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Life at the two cottages was extremely secluded. All who felt entitled to do so made calls, partly of condolence and partly from curiosity. The occupants of the two unpretending dwellings had the respect of the community; but from their rather unsocial ways could not be popular. The old major had ever detested society in one of its phases--that is, the claims of mere vicinage, the duty to call and be called upon by people who live near, when there is scarcely a thought or taste in common. With his Southern and army associations he had drifted to a New England city; but he ignored the city except as it furnished friends and things that pleased him. His attitude was not contemptuous or unneighborly, but simply indifferent.
"I don't thrust my life on any one," he once said to Mrs. Mayburn, "except you and Grace. Why should other people thrust their lives on me?"
His limited income had required economy, and his infirmities a life free from annoyance. As has been shown, Grace had practiced the one with heart as light as her purse; and had interposed her own sweet self between the irritable veteran and everything that could vex him. The calling world had had its revenge. The major was profane, they had said; Grace was proud, or led a slavish life. The most heinous sin of all was, they were poor. There were several families, however, whom Grace and the major had found congenial, with various shades of difference; and the young girl had never lacked all the society she cared for. Books had been her chief pleasure; the acquaintance of good whist-players had been cultivated; army and Southern friends had appeared occasionally; and when Mrs. Mayburn had become a neighbor, she had been speedily adopted into the closest intimacy. When Hilland had risen above their horizon he soon glorified the world to Grace. To the astonishment of society, she had married a millionaire, and they had all continued to live as quietly and unostentatiously as before. There had been another slight effort to "know the people at the St. John cottage," but it had speedily died out. The war had brought chiefly military associations and absence. Now again there was an influx of callers largely from the church that Grace had once attended. Mrs. Mayburn received the majority with a grim politeness, but discriminated very favorably in case of those who came solely from honest sympathy. All were made to feel, however, that, like a mourning veil, sorrow should shield its victims from uninvited observation.
Hilland's mother had long been dead, and his father died at the time when he was summoned from his studies in Germany. While on good terms with his surviving relatives, there had been no very close relationship or intimacy remaining. Grace had declared that she wished no other funeral service than the one conducted by the good old Confederate pastor; and the relatives, learning that they had no interest in the will, speedily discovered that they had no further interest whatever. Thus the inmates of the two cottages were left to pursue their own shadowed paths, with little interference from the outside world. The major treasured a few cordial eulogies of Hilland cut from the journals at the time; and except in the hearts wherein he was enshrined a living image, the brave, genial, high-souled man passed from men's thoughts and memories, like thousands of others in that long harvest of death.
Graham's wound at last was wellnigh healed, and the time was drawing near for his return to the army. His general had given such a very favorable account of the circumstances attending his offence, and of his career as a soldier both before and after the affair, that the matter was quietly ignored. Moreover, Hilland, as a soldier and by reason of the loyal use of his wealth, stood very high in the estimation of the war authorities; and the veteran major was not without his surviving circle of influential friends. Graham, therefore, not only retained his rank, but was marked for promotion.
Of all this, however, he thought and cared little. If he had loved Grace before, he idolized her now. And yet with all her deep affection for him and her absolute trust, she seemed more remote than ever. In the new phase of her grief she was ever seeking to do little things which she thought would please him. But this was also true of her course toward Mrs. Mayburn, especially so toward her father, and also, to a certain extent, toward the poor and sick in the vicinity. Her one effort seemed to be to escape from her thoughts, herself, in a ceaseless ministry to others. And the effort sometimes degenerated into restlessness. There was such a lack of repose in her manner that even those who loved her most were pained and troubled. There was not enough to keep her busy all the time, and yet she was ever impelled to do something.
One day she said to Graham, "I wish I could go back with you to the war; not that I wish to shed another drop of blood, but I would like to march, march forever."
Shrewd Mrs. Mayburn, who had been watching Grace closely for the last week or two, said quietly: "Take her back with you, Alford. Let her become a nurse in some hospital. It will do both her and a lot of poor fellows a world of good."
"Mrs. Mayburn, you have thought of just the thing," cried Grace. "In a hospital full of sick and wounded men I could make my life amount to something; I should never need to be idle then."
"Yes, you would. You would be under orders like Alford, and would have to rest when off duty. But, as you say, you could be of great service, instead of wasting your energy in coddling two old people. You might save many a poor fellow's life."
"Oh," she exclaimed, clasping her hands, "the bare thought of saving one poor woman from such suffering as mine is almost overwhelming. But how can I leave papa?"
"I'll take care of the major and insure his consent. If men are so possessed to make wounds, it's time women did more to cure them. It's all settled: you are to go. I'll see the major about it now, if he has just begun his newspaper;" and the old lady took her knitting and departed with her wonted prompt energy.
At first Graham was almost speechless from surprise, mingled doubt and pleasure; but the more he thought of it, the more he was convinced that the plan was an inspiration.
"Alford, you will take me?" she said, appealingly.
"Yes," he replied, smilingly, "if you will promise to obey my orders in part, as well as those of your superiors."
"I'll promise anything if you will only take me. Am I not under your care?"
"Oh, Grace, Grace, I can do so little for you!"
"No one living can do more. In providing this chance of relieving a little pain, of preventing a little suffering, you help me, you serve me, you comfort me, as no one else could. And, Alford, if you are wounded, come to the hospital where I am; I will never leave you till you are well. Take me to some exposed place in the field, where there is danger, where men are brought in desperately wounded, where you would be apt to be."
"I don't know where I shall be, but I would covet any wound that would bring you to my side as nurse."
She thought a few moments, and then said, resolutely: "I will keep as near to you as I can. I ask no pay for my services. On the contrary, I will employ my useless wealth in providing for exposed hospitals. When I attempt to take care of the sick or wounded, I will act scrupulously under the orders of the surgeon in charge; but I do not see why, if I pay my own way, I cannot come and go as I think I can be the most useful."
"Perhaps you could, to a certain extent, if you had a permit," said Graham, thoughtfully; "but I think you would accomplish more by remaining in one hospital and acquiring skill by regular work. It would be a source of indescribable anxiety to me to think of your going about alone. If I know just where you are, I can find you and write to you."
"I will do just what you wish," she said, gently.
"I wish for only what is best for you."
"I know that. It would be strange if I did not."
Mrs. Mayburn was not long in convincing the major that her plan might be the means of incalculable benefit to Grace as well as to others. He, as well as herself and Graham, had seen with deep anxiety that Grace was giving way to a fever of unrest; and he acquiesced in the view that it might better run its course in wholesome and useful activity, amid scenes of suffering that might tend to reconcile her to her own sorrow.
Graham, however, took the precaution of calling on Dr. Markham, who, to his relief, heartily approved of the measure. On one point Graham was firm. He would not permit her to go to a hospital in the field, liable to vicissitudes from sudden movements of the contending armies. He found one for her, however, in which she would have ample scope for all her efforts; and before he left he interested those in charge so deeply in the white-haired nurse that he felt she would always be under watchful, friendly eyes.
"Grace," he said, as he was taking leave, "I have tried to be a true friend to you."
"Oh, Alford!" she exclaimed, and she seized his hand and held it in both of hers.
His face grew stern rather than tender as he added: "You will not be a true friend to me--you will wrong me deeply--if you are reckless of your health and strength. Remember that, like myself, you have entered the service, and that you are pledged to do your duty, and not to work with feverish zeal until your strength fails. You are just as much under obligation to take essential rest as to care for the most sorely wounded in your ward. I shall take the advice I give. Believing that I am somewhat essential to your welfare and the happiness of those whom we have left at home, I shall incur no risks beyond those which properly fall to my lot. I ask you to be equally conscientious and considerate of those whose lives are bound up in you."
"I'll try," she said, with that same pathetic look and utterance which had so moved him on the fearful night of his return from the army. "But, Alford, do not speak to me so gravely, I had almost said sternly, just as we are saying good-by."
He raised her hand to his lips, and smiled into her pleading face as he replied, "I only meant to impress you with the truth that you have a patient who is not in your ward--one who will often be sleeping under the open sky, I know not where. Care a little for him, as well as for the unknown men in your charge. This you can do only by taking care of yourself. You, of all others, should know that there are wounds besides those which will bring men to this hospital."
Tears rushed into her eyes as she faltered, "You could not have made a stronger appeal."
"You will write to me often?"
"Yes, and you cannot write too often. Oh, Alford, I cannot wish you had never seen me; but it would have been far, far better for you if you had not."
"No, no," he said, in low, strong emphasis. "Grace Hilland, I would rather be your friend than have the love of any woman that ever lived."
"You do yourself great wrong (pardon me for saying it, but your happiness is so dear to me), you do yourself great wrong. A girl like Pearl Anderson could make you truly happy; and you could make her happy."
"Sweet little Pearl will be happy some day; and I may be one of the causes, but not in the way you suggest. It is hard to say good-by and leave you here alone, and every moment I stay only makes it harder."
He raised her hand once more to his lips, then almost rushed away.
Days lapsed into weeks, and weeks into months. The tireless nurse alleviated suffering of every kind; and her silvery hair was like a halo around a saintly head to many a poor fellow. She had the deep solace of knowing that not a few wives and mothers would have mourned had it not been for her faithfulness.
But her own wound would not heal. She sometimes felt that she was slowly bleeding to death. The deep, dark tide of suffering, in spite of all she could do, grew deeper and darker; and she was growing weary and discouraged.
Graham saw her at rare intervals; and although she brightened greatly at his presence, and made heroic efforts to satisfy him that she was doing well, he grew anxious and depressed. But there was nothing tangible, nothing definite. She was only a little paler, a little thinner; and when he spoke of it she smilingly told him that he was growing gaunt himself with his hard campaigning.
"But you, Grace," he complained, "are beginning to look like a wraith that may vanish some moonlight night."
Her letters were frequent, sometimes even cheerful, but brief. He wrote at great length, filling his pages with descriptions of nature, with scenes that were often humorous but not trivial, with genuine life, but none of its froth. Life for both had become too deep a tragedy for any nonsense. He passed through many dangers, but these, as far as possible, he kept in the background; and fate, pitying his one deep wound, spared him any others.
At last there came the terrible battle of the Wilderness, and the wards were filled with desperately wounded men. The poor nurse gathered up her failing powers for one more effort; and Confederate and Union men looked after her wonderingly and reverently, even in their mortal weakness. To many she seemed like a ministering spirit rather than a woman of flesh and blood; and lips of dying men blessed her again and again. But they brought no blessing. She only shuddered and grew more faint of heart as the scenes of agony and death increased. Each wound was a type of Hilland's wound, and in every expiring man she saw her husband die. Her poor little hands trembled now as she sought to stem the black, black tide that deepened and broadened and foamed around her.
Late one night, after a new influx of the wounded, she was greatly startled while passing down her ward by hearing a voice exclaim, "Grace--Grace Brentford!"
It was her mother's name.
The call was repeated; and she tremblingly approached a cot on which was lying a gray-haired man.
"Great God!" he exclaimed, "am I dreaming? am I delirious? How is it that I see before me the woman I loved forty-odd years ago? You cannot be Grace Brentford, for she died long years since."
"No, but I am her daughter."
"Her daughter!" said the man, struggling to rise upon his elbow--"her daughter! She should not look older than you."
"Alas, sir, my age is not the work of time, but of grief. I grew old in a day. But if you knew and loved my mother, you have sacred claims upon me. I am a nurse in this ward, and will devote myself to you."
The man sank back exhausted. "This is strange, strange indeed," be said. "It is God's own providence. Yes, my child, I loved your mother, and I love her still. Harry St. John won her fairly; but be could not have loved her better than I. I am now a lonely old man, dying, I believe, in my enemy's hands, but I thank God that I've seen Grace Brentford's child, and that she can soothe my last hours."
"Do not feel so discouraged about yourself," said Grace, her tears falling fast. "Think rather that yon have been brought here that I might nurse you back to life. Believe me, I will do so with tender, loving care."
"How strange it all is!" the man said again. "You have her very voice, her manner. But it was by your eyes that I recognized you. Your eyes are young and beautiful like hers, and full of tears, as hers were when she sent me away with an ache to my heart that has never ceased. It will soon be cured now. Your father will remember a wild young planter down in Georgia by the name of Phil Harkness."
"Indeed, sir, I've heard both of my parents speak of you, and it was ever with respect and esteem."
"Give my greeting to your father, and say I never bore him any ill- will. In the saddest life there is always some compensation. I have had wealth and honors; I am a colonel in our army, and have been able to serve the cause I loved; but, chief of all, the child of Grace Brentford is by my side at the end. Is your name Grace also?"
"Yes. Oh, why is the world so full of hopeless trouble?"
"Not hopeless trouble, my child. I am not hopeless. For long years I have had peace, if not happiness--a deep inward calm which the confusion and roar of the bloodiest battles could not disturb. I can close my eyes now in my final sleep as quietly as a child. In a few hours, my dear, I may see your mother; and I shall tell her that I left her child assuaging her own sorrow by ministering to others."
"Oh, oh!" sobbed Grace, "pray cease, or I shall not be fit for my duties; your words pierce my very soul. Let me nurse you back to health. Let me take you to my home until you are exchanged, for I must return. I must, must. My strength is going fast; and you bring before me my dear old father whom I have left too long."
"My poor child! God comfort and sustain you. Do not let me keep you longer from your duties, and from those who need you more than I. Come and say a word to me when you can. That's all I ask. My wound was dressed before your watch began, and I am doing as well as I could expect. When you feel like it, you can tell me more about yourself."
Their conversation had been in a low tone as she sat beside him, the patients near either sleeping or too preoccupied by their own sufferings to give much heed.
Weary and oppressed by bitter despondency, she went from cot to cot, attending to the wants of those in her charge. To her the old colonel's sad history seemed a mockery of his faith, and but another proof of a godless or God-forgotten world. She envied his belief, with its hope and peace; but he had only increased her unbelief. But all through the long night she watched over him, coming often to his side with delicacies and wine, and with gentle words that were far more grateful.
Once, as she was smoothing back his gray locks from his damp forehead, he smiled, and murmured, "God bless you, my child. This is a foretaste of heaven."
In the gray dawn she came to him and said, "My watch is over, and I must leave you for a little while; but as soon as I have rested I will come again."
"Grace," he faltered, hesitatingly, "would you mind kissing an old, old man? I never had a child of my own to kiss me."
She stooped down and kissed him again and again, and he felt her hot tears upon his face.
"You have a tender heart, my dear," he said, gently. "Good-by, Grace-- Grace Brentford's child. Dear Grace, when we meet again perhaps all tears will be wiped from your eyes forever."
She stole away exhausted and almost despairing. On reaching her little room she sank on her couch, moaning; "Oh, Warren, Warren, would that I were sleeping your dreamless sleep beside you!"
Long before it was time for her to go on duty again she returned to the ward to visit her aged friend. His cot was empty. In reply to her eager question she was told that he had died suddenly from internal hemorrhage soon after she had left him.
She looked dazed for a moment, as if she had received a blow, then fell fainting on the cot from which her mother's friend had been taken. The limit of her endurance was passed.
Before the day closed, the surgeon in charge of the hospital told her gently and firmly that she must take an indefinite leave of absence. She departed at once in the care of an attendant; but stories of the white-haired nurse lingered so long in the ward and hospital that at last they began to grow vague and marvellous, like the legends of a saint.
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