A Farewell Message
NOT until late on the second of July did they learn in Bellaire of that terrible battle raging so near them. Morning had dawned, the hour of ten had come and gone,-that hour at which the town was to have been utterly destroyed,-and there were no signs of the enemy.
Captain Rogers rode up to a hurried breakfast with the Charltons. He had said good-by to his militia company and was off by way of Henrysburg to join his regiment at Gettysburg; there was no going by South Mountain Pass, since that way lay the whole of Lee's army.
Eunice was not at breakfast; she was still sleeping, and John would not let Mrs. Charlton waken her.
"No," he said , "I have so short a time to stay, and she needs the sleep. I bade her good-by last night; if you will say good-by to her again for me, that will do as well."
Better, he thought to himself bitterly; for, strive as he might against it, he was greatly depressed and was not sure enough of himself to say good-by to Eunice again with his spirits already at their lowest ebb.
Eunice felt a moment of keenest regret when she found that he had come and gone without her seeing him once more, but it was only for a moment. She was eager to be at her work in the hospital and anxious to know how her patients were doing, and heart and hands were too full for long regrets.
When, late in the afternoon, the tidings came that this was the second day of a great battle between the two armies, perhaps the most deadly the war had yet known, she was as one dazed. All that evening and all the next day she went about as in a dream, listening with bated breath lest some dreadful tidings come of one or the other of her two friends fighting in opposing ranks on that terrible field. But none came, and though her heart lay dead within her, she went about her hospital duties, skilfully applying dressings and bandages and courageously bringing to others the cheer and comfort she so much needed herself.
Early Sunday morning the first train came through from Henrysburg. The militia had in some rough fashion relaid the tracks and a train had crept cautiously over them as far as Bellaire. It brought a little company of nurses from Philadelphia bound for Gettysburg. All communication by rail was cut off with that town, and Bellaire was the nearest point to which trains were running; from there the journey would have to be made in carriages. All day Saturday, Lee's army had stood awaiting Meade's attack. It did not come, and on the night of the Fourth they quietly withdrew toward the Potomac. But Ewell's corps, as rear-guard, was still in Gettysburg Sunday morning, and the little company of nurses came up to Dr. Charlton's house to wait for tidings that the way was clear for them through South Mountain Pass.
Here was the opportunity for which Eunice's soul had been longing. From the moment she had first heard of the battle she had been planning some way of getting there. Had she not promised Captain Rogers she would go to him if he should be wounded? And how else was she to find out whether or not he was wounded? And still more urgent was the thought of Rex. She could hardly hope that he had escaped again, when every report was of such terrible slaughter; and perhaps he, too, might be wounded there and needing her.
It was hard to persuade Dr. and Mrs. Charlton to let her go. The other nurses were all older; it seemed to them both that Eunice was too young and too frail to be sent into the midst of such terrible scenes. But her steady, quiet persistency- that little quality of hers that the doctor sometimes called obstinacy-won its way at last. The surgeons in the college hospital were loath to part with her, but ready to give her a certificate as an efficient nurse from her three days' work with them, and that annulled Dr. Charlton's final argument that the authorities would not receive her. The other nurses were willing to take charge of her, and her way seemed so clear that Dr. and Mrs. Charlton could no longer oppose a purpose that they felt was as steadfast as the hills.
Horses were at a premium in Bellaire, for almost every horse bad either been captured by the Confederates or driven away for safety. Dr. Charlton had undertaken to find some for the little party, but after long search did he find a sturdy team of farm-horses that had been hidden away in a cave in the hills. They were to start early Monday morning to avoid the heat of the day; and by five o'clock Mrs. Charlton, the most energetic of women, had given them a cup of coffee and some breakfast and started them on their way. It was a sad parting at that early hour: Lucy was in tears, Millie was sobbing bitterly, the boys were trying in vain to seem indifferent and pretend that some unmanly sounds were not of their making, and there was a mist in the doctor's blue eyes. Only Mrs. Charlton was smiling bravely. Now that she had fully made up her mind to let Eunice go, it seemed to her a glorious thing to be doing, and she could almost envy her the heroine's crown with which she had invested her.
Their way led over the Hanover turnpike, between rich fields of grain trampled by the passing of many horses and men, and then through beautiful Mount Holly and South Mountain Pass. It was a familiar road to Eunice. Mount Holly was a favorite resort with the young people of Bellaire for picnics and drives and sleighing-parties; and now, as they passed through its deep, shaded glens and climbed the mountain road, with the little stream rushing noisily through a rocky ravine below them, Eunice was recalling one of the red-letter days of her life. It was in her first fall in Bellaire, in the beautiful Indian summer, when there had been a nutting-party to Mount Holly, and they had spent the long, golden day wandering through the mountain dells, gathering chestnuts and wintergreens and maidenhair ferns, all the lovely spoil of the wild-wood. After a picnic dinner on a mossy rock beside this very mountain stream, they had started to explore the rocky ravine down which it tumbled; and Eunice, an ardent lover of mountain-climbing and with the foot of a gazel, had far outdistanced the others-all but Rex, who would not be outdistanced; and when they found they had left the others so far behind, they sat down to wait for them at the head of the glen, where the brook tumbled in a foamy cascade over a rocky cliff. Rex had never before been so gentle and winning. It was in the early days of his reform, and he was full of earnest plans and noble ambitions, which he poured into Eunice's sympathetic ear with all the ardor of his temperament.
How often she had thought of that day! And how long ago it seemed! It was not three years, but Eunice felt that she had lived a lifetime since, and the Bellaire of to-day was cold and gray and stern compared with the sunny Bellaire of those Arcadian days.
They crossed the summit of the mountain pass and began the descent of the other side. They had left the little mountain stream, and all the associations with Rex in those happy golden days, and now, with every onward mile they were coming on new traces of the movements of great armies. Everywhere disorder and devastation. Eunice's thoughts were no longer with the Rex of the past; she was looking forward tremblingly, fearfully, hopefully, to the possibility of seeing him in Gettysburg. Yet she knew it could be only as a prisoner, or wounded or dying, that she could hope to see him, and horror and shrinking dread crushed out the hope.
Eunice had been two days in Gettysburg. With a resolution that was like iron, and that no one could have dreamed of finding in that slight girl, she steeled her heart against the horrors that met her on every side, and went about the ward to which she had been assigned with such calm and ready cheerfulness as made her a tower of strength to the surgeons and an angel of light to the suffering men.
As she entered her ward on the morning of the third day, she came upon a face she had been looking for, feeling sure in her heart that she would come upon it some day. It was John Rogers, and he lay so motionless, his face so white, his eyes closed, she would have thought him dead but that she knew the dead were not in hospitals. He had been brought in from the operating-room, and the surgeon of the ward gave him into Eunice's charge as a very ill patient who would need special care.
Eunice could not neglect her other patients, but there were hours that belonged to herself to do what she pleased, and those hours she devoted to him. For days he lay in a stupor, hovering between life and death, dead to the world about him; but when at last the light of consciousness returned to his eyes and they fell on Eunice sitting by his side, there was no surprise in them, only a great joy. Once started on the road of recovery, he grew rapidly better. Just to see her moving about him, ministering to his wants, he said, was enough to bring him back from the brink of the grave, and he insisted that he had been conscious of her presence through all his unconsciousness, and that that alone had brought him back to life.
One day, as Eunice in one of her free hours was sitting by his cot, talking gently to him of sweet and happy things, it seemed to her that he was not listening. He was restless and his attention wandered. Eunice feared she was tiring him, and rose to go.
"Don't go, Eunice," he said, with an air of quiet authority. "Sit down again, please; I have something to tell you."
He was silent for a minute as she sat down again, and Eunice was vaguely frightened. There was something indefinable in his manner that suggested evil tidings; and as if in premonition of what was coming, her heart began to beat heavily.
"Eunice," he began at last, slowly, and with evident effort, "I have been waiting to get strong enough to tell you my story. I am getting well so fast now, under your skilful nursing, they will be sending me home in a few days, and I must not wait any longer. Dear friend," and his voice faltered a little, "it may be that I have sad news for you; but remember, as you listen, that I am not at all certain that my fears are true. There may have been a happier ending to my story than seemed possible to me then. Hope for the best as long as you are not sure of the worst. "
He waited a moment, as if for her to speak; but a great dread had taken possession of her, she could hardly breathe, and speech was impossible.
"Are you sure you are strong enough to listen to me, Eunice?" he asked anxiously, seeing the color come and go in her cheeks and her eyes widening with, terror.
She nodded with an imploring gesture, and in answer to it he went on:
"I was lying wounded on the slope of Little Round Top that second dreadful day of the fight. It was the evening of the day I left Bellaire-only a few hours since I had seen you. The rush of battle had passed on and left me lying there-dying, I thought. My eyes were closed, when I heard my name feebly called, and I turned in surprise to find a Confederate lying near me, wounded much more severely than I. I did not recognize him at first, until he spoke again, and then I knew it was Rex McAllister. We could neither of us move, but we were near enough to stretch out our hands to each other, and I never clasped a brother's hand more warmly or more gladly than I did his. He told me that he was dying, and asked of you. I told him all I knew of you, and what reason I had for knowing that you loved him as dearly as ever. His eyes, that seemed to me to lie fast growing dim, brightened as I spoke, and his face lighted up with a smile.
" 'God bless her!' he whispered. 'Tell her that my last thoughts were of her, and that I have loved her every moment since I left her.'
"And then I performed a heroic act of self-sacrifice. I took from my buttonhole the little ribbon that is dingy and colorless now, but that had been with me in every battle and march since last September, and told him whose it was and how I got it, and gave it to him. He thanked me with a look, and laid it on his lips; and then we were both too weak to talk any more, and we lay there, hand in hand, until some of his men came up with a flag of truce to carry him away. He had fainted, I think, when they took him up, and the ribbon still lay on his lips. I was afraid it would be lost, and I asked them to tie it in his buttonhole, and they did so very reverently."
Eunice was weeping as if her heart had broken, but silently, that no one in the cots near by might know. She had buried her face in the coverlet of John's cot, and her stifled, heartbroken sobs shook him where he lay. He put his hand tenderly on her brown curls.
"Dear friend," he whispered, "you must not sorrow as one without hope. He thought he was dying, but it may be that he was mistaken. He may yet be living; do not give up all hope until you are sure. Wait until the war is over."
Eunice had no hope. She had always believed that this blow was preparing for her, and now it had fallen. But she had strength beyond the strength given to most women, and, crushing back her sorrow for the time, she lifted her head, smiled faintly, and whispered:
"I will try."
Then-she did not know why she did it, perhaps because the eyes that met hers were brimming over with sympathy and tenderness, perhaps because she believed he, too, loved Rex-she seized in both her own hands, the hand that had rested so tenderly on her head, pressed it convulsively to her heart for an instant, rose quickly, and fled.
John turned his face to the wall and groaned under his breath:
"O God, how can I bear it! How can I bear it! O happy, happy Rex!"
It was weeks later that there came to Eunice a sudden wonder that Mr. Rogers should have kept that bit of ribbon so long and cared for it so much; and a slow inkling of the truth sent the warm blood rushing to her face and then flowing back in pity and regret, her heart.
He was no longer in the hospital; he had been gone for weeks, and was now spending his convalescence with his nearest relative, a distant cousin. But Eunice had stayed on; she had found the one work that could comfort her in her great sorrow. She did not even go back to Bellaire. Dr. and Mrs. Charlton and Lucy came over to see her, bringing with them such of her belongings as she needed and sending the rest to her New England home; but to all their entreaties to come back with them to Bellaire, she made one steadfast reply:
"I cannot leave my work."
She did not dare leave it until the very latest moment at which she could reach her new school and be ready to begin the fall teaching. One day of idleness, one hour not filled with cares and anxieties for the sick and suffering, might easily undermine all her carefully builded fabric of self-control.
And yet John's story had not brought her all pain; it was a joy to know that Rex had loved her through these long years, when sometimes she had almost believed he had forgotten her. And to know that he had died so nobly (for Eunice recognized that, whatever the cause might be, the devotion to it was noble) helped greatly to soothe the pain of knowing that she would never see him again.