to her."
And he walked toward her across the dead brown grass.

Letty's head lay on a rough pine table; her slim body, supported by
a broken chair, was covered by a faded shawl; and, as he looked
down at her, somehow into his memory came the recollection of the
first time he ever saw her so - asleep in Casson's rooms, her
childish face on the table, the room reeking with tobacco smoke and
the stale odour of wine and dying flowers.

He stood for a long while beside her, looking down at the thin,
pale face. Then, in pity, he turned away; and at the same moment
she stirred, sat up, confused, and saw him.

"Letty, dear," he said, coming back, both hands held out to her, "I
did not mean to rob you of your sleep."

"Oh - it doesn't matter! I am so glad - " She sat up suddenly,
staring at him. The next moment the tears rushed to her eyes.

"O - h," she whispered, "I wished so to see you. I am so thankful
you are here. There is - there has been such - a terrible
change - something has happened - - "

She rose unsteadily; laid her trembling hand on his arm.

"I don't know what it is," she said piteously, "but
Ailsa - something dreadful has angered her against me - - "

"Against _you_!"

"Oh, yes. I _don't_ know all of it; I know - partly."

Sleep and fatigue still confused her mind; she pressed both frail
hands to her eyes, her forehead:

"It was the day I returned from seeing you at Paigecourt. . . . I
was deadly tired when the ambulance drove into Azalea; and when it
arrived here I had fallen asleep. . . . I woke up when it stopped.
Ailsa was sitting here - in this same chair, I think - and I remember
as I sat up in the ambulance that an officer was just leaving
her - Captain Hallam."

She looked piteously at Berkley.

"He was one of the men I have avoided. Do you understand?"

"No. . . . Was he - - "

"Yes, he often came to the - Canterbury. He had never spoken to me
there, but Ione Carew knew him; and I was certain he would
recognise me. . . . I thought I had succeeded in avoiding him, but
he must have seen me when I was not conscious of his presence - he
must have recognised me."

She looked down at her worn shoes; the tears fell silently; she
smoothed her gray gown for lack of employment for her restless
hands.

"Dear," he said, "do you believe he went to Ailsa with his story
about you?"

"Oh, yes, yes, I am sure. What else could it be that has angered
her - that drives me away from her - that burns me with the dreadful
gaze she turns on me - chills me with her more dreadful
silence? . . . Why did he do it? I don't know - oh, I don't
know. . . . Because I had never even spoken to him - in those days
that I have tried so hard - so hard to forget - - "

He said slowly: "He is a coward. I have known that for a long
time. But most men are. The disgrace lies in acting like one. . .
And I - that is why I didn't run in battle. . . . Because, that
first day, when they fired on our waggons, _I saw him riding in the
road behind us_. Nobody else suspected him to be within miles. I
saw him. And - _he galloped the wrong way_. And that is why
I - did what I did! He shocked me into doing it. . . . But I never
before have told a soul. I would not tell even you - but the man,
yesterday, put himself beyond the pale. And it can make no
difference now, for he carries the mark into his grave."

He shuddered slightly. "God forbid I hold him up to scorn. I
might, this very moment, be what he is now. No man may know - no
man can foretell how he will bear himself in time of stress. I
have a sorry record of my own. Battle is not the only conflict
that makes men or cowards."

He stood silent, gazing into space. Letty's tears dried as she
watched him.

"Have you seen - her?" she asked tremulously.

"Yes."

The girl sighed and looked down.

"I am so sorry about Colonel Arran . . . . I believe, somehow, he
will get well."

"Do you really believe it, Letty?"

"Yes. The wound is clean. I have seen many recover who were far
more dangerously hurt. . . . His age is against him, but I do
truly believe he will get well."

He thought a moment. "Have you heard about Stephen Craig?"

"They have telegraphed to his affianced - a Miss Lent. You probably
know her. Her brother was killed a day or two ago. Poor little
thing! I believe that Miss Lent is coming. Mrs. Craig wishes to
take her boy North as soon as he can be moved. And, unless the
wound becomes infected, I don't believe he is going to die."

"Where is he?"

"At Paigecourt. Many transports are waiting at the landing. . . .
They say that there was another severe engagement near there
yesterday, and that our army is victorious. I have heard, also,
that we were driven in, and that your regiment lost a great many
men and horses . . . I don't know which is true," she added,
listlessly picking at her frayed gown; "only, as we haven't heard
the guns to-day, it seems to me that if we had lost the battle we'd
have Confederate cannon thundering all around us."

"That seems reasonable," he admitted absently. . . . "Is Dr.
Benton here still?"

"No," she said softly.

"Where is he?"

"At Paigecourt. I asked him to go because he is the best doctor I
ever knew. He came down here to see me; he is not detailed for
duty under contract. I asked him to go and see Stephen Craig. He
grumbled - and went."

She looked up shyly at Berkley, smiled for the first time, then her
pale young face grew beautiful and solemn.

"You dear girl," he said impulsively, taking both her hands and
kissing them. "I am so glad for you - and for him. I knew it would
come true."

"Yes. But I had to tell him - I started to tell him - and - oh, would
you believe how splendid he is! He _knew_ already! He stopped me
short - and I never can forget the look in his face. And he said:
'Child - child! You can tell me nothing I am not already aware of.
And I am aware of nothing except your goodness.'"

"I _thought_ I knew Phineas Benton," said Berkley, warmly. "He was
too upright a character for me to enjoy with any comfort - a few
years back. . . . I'm trying harder than you ever had to, Letty.
You always desired to be decent; I didn't." He shook both her
hands heartily.

"You deserve every atom of your happiness, you dear, sweet girl! I
only wish you were safely out of here and back in the North!"

Letty began to cry softly:

"Forgive me, please; I'm not naturally as tearful as this. I am
just tired. I've done too much - seen too much - and it hasn't
hardened me; it has made me like a silly child, ready to sniffle at
anything."

Berkley laughed gently.

"Why are you crying now, Letty?"

"B-because they have offered me a furlough. I didn't apply. But
Dr. Benton has made me take it. And it almost kills me to go North
and leave Ailsa - alone - and so strangely changed toward me - - "

She straightened her shoulders resolutely; brushed the tears from
her lashes; strove to smile at him.

"Shall we walk a little? I am not on duty, you know; and I've had
enough sleep. There's such a pretty lane along the creek behind
the chapel. . . . What are you doing here, anyway? I suppose you
are acting orderly to poor Colonel Arran? How splendidly the
Lancers have behaved! . . . And those darling Zouaves! - oh, we are
just bursting with pride over our Zou-zous - - "

They had turned away together, walking slowly through the grove
toward a little cart road deep in golden seeded grass which wound
down a hollow all moist with ferns and brambles and young trees in
heavy leaf.

Her hand, unconsciously, had sought his nestling into it with a
confidence that touched him; her pale, happy face turned
continually to meet his as she chatted innocently of the things
which went to make up the days of life for her, never conscious of
herself, or that the artless chatter disclosed anything admirable
in her own character. She prattled on at random, sometimes naive,
sometimes wistful, sometimes faintly humourous - a brave, clean
spirit that was content to take the consequence of duty done - a
tender, gentle soul, undeformed amid the sordid horrors that
hardened or crippled souls less innocent.

Calm, resourceful, patient, undismayed amid conditions that
sickened mature experience to the verge of despair, she went about
her business day after day, meeting all requisitions upon her
slender endurance without faltering, without even supposing there
was anything unusual or praiseworthy in what she did.

She was only one of many women who did full duty through the
darkest days the nation ever knew - saints in homespun, martyrs
uncanonised save in the hearts of the stricken.


There was a small wooden foot-bridge spanning the brook, with a
rough seat nailed against the rail.

"One of my convalescents made it for me," she said proudly. "He
could use only one arm, and he had such a hard time sawing and
hammering! and the foolish boy wouldn't let anybody help him."

She seated herself in the cool shade of a water oak, retaining his
hand in hers and making room for him beside her.

"I wonder," she said, "if you know how good you have been to me.
You changed all my life. Do you realise it?"

"You changed it yourself, Letty."

She sighed, leaned back, dreamy eyed, watching the sun spots glow
and wane on the weather-beaten footbridge.

"In war time - here in the wards - men seem gentler to
women - kinder - than in times of peace. I have stood beside many
thousands; not one has been unkind - lacking in deference. . . ." A
slight smile grew on her lips; she coloured a little, looked up at
Berkley, humorously.

"It would surprise you to know how many have asked me to marry
them. . . . Such funny boys. . . . I scolded some of them and
made them write immediately to their sweethearts. . . . The older
men were more difficult to manage - men from the West - such fine,
simple-natured fellows - just sick and lonely enough to fall in love
with any woman who fanned them and brought them lemonade. . . . I
loved them all dearly. They have been very sweet to me. . . . Men
_are_ good. . . . If a woman desires it. . . . The world is so
full of people who don't mean to do wrong."

She bent her head, considering, lost in the retrospection of her
naive philosophy.

Berkley, secretly amused, was aware of several cadaverous
convalescents haunting the bushes above, dodging the eyes of this
pretty nurse whom one and all adored, and whom they now beheld,
with jealous misgivings, in intimate and unwarrantable tete-a-tete
with a common and disgustingly healthy cavalryman.

Then his weather-tanned features grew serious.

The sunny moments slipped away as the sunlit waters slipped under
the bridge; a bird or two, shy and songless in their moulting
fever, came to the stream to drink, looking up, bright eyed, at the
two who sat there in the mid-day silence. One, a cardinal, ruffled
his crimson crest, startled, as Berkley moved slightly.

"The Red Birds," he said, half aloud. "To me they are the sweetest
singers of all. I remember them as a child, Letty."

After a while Letty rose; her thin hand lingered, on his shoulder
as she stood beside him, and he got to his feet and adjusted belt
and sabre.

"I love to be with you," she said wistfully. "It's only because I
do need a little more sleep that I am going back."

"Of course," he nodded. And they retraced their steps together.

He left her at the door of the quaint, one-storied stone building
where, she explained, she had a cot.

"You _will_ come to see me again before you go back to your
regiment, won't you?" she pleaded, keeping one hand in both of hers.

"Of course I will. Try to get some sleep, Letty. You're
tremendously pretty when you've had plenty of sleep."

They both laughed; then she went indoors and he turned away across
the road, under the windows of the ward where Ailsa was on duty,
and so around to his store-room dwelling-place, where he sat down
on the cot amid the piles of boxes and drew from his pocket the
crumpled sheets of the letter that Ailsa had given him.

The handwriting seemed vaguely familiar to him; he glanced
curiously down the page; his eyes became riveted; he reddened to
the roots of his hair; then he deliberately began at the beginning,
reading very carefully.

The letter had been written several weeks ago; it was dated, and
signed with Hallam's name:


"MY DEAR MRS. PAIGE:

"Only my solemn sense of duty to all pure womanhood enables me to
indite these lines to you; and, by so doing, to invite, nay, to
encourage a cruel misunderstanding of my sincerest motives.

"But my letter is not dictated by malice or inspired by the natural
chagrin which animates a man of spirit when he reflects upon the
undeserved humiliation which he has endured from her who was once
dearer to him than life itself. Mine is a nature susceptible and
sensitive, yet, I natter myself, incapable of harbouring sentiments
unworthy of a gentleman and a soldier.

"To forgive, to condone, is always commendable in man; but, madam,
there is a higher duty men owe to womanhood - to chaste and trusting
womanhood, incapable of defending itself from the wiles and schemes
which ever are waiting to ensnare it.

"It is for this reason, and for this reason alone, that, my
suspicions fully aroused, I have been at some pains to verify them.
A heart conscious of its moral rectitude does not flinch from the
duty before it or from the pain which, unfortunately, the execution
of that duty so often inflicts upon the innocent.

"Believe me, dear Mrs. Paige, it is a sad task that lies before me.
Woman is frail and weak by nature. Man's noblest aspiration can
attain no loftier consummation than in the protection of a pure
woman against contamination.

"Mine becomes the unhappy mission of unmasking two unworthy people
whom you, in your innocence and trust, have cherished close to your
heart. I speak of the trooper Ormond - whose name I believe you
know is Philip Berkley - and, if you now hear it for the first time,
it is proof additional of his deceit and perfidy.

"The other is Miss Lynden, known, in a certain immoral resort
called the Canterbury, as Letty Lynden, or 'Daisy' Lynden.

"She was a dancer in the Canterbury Music Hall. I enclose
photographs of her in costume, also receipts from her landlady,
washing lists, her contract with the Canterbury, all in her own
handwriting, and all gathered for me at my request by a New York
detective, and forwarded to me here. Among these papers you will
find several notes written to her in the spring and summer of 1861
by the trooper Berkley and discovered in her room by her landlady
after her departure. A perusal of them is sufficient to leave no
doubt concerning the character of this young woman - who,
apparently, neglected by the fellow, Berkley, pleaded piteously
with him for an interview, and was, as you see, cynically rebuffed.

"I enclose, also, an affidavit made by Miss Lynden's landlady that
she, Letty, or 'Daisy' Lynden, was commonly understood to be the
mistress of Berkley; that he took her from the Canterbury and from
her lodgings, paid her board bills, and installed her in rooms at
the enclosed address, where she remained until she found employment
with a Doctor Benton.

"What her relations were with him I do not pretend to know. It is
evident, however, that they continue, as he writes to her. It will
also be apparent to you that she has not scrupled to continue her
relations with the man Berkley.

"I will now further prove to you the truth of my assertion
concerning this degrading and demoralising condition of affairs.

"It came to my knowledge that a certain Arthur Wye, serving in the
volunteer artillery, and a certain subaltern in a zouave regiment,
were not only intimates of the trooper Berkley, but had also been
on dubious terms with the Lynden girl.

"Therefore, in company with an agent of the United States Secret
Service detailed for the duty by Surgeon-General Hammond at my
request, I held a private examination of these two men, and, with
some adroitness, succeeded in making them identify the photographs
of the Lynden girl, and later, unobserved by her, attempted to make
them identify her as she was sitting outside the field hospital.
But this they refused to do.

"However, that evidence was not necessary. Among her effects,
scraps of letters in the waste-basket, etc., which she had
imprudently left at her lodgings, were discovered fragments which,
when pasted together, showed conclusively that she was on speaking
terms at least with the artilleryman, Wye.

"This evidence I deem it my duty to lay before you. As a sensitive
and chaste woman, gently born, the condition of affairs will
horrify you. But the knowledge of them will also enable you to
take measures for self-protection, and to clearly understand the
measure which I shall now take to rid the Sanitary Service of this
abandoned woman, who, as your friend and intimate associate,
conceals her true character under the garb of Sainte Ursula, and
who continues her intrigues with the trooper Berkley under the very
roof that shelters you.

"I am, madam, with sincere pain and deepest sympathy and respect,

"Obediently your humble servant,
"EUGENE HALLAM,
"Capt. 8th N. Y. Cav."

He laid the letter and the enclosed papers on the bunk beside him,
and sat there thinking.

He knew that the evidence before him had been sufficient to drive
Letty from the Sanitary Service. Why had she not been driven? The
evidence and the letter were weeks old now. What had prevented
their use? And now Hallam was a fugitive - a deserter in the face
of the enemy. It was too late for him to work more mischief if he
would. But why had he held his hand against Letty?

Sunset found him still sitting there, thinking. The old negro came
shuffling in, bringing hot hoe-cake and bacon for his dinner. He
ate obediently; later he submitted to the razor and clothes brush,
absently pondering the problem that obsessed him: "Why had Hallam
spared Letty; how could he convey the truth to Ailsa Paige?"

At dusk he reported to the ward-master; but Colonel Arran was
asleep, and there were no orders for him.

Then, slowly, he went into the adjoining ward. Ailsa was off duty,
lying down in her room. His message asking a moment's interview
was refused.

So he turned away again, head bent, and wandered over to his
store-room quarters, pondering the problem before him.




CHAPTER XIX

A car full of leaf tobacco had been brought in that day, and
Berkley secured a little of it for his pipe.

Seated on the edge of the shaky veranda in the darkness, he filled
and lighted his cob pipe and, smoking tranquilly, listened to the
distant cannonade which had begun about sundown. Thousands of
fire-flies sailed low in the damp swale beyond the store-house, or,
clinging motionless to the long wet grass and vines, sparkled
palely at intervals. There was no wind. Far on the southern
horizon the muttering thunder became heavier and more distinct.
From where he sat he could now watch the passage of the great
mortar shells through the sky, looking like swiftly moving comets
cleaving unfathomable space; then, falling, faster and faster,
dropping out of the heights of night, they seemed to leave behind
them tracks of fire that lingered on the dazzled retina long after
they had disappeared. The explosion of the incendiary shells was
even more spectacular; the burning matter of the chemical charge
fell from them in showers of clear blue and golden stars, dropping
slowly toward the unseen river below.

He could distinguish the majestic thunder of the huge mortars from
the roar of the Parrotts; the irregular volleys of musketry had a
resonant clang of metal in them like thousands of iron balls
dropped on a sheet of tin.

For an hour the distant display of fireworks continued, then the
thunder rolled away, deadened to a dull rumour, and died out; and
the last lingering spark of Greek fire faded in mid-heaven. A
wavering crimson light brightened on the horizon, increasing,
deepening. But what it was that had been set on fire he could not
guess. Paigecourt lay in that direction.

He extended his booted legs, propped his back against a pillar, and
continued smoking carefully and economically to save his fragments
of Virginia leaf, deeply absorbed in retrospection.

For the first time he was now certain of the change which time,
circumstance, and environment had wrought in himself; he was
curiously conscious of the silent growth of a germ which, one day,
must become a dictatorial and arbitrary habit - the habit of right
thinking. The habit of duty, independent of circumstances, had
slowly grown with his military training; mind and body had learned
automatically to obey; mind and body now definitely recognised the
importance of obedience, were learning to desire it, had begun to
take an obscure sort of pride in it. Mind and body were already
subservient to discipline. How was it with his other self.

In the human soul there is seldom any real perplexity. Only the
body reasons; the soul knows. He knew this now. He knew, too,
that there is a greater drill-master than that which was now
disciplining his mind and body - the spiritual will - that there is a
higher sentiment than the awakened instinct of mental and physical
obedience - the occult loyalty of the spirit. And, within him,
something was now awaking out of night, slowly changing him, soul
and body.


As he sat there, tranquil, pondering, there came a shadowy figure,
moving leisurely under the lighted windows of the hospital,
directly toward him - a man swinging a lantern low above the
grass - and halted beside him in a yellow shaft of light,

"Berkley," he said pleasantly; then, to identify himself, lifted
the lantern to a level with his face.

"Dr. Benton!"

"Surely - surely. I come from Paigecourt. I left Mrs. Craig and
Stephen about five o'clock; I have just left Miss Lynden on duty.
May I sit here beside you, Phil? And, in the first place, how are
you, old fellow?"

"Perfectly well, doctor. . . . I am glad to see you. . . . It is
pleasant to see you. . . . I am well; I really am. You are, too;
I can see that. . . . I want to shake hands with you again - to
wish you happiness," he added in a low voice. "Will you accept my
warmest wishes, Dr. Benton?"

They exchanged a hard, brief grip.

"I know what you mean. Thank you, Phil. . . . I am very happy; I
mean that she shall be. Always."

Berkley said: "There are few people I really care for. She is
among the few."

"I have believed so. . . . She cares, deeply, for you. . . . She
is right." . . . He paused and glanced over his shoulder at the
crimson horizon. "What was that shelling about? The gun-boats were
firing, too."

"I haven't any idea. Something is on fire, evidently. I hope it


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 25 27 28

Online LibraryRobert W. ChambersAilsa Paige → online text (page 25 of 28)