“ SKIN cool, damp. Pha ! pba! I thought that camphor and morphine last night would cure you. Always good for sudden attacks.”
The little woman’s stumpy white fingers were very motherly, touching Grey's forehead.
“ I promised Doctor Blecker you would see him in half an hour.”
“It is not best,” the girl said, standing up, leaning agaiust the mantel-shelf.
“ It is best. Yes. You say you will not consent to the marriage: are going with me to-night. So, so. I ask no questions. No, child. Hush!”—with a certain dignity. “ I want no explanations. Sarah Sheppard ’s rough, maybe ; but she keeps her own privacy, and regards that of others. But you must see him. He is your best friend, if nothing more. A woman cannot be wrong, when she acts in that way from the inherent truth of things. That was my mother’s rule. In half an hour,” — putting her forefinger on Grey’s temple, and pursing her mouth. “ Pulse low. Sharp seven the train goes. I ’ll bring a bottle of nitre in my bag,” — and she bustled out.
Grey looked after her. Strong, useful, stable : how contented and happy she had been since she was born ! Love, wealth, coining to her as matters of course. The girl looked out of the dingy window into the wearisome gray sky. Well, what was the difference between them ? What crime had she committed, that God should have so set His face against her from the first, — from the very first ? She had trusted Him more than this woman whom He seemed glad to bless. There were two or three creamy wild-lilies in a broken glass on the sillThe girl always loved the flower, because Jesus had touched it once : it brought her near to him, she fancied. She thought of him now, seeing them, and put her hand to her head: remembering the nameless agony he had chosen to bear to show her what a true life should be; loving him with that desperate hope with which only a woman undone clings to him upon the cross. And yet-
“ It’s hard,” she said, turning sullenly away from the window.
Whatever the hours of this past day and night had been to her, they had left one curious mark on her face, — a hollow sinking of the lines about the mouth, as though years of pain had slowly crept over her. Suffering had not ennobled her. It is only heroic, large-brained women, with a great natural grasp of charity, that severe pain lifts out of themselves : weak souls, like Grey, who starve without daily food of personal love, contract under God’s great judgments, sour into pettish discontent, or grow maudlin as blind devotees, knowing but two things in eternity,—their own idea of God, and their own salvation. Nunneries are full of them. Grey had no vital pith of self-reliance to keep her erect, now that the storm came. What strength she had was outside : her childlike grip on the hand of the Man gone before.
“In half an hour.” She tried to put that thought out, and look at the chamber they had given her last night: odd enough for a woman; a hare-floored, low-ceiled room, the upper story.of the fire-engine house: the same which they had used as a guard-house; but they had no prisoners now. From this window where she stood John Brown had defended himself; the marks of bullets were in the walls. She tried to think of all that had followed that defence, of the four millions of slaves for whom he died, whose friends in the North would convert their masters into their deadly foes, and be slothful in helping them themselves. She tried to fill up the half-hour thinking of this, but it seemed to her she was more to be pitied than they. Chained to a man she hated. Why, more than four millions of women had married as she had done: society drove them into it. “In half an hour.” He was coming then. She would be calm about it, would bid him good-bye without crying, He would suffer less then, — poor Paul! She had his likeness : she would give that back. She drew it from its hiding-place and laid it down : the eyes looked at hors with a half-laugh : she turned away quickly to the window, holding herself up by her shaking hands. If she could keep it to look at, — at night, sometimes ! She would grow old soon, and in all her life if she had this one little pleasure !
“ I will not,” she said, pushing it from her. “ I will go to God pure.”
She heard a man’s step on the clay path outside. Only the sentry’s. Paul’s was heavier, more nervous. Pen came to her to button his coat.
“ To-day are we going home, Sis ? ”
God forgive her, if for a moment she loathed the home !
“ Pen, will you love me always ? ” — holding him tight to her breast. “ I won’t have anybody but you.”
Pen kissed her, the kiss meaning little, and ran out to the sentry, who made a pet of him. But what the kiss meant was all the future held for her: she knew that.
Now came the strange change which no logician can believe in or disprove. While she stood there, holding her bands over her eyes, trying to accept her fate, it grew too heavy and dark for her to bear. What Helper she sought then, and how, only those who have found Him know. I only can tell you that presently she bared her face, her nerves trembling, for the half-hour was nearly over, but with a brave, still light in her hazel eyes. The change had come of which every soul is susceptible. Very bitter tears may have come after that; her life was but a tawdry remnant, she might still think, for that foul lie of hers long ago; but she would take up the days cheerfully, and do God’s will with them.
There was another step : not the sentry’s now. She bathed her red eyes, and hastily drew her hair back plain. Paul liked tho curls falling about her throat. She must never try to please him again. Never ! She must bid him good-bye now. It meant forever. Maybe when she was deadHe was coming : she heard his foot on the stairs, his hand on the latch. God help her to be a true woman !
“ Grey ! ”
He touched the hand covering her eyes.
“ It is so cold ! You mean to leave me, Grey ? ”
She drew back, sitting down on a campchest, and looked up at him. He had not come there to tempt her by passionate evil: she saw that. This pain he had fought with in his soul all night, trying to see what God meant by it, had left his face subdued, earnest, sorrowful. Perhaps since Paul Blecker left his mother’s knee he had never been so like a child as now.
“Yes, I must go. He will not claim me. I am glad I was spared that. I’m going to try and do right with the rest of my life, Paul.”
Blecker said nothing, paced the floor of the room, his head sunk on his breast.
“ Let us go out of this,” at last. “ I ’in choked. I think in the free air we will know what is right, better.”
She put on her hood, and they went out, the girl drawing back on the steps, lest he should offer to assist her.
“ I will not touch you, Grey,” he said, gravely, “ unless you give me leave.”
Somehow, as she followed him down the deserted street, she felt how puny her trouble was, after all, to his. She had time to notice the drops of sweat wrung out on his forehead, and wish she dared to wipe them away; but he strode on in silence, forgetting even her, facing this inscrutable fate that mastered them, with a strong man’s desperation. They came to the river, out of sight of the town. She stopped.
“ We must wait here. I must stay where I can hear the train coming.”
“ The train, — yes. You are going in it ? Yet, Grey, you love me ? ”
She wrung her hands with a frightened cry.
“ Paul, don’t tempt me. I ’m weak: you know that. Don’t make me fouler than I am. There ’s something in the world better for us than love : to try to be pure and true. You ’ll help me to be that, dear Paul ? ” — laying her hand on his arm, beseechingly. “You ’ll not keep me back ? It’s hard, you know,” — trying to smile, her lips only growing colorless.
“ I ’ll help you, Grey,” — his face distorted, touching her fingers for an instant with an unutterable tenderness. “ I knew this man was here from the first. If there was crime in our marriage, I took it on myself. I was not afraid to face hell for you, child. But, Grey,” meeting her eye, “ I love you. I will not risk your soul for my selfish pleasure. If it be a crime for you to stay with me, I will bid you go, and never attempt to see your face again.”
“ If it be a crime ? You cannot doubt that, Paul ! ”
“ I do doubt it. You can obtain a divorce,” — looking at her, with his color changing.
She pushed hack the hair from her forehead. Her brain ached. Where was all the clear reasoning she had meant to meet him with ?
“No, I will not do that. I know the law says it is right; but Christ forbade it. I can’t argue. I only know his words.”
He walked to and fro: he could not be still a minute, when in pain.
“ Will you sit there ? ” — motioning her to a flat rock. “ I want to speak to you.”
She sat down, — looked at the river. If she saw that look on his face longer, she would go to him, though God’s own arm stretched between them. She clenched her little hands together, something in her soul crying out, “ I’m trying to do right,” fiercely, to God. Martyrs for every religion have said the same, when the heat crept closer over the fagots. They were true to the best they could discover, and He asks no more of any man.
“ I want you to hear me patiently,” he said, standing near her, and looking down. “ You said there was something better for us in the world than love. There is nothing for me. I’ve not been taught much about God or His ways. I thought I’d learn them through you. I ’ve lived a coarse, selfish life. You took me out of it. I am not very selfish, loving you, little Grey,” — with a sad smile, — “ for I will give you up sooner than hurt you. But if I had married you, I think it would have redeemed me. I want you,” passing his hand over his forehead, uncertainly, “ to look at this thing calmly. We ’ll put feeling aside. Because — because it matters more than life or death to me.”
He was silent a moment.
“ All night I have been trying to face it dispassionately, with reason. I have succeeded now.”
It is a pitiful thing to see a man choke down such weakness. Grey would not see it: her eyes were fastened on her hands. He controlled himself, going on rapidly.
“ I say nothing of myself. I ’m only a weak, passionate man ; but I mean to let your soul be pure. Yet I believe you judge wrongly in this. You think of marriage, as women in your State and in the South are taught to think, as a thing irrevocable. There are men in New England who hold other views,— pure, good men, Grey. I’ve tried to put you from my mind, and look at society as it is, with its corrupt, mercenary marriages, and I believe their theory is the only feasible and just, — that only those bound by secret affinity to each other are truly married.”
Grey’s face flushed.
“I have heard the theory, and its results,” — low.
“ Because it has been seized upon as a cloak by false men. Use your reason, Grey. Do not be blinded by popular prejudice. Your fate and mine rest on this question.”
“ I will try to understand.”
She faced him gravely.
“ Whom God hath joined together no man shall put asunder. Somewhere, when our souls were made, I think, He joined us, Grey. You know that.”
“ I do know it.”
She stood up, not shrinking from his eye now, — her womanly nature, clear and brave, looking out from hers.
“ I will not speak of love : you know what that is. You know you need me: you have moulded your very thought and life in mine. It is right it should be so. God meant it. He made them male and female : taught them by that instinct of nearness to know when the two souls mated in eternity had found each other. Then the only true marriage comes,— pure, helpful, resting on God, stretching out strong, healthy aid to Ilis humanity. The true souls, lovers, have found each other now, Grey.”
He came to her, — took her hands in his.
“I know that,” — her pale face still lifted.
“ Then,” — all the passion of a life in his voice, — “what shall come between us ? If, in God’s eye, who is Love, you love me purely, have given mo the life of your life to keep, is a foul, lying vow, uttered to a man scarce made in God’s image, to keep us apart ? I tell you, your soul’s health and mine depend on this.”
She did not speak: her breath came labored and thick.
“ You will come with me, Grey. You shall not go back to the slavery yonder, dragging out the bit of time God gave you, in which to develop your soul, in coddling selfish brats, and kitchen-work. There are homes where men and women enfranchise themselves from the cursed laws of society,—Phalansteries, — where each soul develops itself out of the inner centre of eternal truth and love according to its primal bent, free to yield to its instincts and affinities. I learned their theory long ago, but I never believed in it until now. We will go there, Grey. We will be governed by the laws of our own nature. It will be a free, beautiful life, my own. Music and Art and Nature shall surround us with an eternal harmony. We will have work, true work, such as suits our native power ; these talents smothered in your brain and mine shall come to life in vigorous growth. Here in the world, struggling meanly for food, this cannot be. That shall be the true Utopia, Grey. Some day all mankind shall so live. We, now. Will you come? ” — drawing her softly towards him. “ You do not yield? ” — looking in her face. “ I am sincere. I see the truth of the life - scheme of these people through my love for you. No human soul can reach its full stature, unless it be free and bappy. There is no chain on women such as marriages like yours.”
“ I say that there are slaveries in society, and false marriages are the worst; and until you and all women are free from them, you never can become what God meant you to be. Do I speak truth ?”
“ It is true.”
“You will come with me, then?” — his face growing red.
For one moment her head rested against the rock, languid and nerveless. Then she stood erect.
“ I will not go, Paul.”
He caught her arm; but she shook him off’, and held her hand to her side to keep down an actual physical pain that some women suffer when their hearts are tried. Her eyes, it may be, were wakened into a new resolve. It was useless for him now to appeal to feeling or passion: he had left the decision to her reason, — to her faith. They were stronger than he.
“ I will not go, Paul.”
“ I have no words like you,” — raising her hands to her head,—“ but I feel you are wrong in what you say.”
She tried to collect herself, then went on.
“ It is true that women sell themselves. I did it, —to escape. I was taught wrong, as girls are. It ’s true, Paul, that women are cramped and unhappy through false marriages, and that there are cursed laws in society that defraud the poor and the slave.”
She stopped, pale and frightened, struggling to find utterance, not being used to put her thought into words. He watched her keenly.
“ But it is not true, Paul,”—with choked eagerness, — “that this life was given to us only to develop our souls, to be free and happy. That will come after,—in heaven. It is given here only to those who pray for it. There’s something better Here.”
“ What ? ”
“ To submit. It seems to me there are some great laws—for the good of all. When we break them, we must submit. Let them go over us, and try to help others,—what is that text?” holding her head a minute,—“ ‘ even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.' ”
“ You mean to submit ? ”
“ I do. I married that man of my own free will: driven, maybe, by mean fears, — but — I did it. I will not forswear myself.”
She gained courage as she went on.
“I believe that God Himself, and that our Lord, taught the meaning of a true marriage as you do, — that without that affinity it is none. The curse comes to every woman who disregards it. It has come to me. I ’ll bear it.”
“ Throw it off. Come out of the foul lie.”
“ I will live no lie, Paul. I never would have gone with John Gurney as his wife, if he had claimed me.”
“ Then you are free to be mine,” — Coming a step nearer.
She drew back.
“ I don’t think He taught that. I cannot go behind His words.”
“ Grey, I will not drag you one step where your free will does not lead you. Last night I said, ‘I love this woman so well that I will leave her sooner than drag her into crime.’ You shall do what you think right. I will be silent.”
“ Good bye, then, Paul.”
Yet he did not take the offered hand: stood moodily looking down into the water, crushing back something in his heart, —the only thing in his life dear or pleasant, it may be.
“ Oh, if women knew what it is to sell themselves ! They will marry more purely, maybe, soon. I believe that Christ made the marriage-vow binding, Paul, because, though some might break it with pure intent, yet, if it were of no avail, as it is in those Homes you talk of, and in Indiana, women would become more degraded by brutal men, live falser lives, than even now. I ’m afraid, Paul,” — with a sorrowful smile, — “men will have to educate the inner law of their natures more, before they can live out from it: until then we ’ll have to obey an outer law. You know how your Phalansteries have ended.”
While she spoke, she gathered her mantle about her. It was a good thing to talk fast, and lightly, so that he would leave her without more pain. God had helped her do right. It was bravest, most Christlike, for her to bear the loss she had brought on herself, and to renounce a happiness she had made guilty. But, if women knewSitting on the rock by the water’s edge, she thrust her fingers into the damp mould with a thought of the time when she could lie under it, — grow clean, through the strange processes of death, from all impurity. If she could but creep down there now, a false-sworn, unloving wife, out of this man’s sight, out of God’s sight!
“ Will you go?” — looking up with blanched cheek. “ You were never so noble as now, Paul Blecker, when you left me to myself to judge. If you had only touched my love”--
“ You would have yielded. I know. I’m not utterly base, Grey. I am glad,” his face growing red, “you tliink I have been honorable. I tried to be. I want to act as a man of gentle blood and a Christian would do, — though I 'in not either.”
Iftwas a chivalric face that looked down on her, though nervous and haggard. She saw that. How bare and mean her life yawned before her that moment! ' how all quiet and joy waited for her in the arms hanging listlessly by his side, as if their work in life were done ! Must she sacrifice her life to an eternal law of God? Was this Free Love so vile a thing ?
“ Will you go?” — rising suddenly. “ While you stand there, the Devil comes very near me, Paul.” She held out her hand. “You would despise me, if I yielded now.”
“ I might, but I would love you all the same, Grey,”—with a miserable attempt at a smile. He took the hand, holding it in his a moment, “ Good bye,”—all feeling frozen out of his voice. “ You ’ve done right, Grey. It will be better for us some day. We ’ll think of that, — always.”
“ You suffer. I have made your life wretched,” — clinging suddenly to him.
“ No,”—turning his head away. “ Never mind. I am not a child, Grey. Men do not die of grief. They take up hard work, and that strengthens them. And my little girl will be happy. Her God will bless her; for she is a true, good girl. Yes, true. You judged rightly.”
For Blecker had taken up the alien Socialist dogma that day sincerely, but driven to it by passion: now he swayed back to his old-fashioned faith in marriage, as one comes to solid land after a plunge in the upheaving surf.
“ Good bye, Paul.”
The sunlight fell on their faces with a white brilliance, as they stood, their hands clasped, for a moment. The girl never saw it afterwards without a sudden feeling of hate, as though it had jeered at her mortal pain. Then Paul Blecker stood alone by the river-side, with only a dull sense that the day was bright and unfeeling, and that something was gone from the world, never to come back. The life before he had known her offered itself to him again in a hare remembrance : the heat to get on, — the keen bargains, — friendships with fellows that shook him off when they married, not caring that it hurt him, — he, without a home Or religion, keeping out of vice only from an inborn choice to be clean. That was all. Pah ! God help us! What was this life worth, after all ? He glanced at the town, laid in ashes. The war was foul indeed, yet in it there was room for high chivalric purpose. Could he so end his life ? She would know it, and love him more that he died an honorable death. Shame ! and cowardly too ! — was there nothing worth finding in the world besides a woman’s love ? — he was no puling boy. If there were, what was it — for him ?
He looked down at the dull sweep of the valley, heard the whistle of the train that was carrying her away, and saw the black trail of smoke against the sky, —stood silently watching it until the last bit of smoke even had disappeared. A woman would have worked off in tears or hysteric cries what pain came then ; but the man only swallowed once or twice, lighted his cigar, and with a grim smile went down the road.
My story is nearly ended. I have no time nor wish, these war-days, to study dramatic effects, or to shift large and cautiously painted scenes or the actors, for the mere tickling of your eyes and cars. One or two facts in the history of these people are enough to give for my purpose : they are for women, —nervous, greedy, discontented women: to learn from them (if I could put the truth into forcible enough English) that truth of Christ’s teaching, which has unaccountably been let slip out of our modern theology, that his help is temporal as well as spiritual, deals with coarsest, most practical needs, and is sworn to her who struggles to be true to her best self, that what she asks, believing, she shall receive. That is the point, — believing. “ Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”
How many tragedies of life besides tinespun novels would suddenly be brought to an end, if the heroine were only a common-sense, believing Christian of the old-fashioned pattern ! Doctor Elector, going into the war after the day he parted from the girl at Harper’s Ferry, with a sense of as many fighting influences in his life as there were in the army, had no under-sight of the clear mapping-out of the years for him, controlled by the simple request of the woman yonder who loved him. She dared not repeat that prayer now ; but it had gone up once out of a childish trust, and was safely written down above.
Let us pass over five or six months, and follow Paul Bleaker to Frederieksburg, the night after that bloodiest day for the Federal forces, in December. It was the fourth battle in which he had taken part. Now a man grows blase', in a manner even of wholesale slaughter ; he plodded his way quietly, indifferently almost, therefore, over the plateau below the first range of hills, his instrument-case in hand, drinking from his brandy-flask now and then to keep down nausea. The night was clear, •— a low, wan moon peering from the west, a warm wind from the river drifting the heavy billows of smoke away from the battle-field. He picked his steps with difficulty, unwilling to tread upon even the dead : they lay in heaps here, thrown aside by the men who were removing the wounded. The day was lost: he fancied he could read on even the white upturned faces a bitter defeat. Firing had ceased an hour ago; only at long intervals on the far left a dull throb was heard, as though the heart of the Night pulsed heavily and feverishly in her sleep : no other sound, save the constant, deadening roll of ambulances going out. from this Valley of Death. The field where he stood was below the ridge on which were placed Lee’s batteries ; for ten hours the grand division of Sumner had charged the heights here, the fog shutting out from them all but the impregnable foe in front, and the bit of blue sky above, the last glimpse of life they were to see,— charging with the slow, cumulative energy of an ocean-surf upon a rock, and ebbing back at last, spent, leaving behind the drift of a horrible wetness on the grass, and uncounted murdered souls to go back to God.
The night now was bright and colorless, as I said, except where a burning house down by the canal made a faded saffron glare. The Doctor had entered a small thicket of locust-trees; the moonlight penetrated clearly through their thin trunks, but the dead on the grass lay in shadow. He carried a lantern, therefore, as he gently turned them over, searching for some one. It was a Pennsylvania regiment which had held that wood longest, — McKinstry’s. Half a dozen other men were employed like the Doctor, — Irish, generally: they don’t forget the fellows that messed with them as quickly as our countrymen do.
“ We ’re in luck, Dan Reilly,” said one. “ Here ’s the Docthor himself. Av we hed the b’ys now, we ’d be complete,”— turning over one face after another, unmistakably Dutch or Puritan.
“ Ev it ’s Pat O’ Shaughnessv yez want,” said another, “ he ’d be afther giftin’ ayont the McManuses, an’ here they are. They ’re Fardowners on’y. Pat’s Corkonian, he is ; he ’ll be nearer th’ inemy by a fut, I ’ll ingage yez.”
“ He’s my cousin,” — hard tugging at the dead bodies with one arm;—the other hung powerless. “ I can’t face Mary an’ her childher agin an’ say I lift her man widout Christian burial. — Howld yer sowl! Dan Reilly, give us a lift; here he is. Are ye dead, Pat ? ”
One eye in the blackened face opened.
“ On’y my leg. ‘ O’Skauglmessy agin th' warld, an’ the warld agin th’ Divil! ’ ” — which was received with a cheer from the Corkonians.
“ Av yer Honor,” insinuated Dan, “wud attind to this poor man, we’d be proud to diskiver the frind you 're in sarch of.”
Blecker glanced at the stout Irishmen about him, with kind faces under all the whiskey, and stronger arms than his own.”
“ I will, boys. You know him, — he’s in your regiment, — Captain McKinstry. He fell in this wood, they tell me.”
“I think I know him,”—his head to one side. “ Woodenish-looking chap, all run up into shoulders, with yellow hair ? ”
Blecker nodded, and motioned them to carry O’Shaughnessy into a low toolhouse near, a mere shed, half tumbling down from a shell that had shattered its side. There was a bench there, where they could lay the wounded man, however. He stooped over the big mangled body, joking with him, —it was the best comfort to Pat to give him a chance to show how little he cared for the surgeon’s knife, — glancing now and then at the pearly embankment of clouds in the south, or at the delicate locust-boughs in black and shivering tracery against the moonlight, trying to shut his ears to the unceasing under-current of moans that reached him in the silence.
Seeing him there with his lantern and instruments, they brought him one wounded man after another, to whom he gave what aid he could, and then despatched them in the army-wagons, looking impatiently after Dan, in his search for the Captain. He had not known before how much he cared for McKinstry, with a curious protecting care. Other men in the army were more his chums than Mac, hut they were coarse, able to take care of themselves. Mac was like that simplehearted old Israelite in whom there was no guile. In the camp he had been perpetually imposed on by his men,—giving them treats of fresh beef and bread, and tracts at the same time. They laughed at him, but were oddly fond of him ; he was a sharp disciplinarian, but was too quiet, they always had thought, to .have much pluck.
Blecker, glancing at his watch, saw' that it was eleven ; the moon vas sinking fast, her level rays fainter and bluer, as from some farther depth of rest and quiet than before. His keenly set ears distinguished just then an even tramp among the abrupt sounds without, — the feet of two or three men carrying weight.
“ He’s here, Zur,” said Dan, who held the feet, tenderly enough. “ Aisy now, b’ys. It ’s not bar’ls ye ’re liftin’.” They laid him down. “ Fur up th’ ridge he was: not many blue-coats furder an. That ’s true,” — in a loud, hearty tone. “ I ’m doubtin’,” in an aside, “ it’s all over wid him. I ’ll howld the lantern, Zur.”
“ You, Blecker ? ” McKinstry muttered, as he opened his eyes with his usual pleased smile. “ We’ve lost the day ? ”
“ Yes. No matter now, Mae. Quiet one moment,”—cutting the boot from his leg.
“ Not fifty of my hoys escaped,” — a sort of spasm passing over his face. “ Tell them at home they fought nobly, — nobly.”
His voice died down. Blecker finished his examination, — it needed but a minute,— then softly replaced the leg, and, coming up, stood quiet, only wiping the dampness off his forehead. Dan set down the lantern.
“ I ’ll go, Zur,” he whispered. “ Ther’ ’s work outside, belike.”
The Doctor nodded. McKinstry opened his eyes.
“ Good bye, my friend,” — stretching out his hand to Dan. “ My brother could n’t have been kinder to me than you were to-night.”
“ Good bye, Zur.” The rough thrust out his great fist eagerly. “ God open the gate wide for yer Honor, the night,” — clearing his voice, as he went out.
“ I’m going, then, Blecker ? ”
Paul could not meet the womanish blue eyes turned towards him : he turned abruptly away.
“Why! why! Tut! I did not think you cared, Paul,” — tightening his grasp of the hand in his. Then, closing his eyes, he covered his face with his left hand, and was silent awhile.
“ Go, Doctor,” he said, at last. “ I forgot that others need you. Go at once. I’m very comfortable here.”
“I will not go. Do you see this ? ” — pointing to the. stream of bright arterial blood. “ It was madness to throw your life away thus; a handkerchief tightened here would have sufficed until they carried you off the field.”
“ Yes, yes, I knew. Rut the wound came just as we were charging. Sabrecut, it was. If I had said I was wounded, the men would have, fallen back. I thought we could take that battery ; but we did not. No matter. All right. You ought to go ? ”
“ No. Have you no message for home ? ” — pushing back the yellow hair as gently as a woman. The mild face grew distorted again and pale.,
“I’ve a letter, — in my carpet-sack, in our tent. I wrote it last night. It ’s to Lizzy, — you will deliver it, Doctor ?”
“ I will. Yes.”
“ It may he lost now, — there is such confusion in the camp. The key is in my right pocket, — inside the spectacleease : have you got it ? ”
Blecker could hardly keep back a smile: even the pocket - furniture was neatly ordered in the hour of death.
“ If it is lost,” — turning his head restlessly,— “light your lantern, Blecker, it is so dark, — if it is, — tell her”his voice was gone. “ Tell her,” lifting himself suddenly, with the force of death, “to ho pure and true. My loving little girl, Lizzy, — wife.” Bleeker drew his head on his shoulder. “I thought — the holidays were coming,”—closing his eyes again wearily,—“ for us. But God knows. All right! ”'
His lips moved, hut the sound was inaudible; he smiled cheerfully, held Paul’s hand closer, and then his head grew heavy as lead, being nothing but clay. For the true knight and loyal gentleman was gone to the Master of all honor, to learn a broader manhood and deeds of higher emprise.
Paul Bleeker stood silent a moment, and then covered the homely, kind face reverently.
“ I would as lief have seen a woman die,” he said, and turned away.
Two or three men came up, carrying others on a broken door and on a fenceboard.
“ Hyur ’s th’ Doctor,” — laying them on a hillock of grass. “ Uh wish ve’d see toll these pore chaps, Doctor,” — with a strong Maryland accent. “ One o’ them’s t’ other side, but ”-and so left them.
One of them was a burly Western boatman, with mop-like red hair and beard. Bleeker looked at him, shook his head, and went on.
“ No use?” — gritting his heavy jaw. “ Well! ” —swallowing, as if he accepted death in that terrible breath. “ Eh, Doctor ? Do you hear? Wait a bit,” — fumbling at his jacket. “ I can’tThere’s a V in my pocket. I wish you ’d send it to the old woman, — mother, — Mrs. Jane Carr, Cincinnati, — with my love.”
The Doctor stopped to speak to him, and then passed to the next, — a fairhaired boy, with three bullet-holes in his coat, one in his breast.
“ Will I die ? ” — trying to keep his lips firm.
“ Tut! tut! No. Only a flesh-wound. Drink that, and you ’ll be able to go back to the hospital, — be well in a week or two.”
“ I did not want to die, though I was not afraid,” — looking up anxiously ; “ but” -
But the Doctor had left him, and, kneeling down in the mud, was turning the wounded Confederate over on his back, that lie might see his face.
The boy saw him catch up his lantern and peer eagerly at him with shortened breath.
“ What is it ? Is he dead ? ”
“ No, not dead,” — putting down the lantern.
But very near it, this man, John Gurney, — so near that it needed no deed of Blecker’s to make him pass the bound. Only a few moments’ neglect. A bandage, a skilful touch or two, care in the hospitals, might save him.
But what claim had he on Paul that he should do this ? For a moment the hot blood in the little Doctor’s veins throbbed fiercely, as he rose slowly, and, taking his lantern, stood looking down.
“ In an hour,” glancing critically at him, “ he will be dead.”
Something within him coolly added, “ And Paul Blecker a murderer.”
But he choked it down, and picked his steps through scorched winter stubble, dead horses, men, wagon - wheels, across the field; thinking, as he went, of Grey free, his child-love, true, coaxing, coming to his tired arms once more ; of the home on the farm yonder, he meant to buy, — he, the rough, jolly farmer, and she, busy Grey, bustling Grey, with her loving, fussing ways. Why, it came like a flash to him! Yet, as it came, tugging at his heart with the whole strength of his blood, he turned, this poor, thwarted, passionate little Doctor, and began jogging back to the locustwoods, — passing many wounded men of his own kith and spirit, and going back to Gurney.
Because — he was his enemy.
“ Thank God, I am not utterly debased ! ” — grinding the tobacco vehemently in his teeth.
He walked faster, seeing that the moon was going down, leaving the battle-field in shadow. Overhead, the sinking light, striking upward from the horizon, had worked the black dome into depths of fretted silver. Blecker saw it, though passion made his step unsteady and his eye dim. No man could do a mean, foul deed while God stretched out such a temple-roof as that for his soul to live in, was the thought that dully touched his outer consciousness. But little Grey ! If he could go home to her to-morrow, and, lifting her thin, tired face from the machine, hold it to his breast, and say, “You ’re free now, forever!” O God !
He stopped, pulling his coat across his breast in his clenched hands, — then, after a moment, went on, his arms falling powerless.
“ I ’m a child ! It is of no use to think of it! Never ! ” — his hard, black eyes, that in these last few months had grown sad and questioning as a child’s, looking to the north hill, as he strode along, as though he were bidding some one good-bye. And when he came to the hillock and knelt down again beside Gurney, there was no malice in them. He was faithful in every touch and draught and probe. With the wish in his heart to thrust the knife into the heart of the unconscious man lying before him, he touched him as though he had been his brother.
Gurney, opening his eyes at last, saw the yellow, haggard face, in its fringe of black beard, as rigid as it' cut out of stone, very near his own. The grave, hopeless eyes subdued him.
“ Take me out of this,” he moaned.
“ You are going — to the hospital,” — helping some men lift him into an ambulance.
“ Slowly, my good fellows. I will follow you.”
He did follow them. Let us give the man credit for every step of that following, the more that the evil in his blood struggled so fiercely with such a mortal pain as he went. In Fredericksburg, one of the old family-homesteads had been taken for a camp - hospital. As they laid Gurney on a heap of straw in the library, a surgeon passed through the room.
“ Story,” said Paul, catching his arm, “ see to that man : this is your post, I believe. I have dressed his wound. I cannot do more.”
Story did not know the meaning of that. He stuck his eye-glasses over his hook-nose, and stooped down, being nearsighted.
“ Hardly worth while to put him under my care, or anybody’s. The fellow will not live until morning.”
“ I don’t know. I did what I could.”
“Nothing more to be done. — Parr ’s out of lint, did you know ? He ’s enough to provoke Job, that fellow ! I warned him especially about lint and supporters. — Why, Bleeker, you are worn out,” — looking at him closer. “ It has been a hard fight.”
“ Yes, I am tired: it was a hard fight.”
“ I must find Parr about that lint, and ”-
Paul walked to the window, breathing heavy draughts of the fresh morning air. The man would not die, he thought. Grey would never he free. No. Yet, since he was a child, before he began to grapple his way through the world, he had never known such a cheerful quiet as that which filled his eyes with tears now ; for, if the fight had been hard, Paul Bleeker had won the victory.
Sunday morning dawned cold and windy. Now and then, volleys of musketry, or a repulse from the Southern batteries on the heights, filled the blue morning sky with belching scarlet flame and smoke : through all, however, the long train of army-wagons passed over the pontoonbridge, bearing the wounded. About six o’clock some men came out from the camp-hospital. Doctor Bleeker stood on the outside of the door: all night he had been there, like some lean, unquiet ghost. Story, the surgeon, met the men. They carried something on a board, covered with an old patchwork quilt. Story lifted the corner of the quilt to see what lay beneath. Doctor Bleeker stood in their way, but neither moved nor spoke to them.
“ Take it to the trenches,” said the surgeon, shortly nodding to them. — “ Your Rebel friend, Bleeker.”
“ Dead ? ”
“ Story, I did what I could ? ”
“ Of course. Past help. — When are we to be taken out of this trap, eh ? ” —• going on.
“ I did what I could.”
As the Doctor’s parched lips moved, he looked up. How deep the blue was! how the cold air blew his hair about, fresh and boisterous ! He went down the field with a light, springing step, as he used, when a boy, long ago, to run to the hay-field. The earth was so full of health, life, beauty, he could have cried or laughed out loud. He stopped on the bridge, seeing only the bright, rushing clouds, the broad river, the sunlight, — a little way from him in the world, little Grey.
“ I thank Thee,” baring his head and bending it, — the words died in an awestruck whisper in his heart, — “ for Thy great glory, O Lord ! ”
Will you come a little farther ? Let a few months slip by, and let us see what a March day is in the old Pennsylvania hills. The horrors of the war have not crept hither yet, into these hill-homesteads. Never were crops richer than those of ’61 and ’62, nor prices better. So the barns were full to bursting through the autumn of those years, and the fires were big enough to warm you to your very marrow in winter.
Even now, if young Corporal Simpson, or Joe Hainer, or any other of the neighbors’ boys come home wounded, it only spices the gossip for the apple-butterparings or spelling-matches. Then the men, being Democrats, are reconciled to the ruin of the country, because it has been done by the Republicans; and the women can construct secret hiding-places in the meat-cellar for the dozen silver teaspoons and tea-pot, in dread of Stuart’s cavalry. Altogether, the war gives quite a zest to life up here. Then, in these low-hill valleys of the Alleghanies the sun pours its hottest, most life-breeding glow, and even the wintry wind puts all its vigor into the blast, knowing that there are no lachrymose, whey-skinned citydyspeptics to inhale it, but full-breasted, strong-muscled women and men, — with narrow brains, maybe, but big, healthy hearts, and physique to match. Very much the same type of animal and moral organization, as well as natural, you would have found before the war began, ran through the valley of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
One farm, eight or ten miles from the village where the Gurneys lived, might be taken as a specimen of these old homesteads. It lay in a sort of meadow-cove, fenced in with low, rolling hills that were wooded with oaks on the summits,—sheepcots, barns, well-to-do plum and peach orchards creeping up the sides, — a creek binding it in with a broad, flashing band. The water was frozen on this March evening : it had plenty of time to freeze, and stay there altogether, in fact, it moved so slowly, knowing it had got into comfortable quarters. There was just enough cold crispiness in the air to-night to make the two fat cows move faster into the stable, with smoking breath, to bring out a crow of defiance from the chickens huddling together on the roost; it spread, too, a white rime over the windows, shining red in the sinking sun. When the sun was down, the nipping northeaster grew sharper, swept about the little valley, rattled the bare-limbed trees, blew boards off the corn-crib that Doctor Blecker had built only last week, tweaked his nose and made his eves water as he came across the field clapping his hands to make the blood move faster, and, in short, acted as if the whole of that nook in tho hills belonged to it in perpetuity. But the house, square, brick, solid-seated, began to glow red and warm out of every window,—not with the pale rose-glow of your anthracite, hut fitful, flashing, hearty, holding out all its hands to you like a Western farmer. That’s the way our fires burn. The very smoke went out of no stove - pipe valve, but rushed from great mouths of chimneys, brown, hot, glowing, full of spicy smiles of supper below. Down in the kitchen, by a great log-fire, where irons were heating, sat Oth, feebly knitting, and overseeing a red-armed Dutch girl cooking venisonsteaks and buttermilk-biscuit on the coalstove beside him.
“Put jelly on de table, you, mind! Strangers here far tea. Anyhow it ort to go down. Nuffin but de best ob currant Miss Grey ’ud use in her father’s house. Lord save us! ” — in an underbreath. “ But it ’s fur de honor ob de family,” — in a mutter.
“ Miss Grey ” waited within. Not patiently : sure pleasure was too new for her. She smoothed her crimson dress, pushed back the sleeves that the white dimpled arms might show, and then bustled about the room, to tidy it for the hundredth time. A bright winter’s room : its owner had a Southern taste for hot, heartsome colors, you could be sure, and would bring heat and flavor into his life, too. There were soft astral lamps, and a charred red fire, a warm, unstingy glow, wasting itself even in long streams of light through the cold windows. There were bright bits of Turnerish pictures on the gray walls, a mass of gorgeous autumn-leaves in the soft wool of the carpet, a dainty white-spread table in the middle of the room, jars of flowers everywhere, flowers that had caught most passion and delight from the sun, — scarlet and purple fuchsias, heavy-breathed heliotrope. Yet Gray bent longest over her own flower, that every childlike soul loves best,— mignonette. She chose some of its brown sprigs to fasten in her hair, the fragrance was so clean and caressing. Paul Blecker, even at the other end of the field, and in the gathering twilight, caught a glimpse of his wife’s face pressed against the pane. It was altered : the contour more emphatic, the skin paler, the hazel eyes darker, lighted from farther depths. No glow of color, only in the meaning lips and the fine reddish hair.
Doctor Blecker stopped to help a stout little lady out of a buggy at the stile, then sent the boy to the stable with it: it was his own, with saddle-bags under the seat. But there was a better-paced horse in the shafts than suited a heavy countrypractice. The lady looked at it with one eye shut.
“ A Morgan-Cottrell, eh ? I know by the jaw,”—jogging up the stubble-field beside him, her fat little satchel rattling as she walked. Doctor Blecker, a trille graver and more assured than when we saw him last, sheltered her with his overcoat from the wind, taking it off for that purpose by the stile. You could see that this woman was one of the few for whom he had respect.
“ Your wile understands horses, Doctor. And dogs. I did not expect it of Grey. No. There’s more outcome in her than you give her credit for,”— turning sharply on him.
He smiled quietly, taking her satchel to carry.
“ When we came to Pittsburg, I said to Pratt, ‘ I 'll follow you to New York in a day or two, but I’m going now to see Paul Bleeker’s little wife. She 's sound, into the marrow.’ And I ’ll tell you, too, what I said to Pratt. ‘ That is a true marriage, heart and soul and ways of thinking. God fitted those two into one another.’ Some matches, Doctor Blocker, put me in mind of my man, Kellar, making ready the axes for winter’s work, little head on big heft, misjoined always: in consequence, thing breaks apart with no provocation whatever. When God wants work done down here, He makes His axes better, — eh ? ”
There was a slight pause.
“ Maybe, now, you ’ll think I take His name in vain, using it so often. But f like to get at the gist of a matter, and I generally find God has somewhat to do with everything, — down to the pleasement, to me, of my bonnet: or the Devil, — which means the same, for he acts by leave.—Where did you get that Cottrell, Doctor ? From Paris ? Pha! pha! Grey showed me the look in his face this morning, innocent, naif, as all well-blooded horses’ eyes are. Like her own, eh ? I says to Pratt, long ago, — twenty he was then,— ‘ When you want a wife, find one who laughs out from her heart, and see if dogs and horses kinsfolk with her: that ’s your woman to marry, if they do.’ ”
They had stopped by the front-steps for her to finish her soliloquy. Grey tapped on the window-pane.
“ Yes, yes, I see. You want to go in. But first,”— lowering her voice,—“ I was at the Gurney house this evening.”
“ You were ? ” laughed the Doctor. “ And what did you do there ? ”
“ Eh? What? Something is needed to be done, and I—— Yes, I know my reputation,”—her face flushing.
“ You strike the nails where they are needed,—what few women do, Mrs. Sheppard,” said the Doctor, trying to keep his face grave. “ Strike them on the head, too.”
“ Umph ! ”
No woman likes to be classed properly, — no matter where she belongs.
“ I never interfere, Doctor Blecker; I may advise. But, as I was going to say, that father of Grey’s seemed to me such a tadpole of a man, rooting after tracks of lizards that crept ages ago, while the country is going to mash, and his own children next door to starvation, I thought a little plain talk would try if it was blood or water in his veins. So I went over to spend the day there on purpose to give it to him.”
“ Yes. Well ? ”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“ I see. Then you tried Joseph ? ”
“No, he is in able hands. That Loo is a thorough-pacer, — after my own heart. — Talking of your family, my dear,” as Grey opened the door. “ Loo will do better for them than you. Pardon me, but a lot of selfish men in a family need to be treated like Pen here, when his stomach is sour. Give them a little wholesome alkali: honey won’t answer.”
Grey only laughed. Some day, she thought, when her father had completed his survey of the coal-formation, and Joseph had induced Congress to stop the war, people would appreciate them. So she took off Mrs. Sheppard’s furs and bonnet, and smoothed the two black shiny puffs of hair, passing her husband with only a smile, as a stranger was there, but his dressing-gown and slippers waited by the fire.
“ Paul may be at home before you,” she said, nodding to them.
Grey had dropped easily through that indefinable change between a young girl and a married woman: her step was firmer, her smile freer, her head more quietly poised. Some other change, too, in her look, showed that her affections had grown truer and wider of range than before. Meaner women’s hearts contract after marriage abont their husband and children, like an India-rubber ball thrown into the fire. Hers would enter into his nature as a widening and strengthening power. Whatever deficiency there might be in her brain, she would infuse energy into his care for people about him,—into his sympathy for his patients; in a year or two you might be sure he would think less of Paul Blecker per se, and hate or love fewer men for their opinions than he did before.
The supper, a solid meal always in these houses, was brought in. Grey took her place with a blush and a little conscious smile, to which Mrs. Sheppard called Doctor Blecker’s attention by a pursing of her lips, and then, tucking her napkin under her chin, prepared to do justice to venison and biscuits. She sipped her collee with an approving nod, dear to a young housekeeper’s soul.
“ Good ! Grey begins sound, at the foundations, in cooking, Doctor. Xo shams, child. Don’t tolerate them in housekeeping. If not white sugar, then no cake. If not silver, then not albata. So you ’re coming with me to New York, my dear ? ”
Grey’s face flushed.
“ Paul says we will go.”
“ Sister there ? Teaching, did you say ? ”
Doctor Bleeker’s moustache worked nervously. Dizzy Gurney was not of his kind ; now, more than ever, he would have cut every tie between her and Grey, if he could. But his wife looked up with a smile.
“She is on the stage,—Lizzy. The opera,—singing;—in choruses only, now, —but it will be better soon.”
Mrs. Sheppard let her bit of bread fall, then ate it with a gulp. Why, every drop of the Shelby blood was clean and respectable ; it was not easy to have an emissary of hell, a tawdry actress, brought on the carpet before her, with even this mild flourish of trumpets.
The silence grew painful. Grey glanced around quickly, then her Welsh blood made her eyelids shake a little, and her lips shut. But she said gently, —
“ My sister is not albata ware,—that you hate, Mrs. Sheppard. She is no sham. When God said to her, ‘Do this thing,’ she did not ask the neighbors to measure it by their rule of right and wrong.”
“ Well, well, little Grey,” —with a forbearing smile, — “she is your sister,— you ’re a clannish body. Your heart’s all right, my dear,” — patting the hard nervous hand that lay on the table,— “ but you never studied theology, that 's clear.”
“ I don’t know.”
Mrs. Bleeker’s face grew hot: but that might have been the steam of the coffeeurn.
“ We ’ll he just to Lizzy,” said her husband, gravely. “ She had a hurt lately. I don’t think she values her life for much now. It is a hungry family, the Gurneys,” — with a quizzical smile. “ My wife, here, kept the wolf from the door almost single-handed, though she don’t understand theology. You are quite right about that. When I came home here two months ago, she would not be my wife; there was no one to take her place, she said. So, one day, when I was in my office alone, Lizzy came to me, looking like a dead body out of which the soul had been crushed. She had been hurt, I told you:—she came to me with an open letter in her hand. It was from the manager of one of the second-rate opera - troupes. The girl can sing, and has a curious dramatic talent, her only one.
“‘It is all I am capable of doing,’ she said. ‘ If I go, Grey can marry. The family will have a sure support.’
“ Then she folded the letter into odd shapes, with an idiotic look.
“ ‘ Do you want me to answer it ? ’ I asked.
“ ‘ Yes, I do. Tell him I ’ll go. Grey can be happy then, and the others will have enough to eat. I never was of any use before. ’
“ I knew that well enough. I sat down to write the letter.
“ ‘ You will be turned out of church for this,’ I said.
“ She stood by the window, her finger tracing the rain-drops on the pane, for it was a rainy night. She said, —
“ ‘ They won’t understand. God knows.’
“ So I wrote on a bit, and then I said, — for I felt sorry for the girl, though she was doing it for Grey, — I said,—
“ ‘ Lizzy, I ’ll be plain with you. There never was but one human being loved you, perhaps. When he was dying, he said, “ Tell my wife to be true and pure.” There is a bare possibility that you can be both as an opera-singer, but be never would believe it. If you met him in heaven, he would turn his back on you, if you should do this thing.’
“ I could not see her face, — her back was towards me, — but the hand on the window-pane lay there for a long while motionless, the blood settling blue about the nails. I did not speak to her. There are some women with whom a physician, if he knows his business, will never meddle when they grow nervous; they come terribly close to God and the Devil then, I think. I tell you, Mrs. Sheppard, now and then one of your sex has the vitality and pain and affection of a thousand souls in one. I hate such women,” vehemently.
“ Men like you always do,” quietly. “ But I am not one of them.”
“ No, nor Grey, thank God! Whoever contrived that allegory of Eve and the apple, though, did it well. If the Devil came to Lizzy Gurney, he would offer no meaner temptation than ‘ Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’ ”
“ ‘ Allegory,’ — eh ? You forget your story, I think, Doctor Blecker,” — with a frown.
The Doctor stopped to help her to jelly, with a serious face, and then went on.
“ She turned round at last. I did not look up at her, only said, —
“ ‘ I will not write the letter.’
“ ‘ Go on,’ she said.
“ I wrote it, then ; but when I went to give it to her, my heart failed me.
“ ‘ Lizzy,’ I said, 1 you shall not do this thing.'
“ She looked so childish and pitiful, standing there!
“ ‘ You think you are cutting yourself off from your chance of love through all time by it, — just for Grey and the others.’
“ Her eyes filled at that; she could not bear the kind word, you see.
“ ‘ Yes, I do, Doctor Blecker,’ she said. ‘ Nobody ever loved me but Uncle Dan. Since he went away, I have gone every day to his house, coming nearer to him that way, growing purer, more like other women. There ’s a picture of his mother there, and his sister. They are dead now, but I think their souls looked at me out of those pictures and loved me.’
“ She came up, her head hardly reaching to the top of the chair I sat on, half smiling, those strange gray eyes of hers.
“ ‘ I thought they said, — “ This is Lizzy : this is the little girl Daniel loves.” Every day I’d kneel down by that dead lady’s chair, and pray to God to make me fit to be her son’s wife. But he’s dead now,’ drawing suddenly back, ‘ and I am going to be — an opera-singer.’
“ ‘ Not unless by your own free will,’ I said.
“ She did not hear me, I think, pulling at the fastening about her throat.
“ ‘ Daniel would say it was the Devil’s calling. Daniel was all I had. But he don’t know. I know. God means it. I might have lived on here, keeping myself true to his notions of right: then, when I went yonder, he would have been kind to me, he would have loved me,’—looking out through the rain, in a dazed way.
“‘The truth is, Lizzy,’ I said, ‘ you have a power within you, and you want to give it vent; it’s like a hungry devil tearing you. So you give up your lovedream, and are going to be an operasinger. That’s the common-sense of the matter.’
“I sealed the letter, and gave it to her.
“ ‘ You think that ? ’
“ That was all she answered. But I ’m sorry I said it; I don’t know whether it was true or not. There, — that is the whole story. I never told it to Grey before. You can judge tor yourselves.”
“ My dear,” said Mrs. Sheppard, “ let me go with you to see your sister in New York. Some more coffee, please. My cup is cold.”
A clear, healthy April night: one of those bright, mountain - winded nights of early spring, when the air is full of electric vigor,—starlight, when the whole earth seems wakening slowly and grandly into a new life.
Grey, going with her husband and Mrs. Sheppard down Broadway, from their hotel, had a fancy that the world was so cheerfully, heartily at work, that the night was no longer needed. Overhead, the wind from the yet frozen hills swept in such strong currents, the great city throbbed with such infinite kinds of motion, and down in the harbor yonder the rush of couriers came and went incessantly from the busy world without. Grey was a country-girl: in this throbbing centre of human life she felt suddenly lost, atom-like, — drew her breath quickly, as she clung to Paul’s arm. The world was so vast, was hurrying on so fast. She must get to work in earnest: why, one must justify her right to live, here.
Mrs. Sheppard, as she plodded solidly along, took in the whole blue air and outgoing ocean, and the city, with its white palaces and gleaming lights.
“People look happy here,” she said. “ Even Grey laughs more, going down the streets. Nothing talks of the war here.”
Paul looked down into the brown depths of the eyes that were turned towards him.
“ It is a good, cheery world, ours, after all. More laughing than crying in it, — when people find out their right place, and get into it.”
Mrs. Sheppard said, “ Umph?” Kentuckians don’t like abstract propositions.
They stopped before a wide - open door, in a by-street. Not an operahouse ; one of the haunts of the “ legitimate drama.” Yet the posters assured the public in every color, that La petite Élise, the beautiful debutante, etc., etc., would sing, etc., etc. Grey’s hand tightened on her husband’s arm.
“ This is the place,” her face burning scarlet.
A pretty little theatre: softly lighted, well and quietly filled. Quietly toned, too, the dresses of the women in the boxes,— of that neutral, subdued caste that showed they belonged to the grade above fashion. People of rank tastes did not often go there. The little Kentuckian, with her emphatic, sham-hating face, and Grey, whose simple, calm outlook on the world made her last year’s bonnet and cloak dwindle into such irrelevant trifles, did not misbecome the place. Others might go there to fever out ennui, or with fouler fancies. Grey did not know. The play was a simple little thing; its meaning was pure as a child’s song; there was a good deal of fun in it. Grey laughed with everybody else ; she would ask God to bless her to-night none the worse for that. It had some touches of pathos in it, and she cried, and saw some men about her with the smug New-Yorkcity face doing the very same, — not just as she did, but glowering at the footlights, and softly blowing their noses. Then the music came, and La petite Elite. Grey drew back where she could not see her. Blocker peered through his glass at every line and motion, as she came out from the eternal castle in the back scene. Any gnawing power or gift she had had found vent, certainly, now. Every poise and inflection said, “ Here I am what I am, — fully what God made me, at last: no more, no less.” God had made her an actress. Why, He knows. The Great Spirit of Love says to the toad in your gutter, — Thou, too, art my servant, in whom, fulfilling the work I give, I am well pleased.”
La petite Elite had only a narrow and peculiar scope of power, suited to vaudevilles : she could not represent her own character, — an actress’s talent and heart being as widely separated, in general, as yours are. She could bring upon the stage in her body the presentment of a naïve, innocent, pathetic nature, and use the influence such nature might have on the people outside the orchestra-chairs there. It was not her own nature, we know. She dressed and looked it. A timid little thing, in her fluttering white slip, her light hair cut close to her head, in short curls. So much for the actress and her power.
She sang at last. She sang ballads generally, (her voice wanting cultivation,) such as agreed with her role. But it was Lizzy Gurney who sang, not la petite. Élise.
“ Of course,” a society-mother said to me, one day, “I do not wish my Rosa should have a great sorrow, but —how it would develop her voice ! ” The bonnet-worshipper stumbled on a great truth.
So with Lizzy: life had taught her; and the one bitter truth of self-renunciation she had wrung out of it must tell itself somehow. No man’s history is dumb. It came out vaguely, an inarticulate cry to God and man, in the songs she sang, I think. That very night, as she stood there with her gray eyes very sparkling and happy, (they were dramatic eyes, and belonged to her brain,) and her baby-hands crossed archly before her, her voice made those who listened quite forget her: la petite Élise took them up to the places where men’s souls struggle with the Evil One and conquer. A few, perhaps, understood that full meaning of her song: if there was one, it was well she was an actress and sang it.
“ I ’m damned,” growled a fellow in the pit, “ if she a’n’t a good little thing ! ” when the song was ended. There was not a soul in the house that did not think the same. Yet the girl turned fiercely towards the side-scenes, hearing it, and pitied herself at that, — that she, a woman, should stand before the public for them to examine and chatter over her soul and her history, and her very dress and shoes. But that was gone in a moment, and Lizzy laughed, — naturally now. Why, they were real friends, heart-warm to her there: when they laughed and cried with her, she knew it. Many of their faces she knew well: that pale lady’s in the third box, who brought her boys so often, and gave them a bouquet to throw to Lizzy,—always white flowers; and the old grandfather yonder, with the pretty, chubby-faced girls. The girl’s thought now was earnest and healthful, as everybody’s grows, who succeeds in discovering his real work. They encored her song: when she began, she looked up and balked suddenly, her very neck turning crimson. She had seen Doctor Blecker. “A tawdry actress ! ” She could have torn her stagedress in rags from her. Then her tone grew low and clear.
There was a young couple just facing her with a little child, a dainty babything in cap and plume. Neither of them listened to Lizzy: the mother was tying the little fellow’s shoe as he hoisted it on the seat, and the father was looking at her. “ I missed my chance,” said Lizzy Gurney, in her heart. “ Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight! ” A tawdry actress. She might have stayed at home yonder, quiet and useless : that might have been. Then she thought of Grey, well beloved, — of the other house, full of hungry mouths she was feeding. Looking more sharply at Doctor Blecker while she sang, she saw Grey beside him, drawn back behind a pillar. Presently she saw her take the glass from her husband and loan forward. There was a red heat under her eyes: she had been crying. They applauded Lizzy just then, and Grey looked around frightened, and then laughed nervously.
“ How beautiful she is ! Do you see ? Oh, Paul! Mrs. Sheppard, do you see ? ” — tearing her fan, and drawing heavy breaths, moving on her seat constantly.
“ She never loved me heartily before,” thought Lizzy, as she sang. “ I never deserved it. I was a heartless dog. I”-
People applauded again, the old grand, father this time nodding to the girls. There was something so cheery and healthy and triumphant in the low tones. Even the young mother looked up suddenly from her boy, listening, and glanced at her husband. It was like a Christmas-song.
“ She never loved me before. I deserve it.”
That was what she said in it. But they did not know.
Doctor Blecker looked at her, unsmiling, critical. She could see, too, a strange face beside him,— a motherly, but a keen, harsh-judging face.
“ Grey,” said Mrs. Sheppard, “ I wish we could go behind the scenes. Can we ? I want to talk to Lizzy this minute.”
“ To tell her she is at the Devil’s work, Mrs. Sheppard, eh ? ”
Doctor Blecker pulled at his heard, angrily.
“ Suppose you and I let her alone. We don’t understand her.”
“ I think I do. God help her ! ”
“ We will go round when the song is over,” said Grey, gently.
Lizzy, scanning their faces, scanning every face in pit or boxes, discerned a good will and wish on each. Something wholesome and sound in her heart received it, half afraid.
“ I don’t know,” she thought.
One of the windows was open, and out beyond the gas-light and smells of the theatre she could see a glimpse of far space, with the eternal stars shining. There had been once a man who loved her: he, looking down, could see her now. If she had stayed at home, selfish and useless, there might have been a chance for her yonder.
Her song was ended; as she drew back, she glanced up again through the fresh air.
They were curious words the soul of the girl cried out to God in that dumb moment: — “Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Yet in that moment a new feeling came to the girl, — a peace that never left her afterwards.
An actress: but she holds her work bravely and healthily and well in her grasp, with her foot always on a grave, as one might say, and God very near above. And it may be, that, when her work is nearer done, and she comes closer to the land where all things are clearly seen at last in their real laws, she will know that the faces of those who loved her wait kindly for her, and of whatever happiness has been given to them they will not deem her quite unworthy.
Perhaps they have turned Lizzy out of the church. I do not know. But her Friend, the world’s Christ, they could not make dead to her by shutting him up in formula or church. He never was dead. From the girding sepulchre he passed to save the spirits long in prison; and from the visible church now he lives and works out from every soul that has learned, like Lizzy, the truths of life, — to love, to succor, to renounce.