Chapter XVII. The Colonel.
TEN years earlier Christie made her début as an Amazon, now she had a braver part to play on a larger stage, with a nation for audience, martial music and the boom of cannon for orchestra; the glare of battle-fields was the "red light;" danger, disease, and death, the foes she was to contend against; and the troupe she joined, not timid girls, but high-hearted women, who fought gallantly till the "demon" lay dead, and sang their song of exultation with bleeding hearts, for this great spectacle was a dire tragedy to them.
Christie followed David in a week, and soon proved herself so capable that Mrs. Amory rapidly promoted her from one important post to another, and bestowed upon her the only honors left the women, hard work, responsibility, and the gratitude of many men.
"You are a treasure, my dear, for you can turn your hand to any thing and do well whatever you undertake. So many come with plenty of good-will, but not a particle of practical ability, and are offended because I decline their help. The boys don't want to be cried over, or have their brows 'everlastingly swabbed,' as old Watkins calls it: they want to be well fed and nursed, and cheered up with creature comforts. Your nice beef-tea and cheery ways are worth oceans of tears and cart-loads of tracts."
Mrs. Amory said this, as Christie stood waiting while she wrote an order for some extra delicacy for a very sick patient. Mrs. Sterling, Jr., certainly did look like an efficient nurse, who thought more of "the boys" than of herself; for one hand bore a pitcher of gruel, the other a bag of oranges, clean shirts hung over the right arm, a rubber cushion under the left, and every pocket in the big apron was full of bottles and bandages, papers and letters.
"I never discovered what an accomplished woman I was till I came here," answered Christie, laughing. "I'm getting vain with so much praise, but I like it immensely, and never was so pleased in my life as I was yesterday when Dr. Harvey came for me to take care of poor Dunbar, because no one else could manage him."
"It's your firm yet pitiful way the men like so well. I can't describe it better than in big Ben's words: 'Mis Sterlin' is the nuss for me, marm. She takes care of me as ef she was my own mother, and it's a comfort jest to see her round.' It's a gift, my dear, and you may thank heaven you have got it, for it works wonders in a place like this."
"I only treat the poor fellows as I would have other women treat my David if he should be in their care. He may be any hour, you know."
"And my boys, God keep them!"
The pen lay idle, and the gruel cooled, as young wife and gray-haired mother forgot their duty for a moment in tender thoughts of the absent. Only a moment, for in came an attendant with a troubled face, and an important young surgeon with the well-worn little case under his arm.
"Bartlett 's dying, marm: could you come and see to him?" says the man to Mrs. Amory.
"We have got to amputate Porter's arm this morning, and he won't consent unless you are with him. You will come, of course?" added the surgeon to Christie, having tried and found her a woman with no "confounded nerves" to impair her usefulness.
So matron and nurse go back to their duty, and dying Bartlett and suffering Porter are all the more tenderly served for that wasted minute.
Like David, Christie had enlisted for the war, and in the two years that followed, she saw all sorts of service; for Mrs. Amory had influence, and her right-hand woman, after a few months' apprenticeship, was ready for any post. The gray gown and comforting face were known in many hospitals, seen on crowded transports, among the ambulances at the front, invalid cars, relief tents, and food depots up and down the land, and many men went out of life like tired children holding the hand that did its work so well.
David meanwhile was doing his part manfully, not only in some of the great battles of those years, but among the hardships, temptations, and sacrifices of a soldiers' life. Spite of his Quaker ancestors, he was a good fighter, and, better still, a magnanimous enemy, hating slavery, but not the slave-holder, and often spared the master while he saved the chattel. He was soon promoted, and might have risen rapidly, but was content to remain as captain of his company; for his men loved him, and he was prouder of his influence over them than of any decoration he could win.
His was the sort of courage that keeps a man faithful to death, and though he made no brilliant charge, uttered few protestations of loyalty, and was never heard to "damn the rebs," his comrades felt that his brave example had often kept them steady till a forlorn hope turned into a victory, knew that all the wealth of the world could not bribe him from his duty, and learned of him to treat with respect an enemy as brave and less fortunate than themselves. A noble nature soon takes its proper rank and exerts its purifying influence, and Private Sterling won confidence, affection, and respect, long before promotion came; for, though he had tended his flowers like a woman and loved his books like a student, he now proved that he could also do his duty and keep his honor stainless as a soldier and a gentleman.
He and Christie met as often as the one could get a brief furlough, or the other be spared from hospital duty; but when these meetings did come, they were wonderfully beautiful and rich, for into them was distilled a concentration of the love, happiness, and communion which many men and women only know through years of wedded life.
Christie liked romance, and now she had it, with a very sombre reality to give it an added charm. No Juliet ever welcomed her Romeo more joyfully than she welcomed David when he paid her a flying visit unexpectedly; no Bayard ever had a more devoted lady in his tent than David, when his wife came through every obstacle to bring him comforts or to nurse the few wounds he received. Love-letters, written beside watch-fires and sick-beds, flew to and fro like carrier-doves with wondrous speed; and nowhere in all the brave and busy land was there a fonder pair than this, although their honeymoon was spent apart in camp and hospital, and well they knew that there might never be for them a happy going home together.
In her wanderings to and fro, Christie not only made many new friends, but met some old ones; and among these one whose unexpected appearance much surprised and touched her.
She was "scrabbling" eggs in a tin basin on board a crowded transport, going up the river with the echoes of a battle dying away behind her, and before her the prospect of passing the next day on a wharf serving out food to the wounded in an easterly storm.
"O Mrs. Sterling, do go up and see what's to be done! We are all full below, and more poor fellows are lying about on deck in a dreadful state. I'll take your place here, but I can't stand that any longer," said one of her aids, coming in heart-sick and exhausted by the ghastly sights and terrible confusion of the day.
"I'll go: keep scrabbling while the eggs last, then knock out the head of that barrel and make gruel till I pass the word to stop."
Forgetting her bonnet, and tying the ends of her shawl behind her, Christie caught up a bottle of brandy and a canteen of water, and ran on deck. There a sight to daunt most any woman, met her eyes; for all about her, so thick that she could hardly step without treading on them, lay the sad wrecks of men: some moaning for help; some silent, with set, white faces turned up to the gray sky; all shelterless from the cold wind that blew, and the fog rising from the river. Surgeons and nurses were doing their best; but the boat was loaded, and greater suffering reigned below.
"Heaven help us all!" sighed Christie, and then she fell to work.
Bottle and canteen were both nearly empty by the time she came to the end of the long line, where lay a silent figure with a hidden face. "Poor fellow, is he dead?" she said, kneeling down to lift a corner of the blanket lent by a neighbor.
A familiar face looked up at her, and a well remembered voice said courteously, but feebly:
"Thanks, not yet. Excuse my left hand. I'm very glad to see you."
"Mr. Fletcher, can it be you!" she cried, looking at him with pitiful amazement. Well she might ask, for any thing more unlike his former self can hardly be imagined. Unshaven, haggard, and begrimed with powder, mud to the knees, coat half on, and, worst of all, the right arm gone, there lay the "piece of elegance" she had known, and answered with a smile she never saw before:
"All that's left of me, and very much at your service. I must apologize for the dirt, but I've laid in a mud-puddle for two days; and, though it was much easier than a board, it doesn't improve one's appearance."
"What can I do for you? Where can I put you? I can't bear to see you here!" said Christie, much afflicted by the spectacle before her.
"Why not? we are all alike when it comes to this pass. I shall do very well if I might trouble you for a draught of water."
She poured her last drop into his parched mouth and hurried off for more. She was detained by the way, and, when she returned, fancied he was asleep, but soon discovered that he had fainted quietly away, utterly spent with two days of hunger, suffering, and exposure. He was himself again directly, and lay contentedly looking up at her as she fed him with hot soup, longing to talk, but refusing to listen to a word till he was refreshed.
"That's very nice," he said gratefully, as he finished, adding with a pathetic sort of gayety, as he groped about with his one hand: "I don't expect napkins, but I should like a handkerchief. They took my coat off when they did my arm, and the gentleman who kindly lent me this doesn't seem to have possessed such an article."
Christie wiped his lips with the clean towel at her side, and smiled as she did it, at the idea of Mr. Fletcher's praising burnt soup, and her feeding him like a baby out of a tin cup.
"I think it would comfort you if I washed your face: can you bear to have it done?" she asked.
"If you can bear to do it," he answered, with an apologetic look, evidently troubled at receiving such services from her.
Yet as her hands moved gently about his face, he shut his eyes, and there was a little quiver of the lips now and then, as if he was remembering a time when he had hoped to have her near him in a tenderer capacity than that of nurse. She guessed the thought, and tried to banish it by saying cheerfully as she finished:
"There, you look more like yourself after that. Now the hands."
"Fortunately for you, there is but one," and he rather reluctantly surrendered a very dirty member.
"Forgive me, I forgot. It is a brave hand, and I am proud to wash it!"
"How do you know that?" he asked, surprised at her little burst of enthusiasm, for as she spoke she pressed the grimy hand in both her own.
"While I was recovering you from your faint, that man over there informed me that you were his Colonel; that you 'fit like a tiger,' and when your right arm was disabled, you took your sword in the left and cheered them on as if you 'were bound to beat the whole rebel army.'"
"That's Drake's story," and Mr. Fletcher tried to give the old shrug, but gave an irrepressible groan instead, then endeavored to cover it, by saying in a careless tone, "I thought I might get a little excitement out of it, so I went soldiering like all the rest of you. I'm not good for much, but I can lead the way for the brave fellows who do the work. Officers make good targets, and a rebel bullet would cause no sorrow in taking me out of the world."
"Don't say that! I should grieve sincerely; and yet I'm very glad you came, for it will always be a satisfaction to you in spite of your great loss."
"There are greater losses than right arms," muttered Mr. Fletcher gloomily, then checked himself, and added with a pleasant change in voice and face, as he glanced at the wedding-ring she wore:
"This is not exactly the place for congratulations, but I can't help offering mine; for if I'm not mistaken your left hand also has grown doubly precious since we met?"
Christie had been wondering if he knew, and was much relieved to find he took it so well. Her face said more than her words, as she answered briefly:
"Thank you. Yes, we were married the day David left, and have both been in the ranks ever since."
"Not wounded yet? your husband, I mean," he said, getting over the hard words bravely.
"Three times, but not badly. I think a special angel stands before him with a shield;" and Christie smiled as she spoke.
"I think a special angel stands behind him with prayers that avail much," added Mr. Fletcher, looking up at her with an expression of reverence that touched her heart.
"Now I must go to my work, and you to sleep: you need all the rest you can get before you have to knock about in the ambulances again," she said, marking the feverish color in his face, and knowing well that excitement was his only strength.
"How can I sleep in such an Inferno as this?"
"Try, you are so weak, you'll soon drop off;" and, laying the cool tips of her fingers on his eyelids, she kept them shut till he yielded with a long sigh of mingled weariness and pleasure, and was asleep before he knew it.
When he woke it was late at night; but little of night's blessed rest was known on board that boat laden with a freight of suffering. Cries still came up from below, and moans of pain still sounded from the deck, where shadowy figures with lanterns went to and fro among the beds that in the darkness looked like graves.
Weak with pain and fever, the poor man gazed about him half bewildered, and, conscious only of one desire, feebly called "Christie!"
"Here I am;" and the dull light of a lantern showed him her face very worn arid tired, but full of friendliest compassion.
"What can I do for you?" she asked, as he clutched her gown, and peered up at her with mingled doubt and satisfaction in his haggard eyes.
"Just speak to me; let me touch you: I thought it was a dream; thank God it isn't. How much longer will this last?" he added, falling back on the softest pillows she could find for him.
"We shall soon land now; I believe there is an officers' hospital in the town, and you will be quite comfortable there."
"I want to go to your hospital: where is it?"
"I have none; and, unless the old hotel is ready, I shall stay on the wharf with the boys until it is."
"Then I shall stay also. Don't send me away, Christie: I shall not be a trouble long; surely David will let you help me die?" and poor Fletcher stretched his one hand imploringly to her in the first terror of the delirium that was coming on.
"I will not leave you: I'll take care of you, and no one can forbid it. Drink this, Philip, and trust to Christie."
He obeyed like a child, and soon fell again into a troubled sleep while she sat by him thinking about David.
The old hotel was ready; but by the time he got there Mr. Fletcher was past caring where he went, and for a week was too ill to know any thing, except that Christie nursed him. Then he turned the corner and began to recover. She wanted him to go into more comfortable quarters; but he would not stir as long as she remained; so she put him in a little room by himself, got a man to wait on him, and gave him as much of her care and time as she could spare from her many duties. He was not an agreeable patient, I regret to say; he tried to bear his woes heroically, but did not succeed very well, not being used to any exertion of that sort; and, though in Christie's presence he did his best, his man confided to her that the Colonel was "as fractious as a teething baby, and the domineeringest party he ever nussed."
Some of Mr. Fletcher's attempts were comical, and some pathetic, for though the sacred circle of her wedding-ring was an effectual barrier against a look or word of love, Christie knew that the old affection was not dead, and it showed itself in his desire to win her respect by all sorts of small sacrifices and efforts at self-control. He would not use many of the comforts sent him, but insisted on wearing an army dressing-gown, and slippers that cost him a secret pang every time his eye was affronted by their ugliness. Always after an angry scene with his servant, he would be found going round among the men bestowing little luxuries and kind words; not condescendingly, but humbly, as if it was an atonement for his own shortcomings, and a tribute due to the brave fellows who bore their pains with a fortitude he could not imitate.
"Poor Philip, he tries so hard I must pity, not despise him; for he was never taught the manly virtues that make David what he is," thought Christie, as she went to him one day with an unusually happy heart.
She found him sitting with a newly opened package before him, and a gloomy look upon his face.
"See what rubbish one of my men has sent me, thinking I might value it," he said, pointing to a broken sword-hilt and offering her a badly written letter.
She read it, and was touched by its affectionate respect and manly sympathy; for the good fellow had been one of those who saved the Colonel when he fell, and had kept the broken sword as a trophy of his bravery, "thinking it might be precious in the eyes of them that loved him."
"Poor Burny might have spared himself the trouble, for I've no one to give it to, and in my eyes it's nothing but a bit of old metal," said Pletcher, pushing the parcel away with a half-irritated, half-melancholy look.
"Give it to me as a parting keepsake. I have a fine collection of relics of the brave men I have known; and this shall have a high place in my museum when I go home," said Christie, taking up the "bit of old metal" with more interest than she had ever felt in the brightest blade.
"Parting keepsake! are you going away?" asked Fletcher, catching at the words in anxious haste, yet looking pleased at her desire to keep the relic.
"Yes, I'm ordered to report in Washington, and start to-morrow."
"Then I'll go as escort. The doctor has been wanting me to leave for a week, and now I 've no desire to stay," he said eagerly.
But Christie shook her head, and began to fold up paper and string with nervous industry as she answered:
"I am not going directly to Washington: I have a week's furlough first."
"And what is to become of me?" asked Mr. Fletcher, as fretfully as a sick child; for he knew where her short holiday would be passed, and his temper got the upper-hand for a minute.
"You should go home and be comfortably nursed: you'll need care for some time; and your friends will be glad of a chance to give it I've no doubt."
"I have no home, as you know; and I don't believe I've got a friend in the world who cares whether I live or die."
"This looks as if you were mistaken;" and Christie glanced about the little room, which was full of comforts and luxuries accumulated during his stay.
His face changed instantly, and he answered with the honest look and tone never given to any one but her.
"I beg your pardon: I'm an ungrateful brute. But you see I'd just made up my mind to do something worth the doing, and now it is made impossible in a way that renders it hard to bear. You are very patient with me, and I owe my life to your care: I never can thank you for it; but I will take myself out of your way as soon as I can, and leave you free to enjoy your happy holiday. Heaven knows you have earned it!"
He said those last words so heartily that all the bitterness went out of his voice, and Christie found it easy to reply with a cordial smile:
"I shall stay and see you comfortably off before I go myself. As for thanks and reward I have had both; for you have done something worth the doing, and you give me this."
She took up the broken blade as she spoke, and carried it away, looking proud of her new trophy.
Fletcher left next day, saying, while he pressed her hand as warmly as if the vigor of two had gone into his one:
"You will let me come and see you by and by when you too get your discharge: won't you?"
"So gladly that you shall never again say you have no home. But you must take care of yourself, or you will get the long discharge, and we can't spare you yet," she answered warmly.
"No danger of that: the worthless ones are too often left to cumber the earth; it is the precious ones who are taken," he said, thinking of her as he looked into her tired face, and remembered all she had done for him.
Christie shivered involuntarily at those ominous words, but only said, "Good-by, Philip," as he went feebly away, leaning on his servant's arm, while all the men touched their caps and wished the Colonel a pleasant journey.