In War Time
THE Morton household soon settled down to its new and on the whole more happy life. Edward’s change from unrestful discomfort to the peace of soul which a growing love of books and of the pursuits of the naturalist brought him struck his mother with astonishment, and filled her with a hopeful pleasure which what Arthur called “ our Ned’s melancholy sweetness ” could not destroy. In fact, Edward was suffering from the effects of a great moral shock on a system incompetent to bear the blow; and with it, unfortunately, had come to the tender-hearted young man some self-reproach. “ Why,” he asked himself, “ should I, a wretched cripple, have dared even to dream of fastening this strong, wholesome life to my morbid wretchedness?” How wrong it would be even if it were possible ! And now it was not possible ; but the worst of the bitter of it had been tasted, and use had dulled the palate of despair. For a nature like Edward Morton’s there was nothing left except to smooth the way for Arty. The love which had been cherished because it had seemed only a tender friendship was now clearly defined to him, its real nature made but too plain ; for moral analysis, like chemical analysis, sometimes destroys what it explains. The widow, delighted to be relieved in many ways by Mrs. Morton’s return, left her very willingly to wind up the affairs of the Sanitary Commission office, and to keep Mrs. Grace and her kind in order. She felt also that it was no longer so clearly her business to watch certain young folks, and as sometimes happened to this woman she lapsed for a season into a fit of absolute idleness, checkered with many visits from Wendell; for in fact Mrs. Westerley was fast making up her mind, and, tired of defense, was becoming indifferent as to what her friends or neighbors might say.
The happy leisure of home life suited Captain Arthur Morton well. He was young, had won his spurs honestly, and found it pleasant to dine out and be made much of.
With Ann Wendell, the young captain was a welcome guest, and this also suited him. There was about him a certain grimness of purpose which Ann liked, but that this was accompanied by a never-ending good-humored amusement at and with everything in life seemed to her at times unnatural, and, if she had been able to think it out clearly, contradictory. It was of course not in the nature of things that any woman should long have doubted as to what brought him to the Wendells’ so often. But Ann was slow in seeing the by-play of life, and Arthur had a hundred excuses.
Copyright, 1884, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
On the morning of April 16th, Arthur walked slowly down the main street of Germantown. He was thinking deeply, as were millions of men and women North and South, of the dark news of Lincoln’s assassination. As he went along, people were already closing their window shutters and hanging black draperies on the shops, and on all faces were awe and a terror as of something yet to come.
But now Hester came walking up Church Lane, whither she had been as the messenger of some of Ann’s modest charities, and presently saw him ; and as she was becoming consciously shy in these days, she would have run away had she been able. All she could do, however, was to delay her steps, and think with amusement of how she would walk down the main street behind him. But suddenly Captain Morton’s eyes were on her, and throwing away his cigar he joined her.
“ Oh, Miss Hester, what awful news! ”
“ How can men be so wicked ! ” she returned. “ And now Dr. Wendell says that of all the things that could happen this is the worst for us, — for the South.”
“ Yes, nothing could be worse for the South.”
“ And will it make more war, more blood ? ”
“ I think not, but who can say ! Let us not talk about it now. I have seen so many men killed—I have seen so many killed while I was talking to them, killed while they were laughing, struck out of life like numerals rubbed off a slate — that I do suppose I don’t feel this as I ought to.”
“ Why, Mr. Morton ! ”
“ Yes, that seems strange to you, doesn’t it? Still I believe it will be a long while before I get to thinking life, just mere life, so very valuable.”
They walked on a little in silence. Then he added, musingly, “ I think I have a soldier’s feeling about it all, and I should n’t wonder if he had that, also.”
“ You said a little while ago, Don’t let us talk of it; and I would far rather not. But — but,” she added, “ you won’t ever say it was the South ? ”
Arthur colored. He had declared as much at breakfast. “ Whatever I may feel or think, I shall never say what will hurt you. Much I care for the rest of the South ! ”
Hester felt that the reply was rather more ample than she had asked.
“ Thank you,” she returned, and there was a moment of silence, when presently they came to the doctor’s door. Miss Ann, being now assured of the truth of the news, stood at a window, the shutters of which she was closing as for one dead in the house, and listened gravely to the sound of cannon from one of the camps at the foot of the hill, where men used the voice of war to tell the story of despair.
“ Come in,” said Ann, opening the door. “ Have you heard the last news ? Johnston has surrendered; and to think of this death between these two joys! Was it really at a theatre, Arthur ?”
“ I wish it had n’t been there,” she rejoined sadly. “ And is it true that the man tripped on the flag ? ”
“Yes; that is true, I believe. But let Miss Hester in, Miss Ann ; ” and when she had passed, he said, “ I think it has troubled her as a Southern woman. She feels it dreadfully.”
“ And well she may,” exclaimed Ann, bitterly for her, and went away upstairs, saying to Hester, who had gone into the parlor, “ Come up as soon as Mr. Morton goes. I have got some work for you.”
“ Shall I come now, Miss Ann ?”
“ No, I am in no hurry.”
“ Of course you cannot go,” said Captain Morton. “ Am I not a bronzed veteran, and shall I not be entertained on my return from the wars ? ”
“ Duty first,” cried Hester, laughing.
“ Oh, Miss Gray, I hope you don’t forget the rest of that wise saying; and as Miss Ann has let you off the duty, I may presume there is nothing else but to realize the other end of the proverb.”
“ I think you are very saucy,” she returned ; “ and in fact you are quite too fond of making inferences.”
“ Is that what keeps you away from our house, Hester ? ”
“ No, it is not that — but ” —
“ But what ? Ned is n’t well, and he must miss you awfully. He does nothing but growl about your staying away. Why do you ? ”
“ I think he will get on very well without me. Come in here; I want to show you the doctor’s new rhizopod. He is so proud of it.”
“ Now,” said the bronzed veteran calmly, “ that was a very feeble bit of diplomacy ! Why do you not come to the Laurels as you used to ?”
“ Don’t you think,” she replied, “ that when one shows a disinclination to answer it were just as well to infer that you are answered ? ”
He looked up at her, surprised at the ingenuity and truth of the defense, and charmed with the womanly dignity which of a sudden seemed to envelop her.
How old she gets! he thought; but then he saw she was flushing a little. There had come to her a sudden apprehension that what she had said might be misunderstood, so she added quickly, a little angry at being forced to explain herself,—
“ Miss Ann thinks that your mother will ask me when she wants me, and as you have many guests I have kept away. Is that very mysterious?”
He had an instinctive sense that this was not quite all ; but he said, “ That is Miss Ann all over; but I have vexed you.” Hester shook her head. A fib by gesture is probably to be regarded as the mildest form of untruth.
“ But I did vex you; and one word more. I was not quite correct in what I said about Lincoln and the South. I had said something about the South at breakfast that would have made you furious. I want to say now that I shall never so speak again. I mean — Hester Gray — I mean because of you ! ”
“ I think you should obey your own conscience,” she said, proudly standing by the mantel, and facing him. “ No friendship ought to control that.”
“ I have two consciences now,” he replied, looking up and smiling kindly.
“ Two ? ” she returned, a little eased at the turn of the talk, — “ two ? How queer ! ”
“ And one is Hester Gray.”
“ Nonsense ! ” she cried, laughing and embarrassed. “ I cannot accept the charge. I have quite enough trouble as it is. Besides, you would be so oversupplied with conscientiousness, you couldn’t turn around without crying; and as for me, I should have to share your conscience, also, and if I am to have two I shall try Miss Ann’s. I think it is more of a bronzed veteran than yours.”
“ But after all, I never meant to ask you to share my conscience. I only wanted to keep the respect of yours.”
“ As if you ever had it! ” she cried, merrily, well pleased to be off dangerous ground again.
“ But I shall hope to have it, and to keep it too.”
Then Miss Ann called, as was her way, from the stair-case : “ Are you soon coming, Hester?” Miss Ann was, as we know, calmly unconventional.
“ I must go,” said Hester.
“Just a moment, Hester,” begged Arthur. Then, as she stood, he took her hand.
“ Don’t keep me,” she exclaimed.
“ Really, I must go.”
“ Not yet,” and looking her straight in the eyes went on : “ I shall want your respect, Hester, because I want your love — and — and — shall I have it, Hester ? ” and a great eagerness of purpose came over his strong face. He felt her tremble and saw her eyelids fall to hide the tender terror of the moment, but yet she did not move. Many times in these few days she had gotten away from this, and now it was come. “ Speak, Hester,” he implored, hoarsely. There was some gentle Instinct in him that made him feel a deep and unselfish pity for the orphan girl. “ But if, dear,” he added, “ it cannot be, don’t be afraid to tell me. I shall try hard to bear it.”
And then Ann was heard again : “If Arthur Morton stays any longer, Hester, he must help pare the apples for the pies.”
Hester looked up, smiling, through fast-filling eyes. Then the captain also smiled. Then they both laughed, while, glad of this diversion, she made a swift and shameful flight, for the door; but this flank movement was unsuccessful, and he caught her by the wrist with his hurt hand.
“ Don’t! ” she cried. “ I must go.”
“ But you hurt my arm.”
“ I don’t care — I don’t care at all! Mr. Morton, let me go ! ”
“ And may I peel those apples with you, Hester?”
“ Yes, I suppose so.”
“ And may I always peel apples with you, Hester ? ”
“ Yes,” she murmured, faintly.
“ Are you never coming ? ” asked Ann, quite close to the door.
“ Yes, yes,” returned Hester, very red, and opening it abruptly.
“ Oh, Miss Ann, and I am going to help her ! ” said Arthur.
Then and there it was all only too suddenly made clear to Ann, and leaving them she went upstairs into her room, and sitting down groaned aloud, “ What am I to do ? How blind I have been ! And does she dream that her father was killed by his father?”
It had been a horrible story to Ann as first she heard it, and her last interview with Captain Gray, when he was dying, had so set it in her mind that it would have been utterly impossible for her to disbelieve it. In fact, it was, as she felt, a dying man’s statement. The law accepted such statements, and how could she do other than accept them also? All through these years it had influenced her feelings, at least, and had made her look with constant discomfort on the kindness shown to Hester by the Mortons. When she knew that Colonel Morton was responsible for a part of this kindness, it seemed to her as if he were thus seeking to atone to the child he had made fatherless. Her brother had told her that the whole matter was absurd, and that, if true, it was only what must happen in war. He had better not have said “ if true.” That still left in Ann’s mind a dark and unpleasant doubt ; and now at last the time had come when, as a woman fearing God, she must face the matter with some practical decision. Arm tried hard to think it all out to a satisfactory conclusion. She felt that this time, at least, she could not quite trust Ezra. How could he decide anything fairly where the Mortons were concerned, and who else was there, and who could tell these glad young people, and why was this misery of duty put upon her? “ Had I been less blind, I might have seen it in time,” she cried. Then she began to realize how far Hester had grown into her affections, and to think with an increasing pain of Arthur, for whom her heart was strangely open. There was some New England vigor in him, she said, liking to explain her admiration on impersonal grounds. If Dr. Lagrange had been within reach, she would have wished to talk with him about it all. His supreme exactness gave Ann a strong belief in his conscientiousness, and probably she would have been set at rest by his dictum. But Dr. Lagrange was far away in the Mississippi Valley, and was just then lamenting over divers returns of hospital stores conveniently “ expended in service,” or captured, and was miserably unhappy over wars which were carried on in this unmethodical fashion.
Nevertheless Ann took some comfort after having written to him. She felt that she must do something, and now, having done something, could rest tranquil for a few days; and if then nothing came to her in the way of hopeful counsel, there at least was Alice Westerley.
But just yet she would say nothing to Ezra. If Arthur mentioned his love affair to him, as was likely enough, she might have to speak as to what was on her mind. She did not like the concealment, but events had been too strong for her.
The spring buds filled up despite the wars and griefs of men, and where the latest snow was melting the trailing arbutus made the Wissahickon hills delicious with its perfect fragrance. It was such a day as always brought Mr. Wilmington to the country for a little sunning. He was yet lingering in his town house, loath to leave his club and the evening whist-table ; but the evening whist had been rather broken up of late, owing to great events outside, and as a consequence the little, precise, ruddy face was looking unpleased, its owner’s enjoyment of life being temperately made up of a regular succession of many small things. He got out of his train at Fisher’s Lane, and sauntered along until he came to the old graveyard at the corner of the main street. Here he paused in the lane, and resting his arms on the crumbling stone wall looked over at the neglected stones, slanted this way and that, and tried to decipher some of the nearer inscriptions. He was wondering what some other old fellow would say, a century hence, when he came to read the words in which his demise would be recorded in Christ Church burial-ground. “ At least,” reflected the comfortable old sinner, “ I sha’n’t know.” And then he chuckled at the idea that it would not be well to have Mrs. Westerley write that inscription.
“ Good - morning, Mr. Wilmington,” said Wendell, approaching him. “ What mean these meditations among the tombs ? ”
“ I was thinking,” said the old gentleman, “ how much more amusing graveyards would be if comments were added to the inscriptions by others than one’s heirs.”
“ Good heavens! ” said the doctor, shuddering. “ I should decree myself a nameless, dateless grave, like the Quakers.” The idea struck him as unpleasant. If he died that day, what might not be said of him? “Are you going up Main Street ? ”
“ I am wandering,” answered Wilmington. “ I shall probably wind up at Mrs. Westerley’s.”
Wendell was glad of company. He had learned lately the worst news of his new investment, and he had bought some gold, thinking thus to help himself, and then, to the amazement of all, when Lee surrendered gold fell. That day had come a letter from Henry Gray, dated in London a month back, in which he desired Dr. Wendell to hold ready for his call nine thousand dollars, as he saw a way of making for his cousin Hester a better investment of it than could possibly be made in the North. Like most Confederates abroad, he was utterly unable to see how fast the power of the Southern States was crumbling, and still wrote with a confidence in their integrity which to Wendell seemed little less than ludicrous. “ Would the doctor and his sister be so good as to keep the remaining thousand as a slight proof of Mr. Gray’s gratitude, which he hoped to show later in some still more substantial way?”
Wendell did not like this letter, for many and obvious reasons ; he walked on, talking, and at times thinking of it anew.
“ Disagreeable business, all this ! ” said Wilmington, vaguely, — “ death of Lincoln, and all that. There is a passage in the Spectator which applies to it, — something about rebels ; but it might be in Milton.”
“ I don’t recall it,” replied Wendell.
“ Nor I. My memory is n’t at all what it was. Bless me, how sharp the air is ! ”
“ Yes, it is rather biting for the season. And how is the gout, Mr. Wilmington ? ”
“ Well enough, if I don’t drink madeira. But you see, doctor, if you don’t drink madeira, why, life really is n’t worth much in the latter part of the day, you know.”
“ I would n’t take a great deal, or habitually,” said Wendell.
“ No, I dare say you would n’t. But upon my word, is n’t that old Grace’s barn? He has taken off his weathercock ; and how on earth does he suppose I can dress myself without a weathercock in sight? It’s no use on one’s own house.”
The doctor, much amused, condoled with his friend, and suggested mutual weather-cocks, which seemed a satisfactory solution, and Mr. Wilmington went on for some time in silence, apparently comforted.
This gave Wendell a little time for reflection, which resulted in this wise: —
“ I have had a letter from Hester’s cousin, and perhaps you may be willing to advise me in regard to it, as you did about the first letter.”
“ I shall have great pleasure,” returned Wilmington. He liked to be asked for advice, and in matters of business, or purely worldly affairs, there were few more clear-headed counselors. He put on his glasses, and pausing tranquilly in the street read the letter. Then he read it again.
“ Queer hand he writes. What’s that word ? Oh, it’s ‘ investment,’ is it ? ”
“ Indeed,” said Wendell, “ I agree with you fully about the writing. I wonder people are not ashamed to write so badly. It isn’t considered an accomplishment to stammer so as to be incomprehensible. But how does the letter strike you, sir ? ”
The old gentleman raised his eyelids, which were in general very nearly shut, and this unclosure of two large gray eyes had the effect of the sudden lighting up of a disused house.
“ I am afraid he lias an idea of putting the money in Confederate bonds. But of course that is His business, and not ours. It is his own money.”
Wendell was not greatly pleased with the inference to be drawn from this advice, and said, “ In a measure it is his own ; but if he throws it away, and the rest of his property, too, where will Hester be ? Does n’t it strike you that she should be considered a little ? ”
“ You have no right to think that he isn’t considering her, and of course my guess is just only a distrustful old fellow’s guess. Perhaps he has some really good investment; and after all, when you come to act, you cannot afford to assume any rights.”
“And you would advise me” — continued Wendell, with hesitation.
“ Oh, you can’t need advice ! When he draws you will semi him his money.”
“ But it will be rather hard on Hester.”
“ That may be, or it may not. Perhaps he won’t draw at all, and I rather think that he will hesitate now about Confederate paper. It must be a stupid rat that does n’t know that ship is sinking.”
“I didn’t think of it in that light. Things have certainly changed a good deal since he wrote. But don’t you think if I found that he had drawn soon after writing me, it would be a kindness to be in no haste to act ? A little time might ” —
“ I said nothing like that, Dr. Wendell,” broke in the old gentleman, with unpleasant accuracy of articulation, and opening his eyes again very wide. A dim shade of suspicion had entered his mind.
“ I was rather making an inference than repeating anything you said,” replied Wendell, quickly. “ I need hardly say that he will instantly find his draft honored. As a mere matter of business I should have no choice, but one can’t help speculating as to the desirable.”
“ Speculation with or about other folks’ money is — well, is undesirable; and, by the way, Hester must have a nice little sum over and above her ten thousand, or his ten thousand. Those bonds have gone up like a kite.”
Wendell shuddered. “ Yes,” he assented, “ you gave me good advice as to that. Poor Hester ! ”
“ Why poor ? ” growled the old man. “ Is any one poor who has eyes like hers ? Only age is poor ; and it gets poorer, sir,— it gets poorer, till it ends in the poor house of the grave. But I think that young person will be taken care of. I suspect my friend Arty is going to have a say in her future.”
“ Indeed ? ” said Wendell, annoyed. “ I have had that idea myself; but do you suppose Mrs. Morton would ever dream of allowing Arthur ” —
“ ‘ Dream,’ ‘ allow!’ ” exclaimed Wilmington. “ You don’t know the men of that breed. He will marry the girl if he wants to, doctor, — make your mind easy on that subject,” and the old gentleman chuckled gently. “ But I must leave you. I am going into this shop. Good-morning.” Wendell said good-by, and walked away. He felt unhappy and displeased with himself, and had an odd sense of an injustice done him in the taking of Hester out of his life; it would be so much sunshine gone. And then over and over he thought, till thought was a wearying pain, of what he could do. There were now at least three thousand dollars to replace; and even if he sold his sister’s stock and his own, at a sacrifice which would be ruinous, how should he tell Ann? — how account for the portion of Hester’s bonds he had sold ? Death would be easier than to face Ann’s pure face, and say, “ I have stolen. I am a thief.” Amidst the gathering horror of all this anticipated torment, he went feebly through several visits, and then wandered about, until at last he came to Mrs. Westerley’s gate. He felt none of the fear of her insight which experience had taught him in regard to Ann’s, who had instinctively studied him through the long years of their changing fortunes ; but the thought was ever present to him that he loved Alice Westerley purely and for herself, and must marry her to be clear of his pecuniary load. He wanted to marry her, and yet not to have to think he had or might have a bad background of urgent motives. He wished to have all this lovely sweetness of longing free from taint and pure as childhood. Only a sensitive man and a poet in temperament could have kept himself on such a rack. He took off his hat as he stood at her door, struck his forehead with his palm, moved his fingers like one in pain, and at last rang, and presently went in.
He wanted to be alone with Alice, but to his annoyance he found Arthur, and saw at once from their faces that some talk of unusual interest had taken place. Alice rose, and greeted him warmly.
“ Ah, you are the very man we wanted. I have just been saying to Arty that he must tell you and Miss Ann that Hester has promised to marry him. And what a wicked thing, Dr. Wendell,” she added, archly, “ to promise to marry a man ; and she is so young, too, to be so wicked ! ”
Wendell was pleased at her little bit of gay allusiveness, which he felt flattered to know was meant for him alone to understand.
“ It is so, Dr. Wendell,” said the sunbrowned captain ; “ and I feel as if now I might be going to be some kind of a relation of yours, and that is n’t an unpleasant part of it, either.”
Mrs. Westerley liked this well.
“Indeed?” returned Wendell, not quite so warmly as such occasions demand. “I congratulate you, Arthur. In fact, I suppose I should have expected it. But does your mother know it yet? ”
“ No,” replied Arthur, “ but Ned will settle that. He means to talk to her tonight. I wanted to do it myself, and at once ; but he said no, — that he wished to have the pleasure himself. Of course there will be a row, but it won’t last. And now I am off. I think — oh, I ought to say I know—that Miss Gray has told Miss Ann. Good-by !”
“ Why did you take it so coolly ? ” asked Alice of Dr. Wendell. “ I don’t think Arthur was enough himself to notice your manner, but l did. You must have had some expectation of it. I should have really supposed yon did not like it, if I had not known better.”
“ It seems like losing a child to lose Hester. I do not see how life would be possible without her.”
“ Oh ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Westerley, and picking up a book began to cut its leaves with great precision.
“ Why did you say Oh ? ” queried Wendell.
“ That should be an easy riddle,” she answered.
“ Alice, Alice,” he returned, “ none of your riddles are easy! You mean, do you not, that I should lose the child’s life when a dearer life becomes one with mine; that I was comparing the two loves, which are both so sweet and so unlike ? ”
“ I did not say so.”
“ But you meant it, and yet you must know what you are to me. Oh, no, you cannot know how you fill my life with a sense of calm and content ! Yon cannot know that you alone rise to the level of understanding my ambitions, and believe that under happier circumstances I may come to be worthy, at least in achievement, even of you. A brook flowing into a dry land could not more surely find and fill its depths of craving thirst than you my secret longings! Why do you still keep me waiting?”
“ I do not know. Cannot you, to whom I have given so much and said so much, be contented, for a while at least ? I know what I am to you. I think I know what I can do to give you freedom from all that now weighs down your life, and I have said — I have said
— I loved you.”
“ But, Alice ” —
“Oh,” she went on, “ you men are all selfish ! Do you wonder I should pause and delay ? I wonder women ever do
anything else. For you it is no great change ; for us —for me, it is total. I give up my ways, my plans, my right to be alone or not, to go, to come, and I gain a master,” she said, smiling at him. “ Oh, you must not think of me as like Hester, like a young girl ! I must think,
— I must think.”
“ And I must wait.”
“ Yes. But you know how it will end. You must know, and when you have me, and I have said that one fatal word, perhaps you will not find me quite all that you choose to dream in your poet heart.”
“ I have no fear,” said Wendell, taking her hand. How cool and soft it was ! He kissed it, once, twice. “ Oh, I love you, little hand, and I should like well to keep you a close prisoner.”
“And do jailers kiss their prisoners?” she said, smiling. “Let them go,” she added, for now he had both hands. “ Let them go, and I will do something very nice for you.”
“ What will you do ? Will you say yes ? ”
“ No,” she replied, with set lips and an air of the tenderest mutiny, “ not yet! But I will do what I have never done — I — I — will once — or twice — only once or twice — I will call you — Ezra — I think I like it— Ezra ! ”
It was a strange shock to Wendell. He disliked his homely name, and was ashamed that he disliked it. At first, for a moment, he really thought she was using it with a humorous sense of its oddness ; but he saw this was not so, and then was pleased that she had conquered this difficulty, which he felt must be, for her as for him, an enormous one.
“ Thank you,” he said, releasing her hands. “ Don’t you think it an odd name ? ”
“ I never thought about it at all,” she returned. “ But now you must go. I expect Miss Clemson here, and Mrs. Morton. It is well that walls tell no tales, sir. Don’t come here to-morrow, — don’t come for a week, please ! ”
“And how am I to stand that?” said he. “ A week ? Not a whole week ? ”
“ Yes, that, — all of that.”
“ And shall I have my answer then ? ”
“ I do not know. I think not. I do wish you would go ! ”
“ Good-by, then.”
“And you will see me in a week? I shall expect you.”
“ And at what hour ? ”
“ Oh, you must take your chance! Now do go ! ”
Mrs. Grace’s letter to Colonel Fox bore fruit in due season. It found him at midday on the march. He read it, and as he crumpled it into his pocket, ejaculated one or two brief words not known to the language of Friends. Then he rode along, musing, sitting tall in the saddle, a fresh-colored man, with a straight, large nose, of a good leathery tint just now, curly-haired and cleanshaven, — a face apt enough to be stern, but with eyes that seemed ready with gentle apologies for his graver features ; altogether the fair figure of a cavalier. Until his father’s time all of his race, since Penn sold them lands in Merion, had been Friends of the straitest sect, unto whom Thomas Hicks was an abomination ; but of late, although they still held with the meeting and used the Quaker language, they had ceased to affect a rigid plainness of attire. After a rather unruly boyhood, George Fox had taken, when quite young, the small capital his father had left him, and had gone to live on some iron lands he owned in Allegheny County, and there had so prospered that when the war broke out it found him a rich and independent man. To the annoyance of his family he at once entered the army, and there brought to bear the energy, sagacity, and power over men which he had shown in his business, as well as a cool and ready courage, for which in his previous life there had been but small chance of use.
Three weeks went by amidst the shock of armies in their final grapple, and at last he had found himself free again for a few days. There had been little time to think calmly, but now he reflected, arid before long reached a conclusion altogether characteristic of the man. He obtained a week’s leave of absence, and came home. What he there heard casually made his purpose more firm, and with his usual decisiveness he at once wrote to Mrs. Westerley : —
“ Dear Mrs. Westerley, I want to see you, and to be sure to find you alone that I may talk with you a few minutes. You need not fear that it will be about myself; but there is something not very pleasant which I feel I must say to you, and which I would be glad — honestly glad — not to have to say.”
Then he added that her reply would reach him at the city headquarters.
Mrs. Westerley was made rather uneasy and intensely curious by this note, and hastened to answer that she would be at home to him at one, the next day.
A few minutes before the hour set for his call, Mrs. Westerley went into her drawing-rooms and began to walk about, not at all as the male being does when in thought or annoyed, but hither and thither, from table to table, with what would have seemed to the man-minded immeasurably small purposes, in the way of moving a book, or setting back a chair, or turning a vase around. Then deciding that it was cool for May to be so close at hand, she ordered the fire to be lighted ; and as the yellow flames of the hickory shot up, she appeared at last to be satisfied, and sat down for a moment, only to rise again in order to move from her fireside table a book of antique look which Wendell had sent her the day before, that she might look at certain passages which he had marked. What subtle woman’s instinct caused her to lay the volume away out of sight on top of the cottage piano she herself might have been puzzled to state. For indeed the motives which induce these petty actions are often so faintly registered that we may fail to discover them at all, and the doing of a thing may leave us with nothing but a slight surprise at what we have done.
As almost automatically she obeyed her woman’s instinct, she suddenly seemed to perceive herself as an uninterested observer might have done, and, smiling, colored faintly as she moved away ; when catching sight of herself in the mirror as she paused before it she adjusted a rebel lock, turned her head aside, and with one critical glance sat down by the fire, and resolving to puzzle herself no further took up a paper. She had hardly read a paragraph when the servant opened the door, and saying, “ Colonel Fox, ma’am,” left them alone.
It is given to few women to be unmoved when for the first time after saying No to a man whom they profoundly respect and admire they see him again. Mrs. Westerley rose and shook hands with Fox kindly and even warmly. It was remote from her nature to hurt without being hurt herself, and she somehow recognized the depth of the wound she had given. She felt it even more now, as she noted his evident embarrassment, which lessened as he talked, but which she, of course, and very naturally, attributed to his memory of their last meeting.
“ I am very glad to see you,” she said. “ Sit down by the fire. How cold it is still! And the war is over at last. I know you must be deeply glad.”
“ Yes, I am of all men most thankful to be done with it, and to get back to my mines and my mountain home and my books. I went out to help to do a certain needful duty, and we have done it and done it well, I think. I wish I thought the legislation which must follow it would be as temperate as we who fought would wish to have it, but we shall have no share in the making of it.”
“ Oh, that is what Mr. Wilmington says,” she returned; “ and I find all the soldiers I see are most merciful in their talk about what ought to be done. Arty says that the editors and the newspaper people are like the boys who held the school-books when what he calls ‘the fellows’ had a fight, and were always more ferocious than those who fought. However, I may be keeping you needlessly, but one must have a little war talk. I am dying to know why you wanted to see me. I hope,” she added, kindly, “ that it is for something a friend can do for you.”
“ No,” he replied sadly, “ there is nothing you can do for me, — nothing; and in justice to myself, let me tell you beforehand that what I have come here to say, will put an impassable barrier between you and me. I know this so well that I have hesitated — hesitated as I have never before hesitated in all my life — but ” —
“ Then why,” she asked quickly, and feeling a gathering sense of anxiety, “ why do you say it ? ”
“ Because it is my duty, clearly my duty, as I see it.”
“ And — what is it?” she returned faintly.
“ I will tell you in a moment,” he replied ; “ but first let me ask you a question or two. Do you believe that I love you, Mrs. Westerley ? ”
“ I wish I did not. I should be happier if I did not. I am afraid that I know you do,” she continued, greatly disturbed.
“ I am glad of that, because then you can understand that it must be bitter for me coldly to ruin that remnant of hope which every man who loves such a woman as you must have, do as he will, reason as he may.”
“ I think I understand,” she said, looking in the fire ; “ at least I can try to put myself in your place. But what is it ? What do you mean ? ”
“ Be patient with me just a moment more, as with a man about to die. One question more, and do not be angry with me ! ”
“ No; I can promise that. Go on.”
“ Are you going to marry Dr. Wendell ? ”
Alice was certainly amazed.
“ And if,” she said, proudly, “ I decline to answer, —if I do not choose to answer ? ”
“ Then,” he said, now having himself well in hand, — “ then I should say what I have come to say, merely to explain my visit ; and if it be untrue that you mean so to honor him, what I should say would be of no moment, and I should ask you to consider my words as for you alone. But if, my friend, — I may call you that, may I not?—if you mean to marry Dr. Wendell, then what I have to say will have its force for you, more or less as may be.”
She reflected a moment, and then answered him gravely, “ I spoke like a foolish girl. Yes, I mean to marry him. I have not positively said I would, but I shall. And now that I have spoken frankly as. on this matter, to no one else, may I ask you in mercy to do the same ? You must know now that you keep me in most painful suspense.”
“ When a man is signing the deathwarrant of hope, he may be pardoned delay, but I will be brief. Early in the war, Mrs. Westerley, I was in West Virginia, and heard a good deal of Dr. Wendell. What I heard of him I liked well enough, and there is much to like in him.”
“ Oh, go on,” she exclaimed impatiently.
“ We had a fight on the Kenawha, and in falling back three of our surgeons were left at a country church, with a number of badly wounded men. They soon came under a pretty heavy fire. Dr. Wendell was in charge. I believe he had not been in action before. One of the assistant surgeons was wounded, but Dr. Wendell very soon showed signs of uneasiness, and at last left his post and followed our retreat. He was permitted to leave the army quietly, and in fact the matter was forgotten in the tumult of war; but it came to me both officially and in another way. I felt sorry for him then, and even now I wonder over it; but how, knowing this, could I let a high-minded woman, whom I love, marry in ignorance a man who is a ” — He meant to say a coward, but looking at the woman who was so dear to him he hesitated, while Alice rose to her feet, overcome by a rush of emotions and broken reasonings, too hurried arid too wild for analysis or easy expression.
“ Stop,” she said,— “ stop ! You have said enough, — you have said too much ! I do not believe it, and I am amazed that you, of all men, should have dared to tell me such a tale ! I do not believe it! It is but one more of the endless stories of this kind which have been blown about in regard to every one.”
“ No, it is true.”
“ True ! How dare you tell me it is true ! And is there no cowardice in repeating such a story to a woman?”
“ Cowardice ! ” cried Fox, amazed. “ And you do not credit me, then ? ”
“ No, it is incredible ! ”
“ And yet,” he said, feeling that she was adding horribly to the bitterness of his distasteful task, — “ and yet it is true, and officially on record. Happily, it is known to few, I am sure. He is not aware that I know it. Try to feel, as yon are noble enough to feel, what I must have gone through in deciding to bring to you this miserable story. If I could have told you of some noble action of the man’s, of some deed of courage, on my honor, Alice, I should rather have done it! I should have been glad to do it. I have given myself pain which if I could have gauged it beforehand would have made me falter even more.”
Then they remained silent and in thought. It was impossible not to believe him, — it was impossible to doubt a man like Fox ; but after this — what ? A man might fail once, and never again ; and why must this one defect be allowed to mar a life, and follow a man with unending punishment ? But then the shame of such dishonor rose up before her proud conscience, and the scene itself came blindingly into her visual sphere : men wounded, dying ; a duty abandoned in terror of mere death! How petty death seemed to her ! And if it should ever be widely known, what would men say, and above all Mr. Wilmington, with his old-fashioned sense of honor, and cynical Morton, and the boys? She sat slowly twisting her handkerchief. She felt like a mariner on some wild shore, surf-bruised, helpless, the sport of rock and wave, — now ashore, now in deep water. Then at last she looked up from the fire, and saw a great tenderness of sorrow in the face of the man who looked at her.
“ Pity me ! ” she cried, and burst into a passion of tears.
“ Pity!” he repeated. “ Ah, if I could but take the pain for you! Had I thought it would hurt you this way, I — I — would never have spoken.”
“ But why, why did you ? I was so happy, and now you must speak to me — you must say more. I — I — can’t think. Perhaps it was just once ? He might have been ill, who knows ? God alone can judge such things ! Do you think I should let it break up and destroy all the rest of a good and useful life ? ” She spoke, as it were, fragments of thought. “ Who needs to be — to be — so brave in our every-day life ! ”
Fox was appalled. He hesitated. How should he talk to this woman whom he loved, — how say to her that courage is the backbone of character, the life of every virtue ; that in Wendell’s case the lack of it made the true fulfillment of duty impossible ; that the want of it had left wounded men to die who otherwise might have lived ? It seemed to him a thing so simply shameful that to emphasize it with comment was absurd. But it was plain that he must answer her.
“ I have said what I thought right to say. I must leave it to you now. If it be a small thing to you, I shall mistrust my judgment of a woman I honor. If you choose to condone it, that is your business, not mine ; but as you love truth, I pray of you this only : to believe that no base jealousy has driven me to speak. That man is no more to me in life than the fly on your window-pane, and I end as I began, by saying that to be able to come to you and try to save a noble life from — no, I will not hurt you more — I have paid a great price to enable me to help you, if it may be: for now I know that if you decide one way it will still be impossible for me to even dream of presuming on your freedom by a word, or ever to make use of the freedom I have given you ; and if — if you decide another way, and my words remain as useless as words unsaid, even then our friendship must cease to exist, or at least to have any active being, — for surely you will never care to look upon my face again, Alice.” She felt that this was true.
She was now sitting, wan and aghast, a little sideways on a low chair, her chin in her palm.
“It is so, but don’t go yet. I ought to be angry, and — I was angry. I am not so now. Sit down. I am so dazed I cannot reason, and I am sure when you are gone, I shall want to have said something more.”
They were silent again a moment. Then a wild pang of thought struck through her brain.
“ Does he know of this visit, of your purpose ? ”
“ Not yet, but of course he must know. I intended to tell him first.”
“ But you did not, you did not? ” she said, realizing swiftly the pain it would be to Wendell to know that she had heard it all.
“No, I did not, but I shall. I have a letter in my pocket now, which I shall leave at his house.”
“ Give it to me! ” she cried, sharply, rising and coming towards him.
Fox stood up. He felt powerless to resist her. “ There it is,” he said.
She tore it passionately, and threw it into the fire. “ And you will not speak of this to him ? You will not write another letter ? Promise me. I insist. I have a right to insist. It is all you can do for me. You have been, ah, so bitterly cruel to me! Yes, yes, I know ; duty, of course. Oh, my God ! my God! ” “ What! ” cried Fox. “ Say this of a man to a woman he loves, and — be silent to him ? Possibly ruin his chances of a happy life, and hide— Oh, I cannot do that, not even for you. Then truly you might reproach me with cowardice.”
“ But,” she returned, firmly, “ if you knew it would not mar his happiness, — I mean what you have said, — then there would have been no harm done.”
Fox moved back a step or two, like one recoiling from terror.
“ Oh, my God,” he exclaimed, “ is this possible ! And — and really— It is all as nothing to you ? I will not tell him, —make yourself easy on that matter ; ” and so saying he turned and went quickly out of the room, without more words, while Alice, pale and stern, looked after him, speechless.
She had saved Wendell, — of that she was sure; but she had saved him at bitter cost to herself, and she would have given a year of life to forget the look of scorn, wonder, and disbelief which took quick possession of the soldier’s face as he turned to go.
“ I shall never see him again,” she said, “ and — he does not understand. How can he understand ? ”
Then the near memory of the troubled hour melted into a certain tenderness of thought about the man she loved. She loved him, — that she knew full well; and she had saved him from what would have been for both one long misery. Beyond this she could not yet go. To reason on it all was impossible, and she was shocked when, days afterwards, she saw Wendell to find that she was more undecided than before. Sometimes remembrance pleads better than any presence, and the statue which love carves has graces the model never knew. But despite her doubts she knew that she should marry Wendell, for in natures like hers the maturity of a love once born is as certain as the growth of morning.
Colonel Fox went away sick at heart, and for a time disgusted. Never before had he so laid bare his soul, never fought so stern a fight for self-subdual. He had failed, he felt, — failed alike in his purpose and in command over himself; for in a crisis of passionate anguish like this the individualities of men, repressed by decorous usage, break loose as they did in the early days of the Renaissance, and the true natures of men and women clash like sword blades in the fury of unchecked realities.
He went home and wrote briefly to Mrs. Westerley, “ Pray God to forgive me, dear friend. I knew not what I did;” and then he returned to camp, and hid his trouble in the active work of breaking up his regiment, and in trying to take some thought of those of his men who needed help or lacked immediate employment.
S. Weir Mitchell.