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Graham's friends were eager that he should obtain leave of absence, but he said, "No, not until some time in the winter."
His aunt understood him sufficiently well not to urge the matter, and it may be added that Grace did also.
Hilland's arm healed rapidly, and happy as he was in his home life at the cottage he soon began to chafe under inaction. Before very long it became evident that the major had not wholly outlived his influence at Washington, for there came an order assigning Major Hilland to duty in that city; and thither, accompanied by Grace and her father, he soon repaired. The arrangement proved very agreeable to Hilland during the period when his regiment could engage in little service beyond that of dreary picket duty. He could make his labors far more useful to the government in the city, and could also enjoy domestic life with his idolized wife. Mrs. Mayburn promised to join them after the holidays, and the reason for her delay was soon made evident.
One chilly, stormy evening, when nature was in a most uncomfortable mood, a card was brought to the door of Hilland's rooms at their inn just as he, with his wife and the major, was sitting down to one of those exquisite little dinners which only Grace knew how to order. Hilland glanced at the card, and gave such a shout that the waiter nearly fell over backward.
"Where is the gentleman? Take me to him on the double-quick. It's Graham. Hurrah! I'll order another dinner!" and he vanished, chasing the man downstairs and into the waiting-room, as if he were a detachment of Confederate cavalry. The decorous people in the hotel parlor were astounded as Hilland nearly ran over the breathless waiter at the door, dashed in like a whirlwind, and carried off his friend, laughing, chaffing, and embracing him all the way up the stairs. It was the old, wild exuberancy of his college days, only intensified by the deepest and most grateful emotion.
Grace stood within her door blushing, smiling, and with tears of feeling in her lovely eyes.
"Here he is," cried Hilland--"the very god of war. Give him his reward, Grace--a kiss that he will feel to the soles of his boots."
But she needed no prompting, for instead of taking Graham's proffered hand, she put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him again and again, exclaiming, "You saved Warren's life; you virtually gave yours for his; and in saving him you saved me. May God bless you every hour you live!"
"Grace," he said, gravely and gently, looking down into her swimming eyes and retaining her hands in a strong, warm clasp, "I am repaid a thousand-fold. I think this is the happiest moment of my life;" and then he turned to the major, who was scarcely less demonstrative in his way than Hilland had been.
"By Jove!" cried the veteran, "the war is going to be the making of you young fellows. Why, Graham, you no more look like the young man that played whist with me years since than I do. You have grown broad- shouldered and distingue, and you have the true military air in spite of that quiet civilian's dress."
"Oh, I shall always be comparatively insignificant," replied Graham, laughing. "Wait till Hilland wears the stars, as he surely will, and then you'll see a soldier."
"We see far more than a soldier in you, Alford," said Grace, earnestly. "Your men told Warren of your almost miraculous leap across the ditch; and Warren has again and again described your appearance as you rushed by him on his pursuers. Oh, I've seen the whole thing in my dreams so often!"
"Yes, Graham; you looked like one possessed. You reminded me of the few occasions when, in old college days, you got into a fury."
A frown as black as night lowered on Graham's brow, for they were recalling the most hateful memory of his life--a thought for which he felt he ought to die; but it passed almost instantly, and in the most prosaic tones he said, "Good friends, I'm hungry. I've splashed through Virginia mud twelve mortal hours to-day. Grace, be prepared for such havoc as only a cavalryman can make. We don't get such fare as this at the front."
She, with the pretty housewifely bustle which he had admired years ago, rang the bell and made preparations for a feast.
"Every fatted calf in Washington should be killed for you," she cried-- "prodigal that you are, but only in brave deeds. Where's Iss? I want to see and feast him also."
"I left him well provided for in the lower regions, and astounding the 'cullud bredren' with stories which only the African can swallow. He shall come up by and by, for I have my final orders to give. He leads my horse back to the regiment in the morning, and takes care of him in my absence. I hope to spend a month with aunt."
"And how much time with us?" asked Hilland, eagerly.
"Now, Graham, I protest--"
"Now, Hilland, I'm ravenous, and here's a dinner fit for the Great Mogul."
"Oh, I know you of old. When you employ a certain tone you intend to have your own way; but it isn't fair."
"Don't take it to heart. I'll make another raid on you when I return, and then we shall soon be at the front together again. Aunty's lonely, you know."
"Grace and I don't count, I suppose," said the major.
"I had a thousand questions to ask you;" and he looked so aggrieved that Graham compromised and promised to spend the next day with him.
Then he gave an almost hilarious turn to the rest of the evening, and one would have thought that he was in the high spirits natural to any young officer with a month's leave of absence. He described the "woodchuck hole" which had been his hiding-place, sketched humorously the portraits of Iss, Aunt Sheba, who was now his aunt's cook, and gave funny episodes of his midnight prowlings while waiting for a chance to reach the Union lines. Grace noted how skilfully he kept his own personality in the background unless he appeared in some absurd or comical light; and she also noted that his eyes rested upon her less and less often, until at last, after Iss had had his most flattering reception, he said good-night rather abruptly.
The next day he entertained the major in a way that was exceedingly gratifying and flattering to the veteran. He brought some excellent maps, pointed out the various lines of march, the positions of the opposing armies, and showed clearly what had been done and what might have been. He next became the most patient and absorbed listener, as the old gentleman, by the aid of the same maps, planned a campaign which during the coming year would have annihilated the Confederacy. Grace, sitting near the window, might have imagined herself almost ignored. But she interpreted him differently. She now had the key which explained his conduct, and more than once tears came into her eyes.
Hilland returned early, having hastened through his duties, and was in superb spirits. They spent an afternoon together which stood out in memory like a broad gleam of sunshine in after years; and then Graham took his leave with messages from all to Mrs. Mayburn, who was to return with him.
As they were parting, Grace hesitated a moment, and then stepping forward impulsively she took Graham's hand in both of hers, and said impetuously: "You have seen how very, very happy we all are. Do you think that I forget for a moment that I owe it to you?"
Graham's iron nerves gave way. His hand trembled. "Don't speak to me in that way," he murmured. "Come, Hilland, or I shall miss the train;" and in a moment he was gone.
Mrs. Mayburn never forgot the weeks he spent with her. Sometimes she would look at him wonderingly, and once she said: "Alford, it is hard for me to believe that you have passed through all that you have. Day after day passes, and you seem perfectly content with my quiet, monotonous life. You read to me my old favorite authors. You chaff me and Aunt Sheba about our little domestic economies. Beyond a hasty run through the morning paper you scarcely look at the daily journals. You are content with one vigorous walk each day. Indeed you seem to have settled down and adapted yourself to my old woman's life for the rest of time. I thought you would be restless, urging my earlier return to Washington, or seeking to abridge your leave, so that you might return to the excitement of the camp."
"No, aunty dear, I am not restless. I have outlived and outgrown that phase of my life. You will find that my pulse is as even as yours. Indeed I have a deep enjoyment of this profound quiet of our house. I have fully accepted my lot, and now expect only those changes that come from without and not from within. To be perfectly sincere with you, the feeling is growing that this profound quietude that has fallen upon me may be the prelude to final rest. It's right that I should accustom your mind to the possibilities of every day in our coming campaign, which I well foresee will be terribly severe. At first our generals did not know how to use cavalry, and beyond escort and picket duty little was asked of it. Now all this is changed. Cavalry has its part in every pitched battle, and in the intervals it has many severe conflicts of its own. Daring, ambitious leaders are coming to the front, and the year will be one of great and hazardous activity. My chief regret is that Hilland's wound did not disable him wholly from further service in the field. Still he will come out all right. He always has and ever will. There are hidden laws that control and shape our lives. It seems to me that you were predestined to be just what you are. Your life is rounded out and symmetrical according to its own law. The same is true of Hilland and of myself thus far. The rudiments of what we are to-day were clearly apparent when we were boys. He is the same ardent, jolly, whole-souled fellow that clapped me on the back after leaving the class-room. Everybody liked him then, everything favored him. Often when he had not looked at a lesson he would make a superb recitation. I was moody and introspective; so I am to-day. Even the unforeseen events of life league together to develop one's characteristics. The conditions of his life today are in harmony with all that has been; the same is true of mine, with the strange exception that I have found a home and a dear staunch friend in one who I supposed would ever be a stranger. See how true my theory is of Grace and her father. Her blithesome girlhood has developed into the happiest wifehood. Her brow is as smooth as ever, and her eyes as bright. They have only gained in depth and tenderness as the woman has taken the place of the girl. Her form has only developed into lovelier proportions, and her character into a more exquisite symmetry. She has been one continuous growth according to the laws of her being; and so it will be to the end. She will be just as beautiful and lovable in old age as now; for nature, in a genial mood, infused into her no discordant, disfiguring elements. The major also is completing his life in consonance with all that has gone before."
"Alford, you are more of a fatalist than a materialist. In my heart I feel, I know, you are wrong. What you say seems so plausible as to be true; but my very soul revolts at it all. There is a deep undertone of sadness in your words, and they point to a possibility that would imbitter every moment of the remnant of my life. Suppose you should fall, what remedy would there be for me? Oh, in anguish I have learned what life would become then. I am a materialist like yourself, although all the clergymen in town would say I was orthodox. From earliest recollection mere things and certain people have been everything to me; and now you are everything, and yet at this hour the bullet may be molded which will strike you down. Grace, with her rich, beautiful life, is in equal danger. Hilland will go into the field and will expose himself as recklessly as yourself. I have no faith in your obscure laws. Thousands were killed in the last campaign, thousands are dying in hospitals this moment, and all this means thousands of broken hearts, unless they are sustained by something I have not. This world is all very well when all is well, but it can so easily become an accursed world!" The old lady spoke with a strange bitterness, revealing the profound disquietude that existed under the serene amenities of her age and her methodical life.
Graham sought to give a lighter tone to their talk and said: "Oh, well, aunty, perhaps we are darkening the sun with our own shadows. We must take life as we find it. There is no help for that. You have done so practically. With your strong good sense you could not do otherwise. The trouble is that you are haunted by old-time New England beliefs that, from your ancestry, have become infused into your very blood. You can't help them any more than other inherited infirmities which may have afflicted your grandfather. Let us speak of something else. Ah, here is a welcome diversion--the daily paper--and I'll read it through to you, and we'll gain another hint as to the drift of this great tide of events."
The old lady shook her head sadly; and the fact that she watched the young man with hungry, wistful eyes, often blinded with tears, proved that neither state nor military policy was uppermost in her mind.
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