CHRISTIE'S return was a very happy one, and could not well be otherwise with a mother, sister, and lover to welcome her back. Her meeting with Letty was indescribably tender, and the days that followed were pretty equally divided between her and her brother, in nursing the one and loving the other. There was no cloud now in Christie's sky, and all the world seemed in bloom. But even while she enjoyed every hour of life, and begrudged the time given to sleep, she felt as if the dream was too beautiful to last, and often said:
"Something will happen: such perfect happiness is not possible in this world."
"Then let us make the most of it," David would reply, wisely bent on getting his honey while he could, and not borrowing trouble for the morrow.
So Christie turned a deaf ear to her "prophetic soul," and gave herself up to the blissful holiday that had come at last. Even while March winds were howling outside, she blissfully "poked in the dirt" with David in the green-house, put up the curly lock as often as she liked, and told him she loved him a dozen times a day, not in words, but in silent ways, that touched him to the heart, and made his future look so bright he hardly dared believe in it.
A happier man it would have been difficult to find just then; all his burdens seemed to have fallen off, and his spirits rose again with an elasticity which surprised even those who knew him best. Christie often stopped to watch and wonder if the blithe young man who went whistling and singing about the house, often stopping to kiss somebody, to joke, or to exclaim with a beaming face like a child at a party: "Isn't every thing beautiful?" could be the sober, steady David, who used to plod to and fro with his shoulders a little bent, and the absent look in his eyes that told of thoughts above or beyond the daily task.
It was good to see his mother rejoice over him with an exceeding great joy; it was better still to see Letty's eyes follow him with unspeakable love and gratitude in their soft depths; but it was best of all to see Christie marvel and exult over the discoveries she made: for, though she had known David for a year, she had never seen the real man till now.
"Davy, you are a humbug," she said one day when they were making up a bridal order in the greenhouse.
"I told you so, but you wouldn't believe it," he answered, using long stemmed rose-buds with as prodigal a hand as if the wedding was to be his own.
"I thought I was going to marry a quiet, studious, steady-going man; and here I find myself engaged to a romantic youth who flies about in the most undignified manner, embraces people behind doors, sings opera airs,--very much out of tune by the way,--and conducts himself more like an infatuated Claude Melnotte, than a respectable gentleman on the awful verge of matrimony. Nothing can surprise me now: I'm prepared for any thing, even the sight of my Quakerish lover dancing a jig."
"Just what I've been longing to do! Come and take a turn: it will do you good;" and, to Christie's utter amazement, David caught her round the waist and waltzed her down the boarded walk with a speed and skill that caused less havoc among the flower-pots than one would imagine, and seemed to delight the plants, who rustled and nodded as if applauding the dance of the finest double flower that had ever blossomed in their midst.
"I can't help it, Christie," he said, when he had landed her breathless and laughing at the other end. "I feel like a boy out of school, or rather a man out of prison, and must enjoy my liberty in some way. I'm not a talker, you know; and, as the laws of gravitation forbid my soaring aloft anywhere, I can only express my joyfully uplifted state of mind by 'prancing,' as you call it. Never mind dignity: let's be happy, and by and by I'll sober down."
"I don't want you to; I love to see you so young and happy, only you are not the old David, and I've got to get acquainted with the new one."
"I hope you'll like him better than the frost-bitten 'old David' you first knew and were kind enough to love. Mother says I've gone back to the time before we lost Letty, and I sometimes feel as if I had. In that case you will find me a proud, impetuous, ambitious fellow, Christie, and how will that suit?"
"Excellently; I like pride of your sort; impetuosity becomes you, for you have learned to control it if need be; and the ambition is best of all. I always wondered at your want of it, and longed to stir you up; for you did not seem the sort of man to be contented with mere creature comforts when there are so many fine things men may do. What shall you choose, Davy?"
"I shall wait for time to show. The sap is all astir in me, and I'm ready for my chance. I don't know what it is, but I feel very sure that some work will be given me into which I can put my whole heart and soul and strength. I spoilt my first chance; but I know I shall have another, and, whatever it is, I am ready to do my best, and live or die for it as God wills."
"So am I," answered Christie, with a voice as earnest and a face as full of hopeful resolution as his own.
Then they went back to their work, little dreaming as they tied roses and twined smilax wreaths, how near that other chance was; how soon they were to be called upon to keep their promise, and how well each was to perform the part given them in life and death.
The gun fired one April morning at Fort Sumter told many men like David what their work was to be, and showed many women like Christie a new right to claim and bravely prove their fitness to possess.
No need to repeat the story of the war begun that day; it has been so often told that it will only be touched upon here as one of the experiences of Christie's life, an experience which did for her what it did for all who took a share in it, and loyally acted their part.
The North woke up from its prosperous lethargy, and began to stir with the ominous hum of bees when rude hands shake the hive. Rich and poor were proud to prove that they loved their liberty better than their money or their lives, and the descendants of the brave old Puritans were worthy of their race. Many said: "It will soon be over;" but the wise men, who had warned in vain, shook their heads, as that first disastrous summer showed that the time for compromise was past, and the stern reckoning day of eternal justice was at hand.
To no home in the land did the great trouble bring a more sudden change than the little cottage in the lane. All its happy peace was broken; excitement and anxiety, grief and indignation, banished the sweet home joys and darkened the future that had seemed so clear. David was sober enough now, and went about his work with a grim set to his lips, and a spark in his eyes that made the three women look at one another pale with unspoken apprehension. As they sat together, picking lint or rolling bandages while David read aloud some dismal tale of a lost battle that chilled their blood and made their hearts ache with pity, each woman, listening to the voice that stirred her like martial music, said within herself: "Sooner or later he will go, and I have no right to keep him." Each tried to be ready to make her sacrifice bravely when the time came, and each prayed that it might not be required of her.
David said little, but they knew by the way he neglected his garden and worked for the soldiers, that his heart was in the war. Day after day he left Christie and his sister to fill the orders that came so often now for flowers to lay on the grave of some dear, dead boy brought home to his mother in a shroud. Day after day he hurried away to help Mr. Power in the sanitary work that soon claimed all hearts and hands; and, day after day, he came home with what Christie called the "heroic look" more plainly written on his face. All that first summer, so short and strange; all that first winter, so long and hard to those who went and those who stayed, David worked and waited, and the women waxed strong in the new atmosphere of self-sacrifice which pervaded the air, bringing out the sturdy virtues of the North.
"How terrible! Oh, when will it be over!" sighed Letty one day, after hearing a long list of the dead and wounded in one of the great battles of that second summer.
"Never till we have beaten!" cried David, throwing down the paper and walking about the room with his head up like a war-horse who smells powder. "It is terrible and yet glorious. I thank heaven I live to see this great wrong righted, and only wish I could do my share like a man."
"That is natural; but there are plenty of men who have fewer ties than you, who can fight better, and whose places are easier to fill than yours if they die," said Christie, hastily.
"But the men who have most to lose fight best they say; and to my thinking a soldier needs a principle as well as a weapon, if he is to do real service."
"As the only son of a widow, you can't be drafted: that's one comfort," said Letty, who could not bear to give up the brother lost to her for so many years.
"I should not wait for that, and I know mother would give her widow's mite if she saw that it was needed."
"Yes, Davy." The soft, old voice answered steadily; but the feeble hand closed instinctively on the arm of this only son, who was so dear to her. David held it close in both of his, saying gratefully: "Thank you, mother;" then, fixing his eyes on the younger yet not dearer women, he added with a ring in his voice that made their hearts answer with a prompt "Ay, ay!" in spite of love or fear:
"Now listen, you dear souls, and understand that, if I do this thing, I shall not do it hastily, nor without counting well the cost. My first and most natural impulse was to go in the beginning; but I stayed for your sakes. I saw I was not really needed: I thought the war would soon be over, and those who went then could do the work. You see how mistaken we were, and God only knows when the end will come. The boys--bless their brave hearts!--have done nobly, but older men are needed now. We cannot sacrifice all the gallant lads; and we who have more to lose than they must take our turn and try to do as well. You own this; I see it in your faces: then don't hold me back when the time comes for me to go. I must do my part, however small it is, or I shall never feel as if I deserved the love you give me. You will let me go, I am sure, and not regret that I did what seemed to me a solemn duty, leaving the consequences to the Lord!"
"Yes, David," sister and sweetheart answered, bravely forgetting in the fervor of the moment what heavy consequences God might see fit to send.
"Good! I knew my Spartans would be ready, and I won't disgrace them. I've waited more than a year, and done what I could. But all the while I felt that I was going to get a chance at the hard work, and I've been preparing for it. Bennet will take the garden and green-house off my hands this autumn for a year or longer, if I like. He's a kind, neighborly man, and his boy will take my place about the house and protect you faithfully. Mr. Power cannot be spared to go as chaplain, though he longs to desperately; so he is near in case of need, and with your two devoted daughters by you, mother, I surely can be spared for a little while."
"Only one daughter near her, David: I shall enlist when you do," said Christie, resolutely.
"You mean it?"
"I mean it as honestly as you do. I knew you would go: I saw you getting ready, and I made up my mind to follow. I, too, have prepared for it, and even spoken to Mrs. Amory. She has gone as matron of a hospital, and promised to find a place for me when I was ready. The day you enlist I shall write and tell her I am ready."
There was fire in Christie's eyes and a flush on her cheek now, as she stood up with the look of a woman bent on doing well her part. David caught her hands in his, regardless of the ominous bandages they held, and said, with tender admiration and reproach in his voice:
"You wouldn't marry me when I asked you this summer, fearing you would be a burden to me; but now you want to share hardship and danger with me, and support me by the knowledge of your nearness. Dear, ought I to let you do it?"
"You will let me do it, and in return I will marry you whenever you ask me," answered Christie, sealing the promise with a kiss that silenced him.
He had been anxious to be married long ago, but when he asked Mr. Power to make him happy, a month after his engagement, that wise friend said to them:
"I don't advise it yet. You have tried and proved one another as friends, now try and prove one another as lovers; then, if you feel that all is safe and happy, you will be ready for the greatest of the three experiments, and then in God's name marry."
"We will," they said, and for a year had been content, studying one another, finding much to love, and something to learn in the art of bearing and forbearing.
David had begun to think they had waited long enough, but Christie still delayed, fearing she was not worthy, and secretly afflicted by the thought of her poverty. She had so little to give in return for all she received that it troubled her, and she was sometimes tempted to ask Uncle Enos for a modest marriage portion. She never had yet, and now resolved to ask nothing, but to earn her blessing by doing her share in the great work.
"I shall remember that," was all David answered to that last promise of hers, and three months later he took her at her word.
For a week or two they went on in the old way; Christie did her housework with her head full of new plans, read books on nursing, made gruel, plasters, and poultices, till Mrs. Sterling pronounced her perfect; and dreamed dreams of a happy time to come when peace had returned, and David was safe at home with all the stars and bars a man could win without dying for them.
David set things in order, conferred with Bennet, petted his womankind, and then hurried away to pack boxes of stores, visit camps, and watch departing regiments with a daily increasing certainty that his time had come.
One September day he went slowly home, and, seeing Christie in the garden, joined her, helped her finish matting up some delicate shrubs, put by the tools, and when all was done said with unusual gentleness:
"Come and walk a little in the lane."
She put her arm in his, and answered quickly:
"You've something to tell me: I see it in your face."
"Dear, I must go."
"I go too."
That was all: she did not offer to detain him now; he did not deny her right to follow. They looked each other bravely in the face a moment, seeing, acknowledging the duty and the danger, yet ready to do the one and dare the other, since they went together. Then shoulder to shoulder, as if already mustered in, these faithful comrades marched to and fro, planning their campaign.
Next evening, as Mrs. Sterling sat alone in the twilight, a tall man in army blue entered quietly, stood watching the tranquil figure for a moment, then went and knelt down beside it, saying, with a most unsoldierly choke in the voice:
"I've done it, mother: tell me you're not sorry."
But the little Quaker cap went down on the broad shoulder, and the only answer he heard was a sob that stirred the soft folds over the tender old heart that clung so closely to the son who had lived for her so long. What happened in the twilight no one ever knew; but David received promotion for bravery in a harder battle than any he was going to, and from his mother's breast a decoration more precious to him than the cross of the Legion of Honor from a royal hand.
When Mr. Power presently came in, followed by the others, they found their soldier standing very erect in his old place on the rug, with the firelight gleaming on his bright buttons, and Bran staring at him with a perplexed aspect; for the uniform, shorn hair, trimmed beard, and a certain lofty carriage of the head so changed his master that the sagacious beast was disturbed.
Letty smiled at him approvingly, then went to comfort her mother who could not recover her tranquillity so soon. But Christie stood aloof, looking at her lover with something more than admiration in the face that kindled beautifully as she exclaimed:
"O David, you are splendid! Once I was so blind I thought you plain; but now my 'boy in blue' is the noblest looking man I ever saw. Yes, Mr. Power, I've found my hero at last! Here he is, my knight without reproach or fear, going out to take his part in the grandest battle ever fought. I wouldn't keep him if I could; I'm glad and proud to have him go; and if he never should come back to me I can bear it better for knowing that he dutifully did his best, and left the consequences to the Lord."
Then, having poured out the love and pride and confidence that enriched her sacrifice, she broke down and clung to him, weeping as so many clung and wept in those hard days when men and women gave their dearest, and those who prayed and waited suffered almost as much as those who fought and died.
When the deed was once done, it was astonishing what satisfaction they all took in it, how soon they got accustomed to the change, and what pride they felt in "our soldier." The loyal frenzy fell upon the three quiet women, and they could not do too much for their country. Mrs. Sterling cut up her treasured old linen without a murmur; Letty made "comfort bags" by the dozen, put up jelly, and sewed on blue jackets with tireless industry; while Christie proclaimed that if she had twenty lovers she would send them all; and then made preparations enough to nurse the entire party.
David meantime was in camp, getting his first taste of martial life, and not liking it any better than he thought he should; but no one heard a complaint, and he never regretted his "love among the roses," for he was one of the men who had a "principle as well as a weapon," and meant to do good service with both.
It would have taken many knapsacks to hold all the gifts showered upon him by his friends and neighbors. He accepted all that came, and furnished forth those of his company who were less favored. Among these was Elisha Wilkins, and how he got there should be told.
Elisha had not the slightest intention of enlisting, but Mrs. Wilkins was a loyal soul, and could not rest till she had sent a substitute, since she could not go herself. Finding that Lisha showed little enthusiasm on the subject, she tried to rouse him by patriotic appeals of various sorts. She read stirring accounts of battles, carefully omitting the dead and wounded; she turned out, baby and all if possible, to cheer every regiment that left; and was never tired of telling Wash how she wished she could add ten years to his age and send him off to fight for his country like a man.
But nothing seemed to rouse the supine Elisha, who chewed his quid like a placid beast of the field, and showed no sign of a proper spirit.
"Very well," said Mrs. Wilkins resolutely to herself, "ef I can't make no impression on his soul I will on his stommick, and see how that'll work."
Which threat she carried out with such skill and force that Lisha was effectually waked up, for he was "partial to good vittles," and Cynthy was a capital cook. Poor rations did not suit him, and he demanded why his favorite dishes were not forthcoming.
"We can't afford no nice vittles now when our men are sufferin' so. I should be ashamed to cook 'em, and expect to choke tryin' to eat 'em. Every one is sacrificin' somethin', and we mustn't be slack in doin' our part,--the Lord knows it's precious little,--and there won't be no stuffin' in this house for a consid'able spell. Ef I could save up enough to send a man to do my share of the fightin', I should be proud to do it. Anyway I shall stint the family and send them dear brave fellers every cent I can git without starvin' the children."
"Now, Cynthy, don't be ferce. Things will come out all right, and it ain't no use upsettin' every thing and bein' so darned uncomfortable," answered Mr. Wilkins with unusual energy.
"Yes it is, Lisha. No one has a right to be comfortable in such times as these, and this family ain't goin' to be ef I can help it," and Mrs. Wilkins set down her flat-iron with a slam which plainly told her Lisha war was declared.
He said no more but fell a thinking. He was not as unmoved as he seemed by the general excitement, and had felt sundry manly impulses to "up and at 'em," when his comrades in the shop discussed the crisis with ireful brandishing of awls, and vengeful pounding of sole leather, as if the rebels were under the hammer. But the selfish, slothful little man could not make up his mind to brave hardship and danger, and fell back on his duty to his family as a reason for keeping safe at home.
But now that home was no longer comfortable, now that Cynthy had sharpened her tongue, and turned "ferce," and now--hardest blow of all--that he was kept on short commons, he began to think he might as well be on the tented field, and get a little glory along with the discomfort if that was inevitable. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when food fell short patriotism had a chance to fill the aching void. Lisha had about made up his mind, for he knew the value of peace and quietness; and, though his wife was no scold, she was the ruling power, and in his secret soul he considered her a very remarkable woman. He knew what she wanted, but was not going to be hurried for anybody; so he still kept silent, and Mrs. Wilkins began to think she must give it up. An unexpected ally appeared however, and the good woman took advantage of it to strike one last blow.
Lisha sat eating a late breakfast one morning, with a small son at either elbow, waiting for stray mouthfuls and committing petty larcenies right and left, for Pa was in a brown study. Mrs. Wilkins was frying flap-jacks, and though this is not considered an heroical employment she made it so that day. This was a favorite dish of Lisha's, and she had prepared it as a bait for this cautious fish. To say that the fish rose at once and swallowed the bait, hook and all, but feebly expresses the justice done to the cakes by that long-suffering man. Waiting till he had a tempting pile of the lightest, brownest flapjacks ever seen upon his plate, and was watching an extra big bit of butter melt luxuriously into the warm bosom of the upper one, with a face as benign as if some of the molasses he was trickling over them had been absorbed into his nature, Mrs. Wilkins seized the propitious moment to say impressively:
"David Sterlin' has enlisted!"
"Sho! has he, though?"
"Of course he has! any man with the spirit of a muskeeter would."
"Well, he ain't got a family, you see."
"He's got his old mother, that sister home from furrin' parts somewheres, and Christie just going to be married. I should like to know who's got a harder family to leave than that?"
"Six young children is harder: ef I went fifin' and drummin' off, who 'd take care of them I'd like to know?"
"I guess I could support the family ef I give my mind to it;" and Mrs. Wilkins turned a flapjack with an emphasis that caused her lord to bolt a hot triangle with dangerous rapidity; for well he knew very little of his money went into the common purse. She never reproached him, but the fact nettled him now; and something in the tone of her voice made that sweet morsel hard to swallow.
"'Pears to me you 're in ruther a hurry to be a widder, Cynthy, shovin' me off to git shot in this kind of a way," growled Lisha, ill at ease.
"I'd ruther be a brave man's widder than a coward's wife, any day!" cried the rebellious Cynthy: then she relented, and softly slid two hot cakes into his plate; adding, with her hand upon his shoulder, "Lisha, dear, I want to be proud of my husband as other women be of theirs. Every one gives somethin', I've only got you, and I want to do my share, and do it hearty."
She went back to her work, and Mr. Wilkins sat thoughtfully stroking the curly heads beside him, while the boys ravaged his plate, with no reproof, but a half audible, "My little chaps, my little chaps!"
She thought she had got him, and smiled to herself, even while a great tear sputtered on the griddle at those last words of his.
Imagine her dismay, when, having consumed the bait, her fish gave signs of breaking the line, and escaping after all; for Mr. Wilkins pushed back his chair, and said slowly, as he filled his pipe:
"I'm blest ef I can see the sense of a lot of decent men going off to be froze, and starved, and blowed up jest for them confounded niggers."
He got no further, for his wife's patience gave out; and, leaving her cakes to burn black, she turned to him with a face glowing like her stove, and cried out:
"Lisha, ain't you got no heart? can you remember what Hepsey told us, and call them poor, long-sufferin' creeters names? Can you think of them wretched wives sold from their husbands; them children as clear as ourn tore from their mothers; and old folks kep slavin eighty long, hard years with no pay, no help, no pity, when they git past work? Lisha Wilkins, look at that, and say no ef you darst!"
Mrs. Wilkins was a homely woman in an old calico gown, but her face, her voice, her attitude were grand, as she flung wide the door of the little back bedroom. and pointed with her tin spatula to the sight beyond.
Only Hepsey sitting by a bed where lay what looked more like a shrivelled mummy than a woman. Ah! but it was that old mother worked and waited for so long: blind now, and deaf; childish, and half dead with many hardships, but safe and free at last; and Hepsey's black face was full of a pride, a peace, and happiness more eloquent and touching than any speech or sermon ever uttered.
Mr. Wilkins had heard her story, and been more affected by it than he would confess: now it came home to him with sudden force; the thought of his own mother, wife, or babies torn from him stirred him to the heart, and the manliest emotion he had ever known caused him to cast his pipe at his feet, put on his hat with an energetic slap, and walk out of the house, wearing an expression on his usually wooden face that caused his wife to clap her hands and cry exultingly:
"I thought that would fetch him!"
Then she fell to work like an inspired woman; and at noon a sumptuous dinner "smoked upon the board;" the children were scrubbed till their faces shone; and the room was as fresh and neat as any apartment could be with the penetrating perfume of burnt flapjacks still pervading the air, and three dozen ruffled nightcaps decorating the clothes-lines overhead.
"Tell me the instant minute you see Pa a comin', and I'll dish up the gravy," was Mrs. Wilkins's command, as she stepped in with a cup of tea for old "Harm," as she called Hepsey's mother.
"He's a comin', Ma!" called Gusty, presently.
"No, he ain't: it's a trainer," added Ann Lizy.
"Yes, 'tis Pa! oh, my eye! ain't he stunnin'!" cried Wash, stricken for the first time with admiration of his sire.
Before Mrs. Wilkins could reply to these conflicting rumors her husband walked in, looking as martial as his hollow chest and thin legs permitted, and, turning his cap nervously in his hands, said half-proudly, half-reproachfully:
"Now, Cynthy, be you satisfied?"
"Oh, my Lisha! I be, I be!" and the inconsistent woman fell upon his buttony breast weeping copiously.
If ever a man was praised and petted, admired and caressed, it was Elisha Wilkins that day. His wife fed him with the fat of the land, regardless of consequences; his children revolved about him with tireless curiosity and wonder; his neighbors flocked in to applaud, advise, and admire; every one treated him with a respect most grateful to his feelings; he was an object of interest, and with every hour his importance increased, so that by night he felt like a Commander-in-Chief, and bore himself accordingly. He had enlisted in David's regiment, which was a great comfort to his wife; for though her stout heart never failed her, it grew very heavy at times; and when Lisha was gone, she often dropped a private tear over the broken pipe that always lay in its old place, and vented her emotions by sending baskets of nourishment to Private Wilkins, which caused that bandy-legged warrior to be much envied and cherished by his mates.
"I'm glad I done it; for it will make a man of Lisha; and, if I've sent him to his death, God knows he'll be fitter to die than if he stayed here idlin' his life away."
Then the good soul openly shouldered the burden she had borne so long in secret, and bravely trudged on alone.
"Another great battle!" screamed the excited news-boys in the streets. "Another great battle!" read Letty in the cottage parlor. "Another great battle!" cried David, coming in with the war-horse expression on his face a month or two after he enlisted.
The women dropped their work to look and listen; for his visits were few and short, and every instant was precious. When the first greetings were over, David stood silent an instant, and a sudden mist came over his eyes as he glanced from one beloved face to another; then he threw back his head with the old impatient gesture, squared his shoulders, and said in a loud, cheerful voice, with a suspicious undertone of emotion in it, however:
"My precious people, I've got something to tell you: are you ready?"
They knew what it was without a word. Mrs. Sterling clasped her hands and bowed her head. Letty turned pale and dropped her work; but Christie's eyes kindled, as she answered with a salute:
"Ready, my General."
"We are ordered off at once, and go at four this afternoon. I've got a three hours' leave to say good-by in. Now, let's be brave and enjoy every minute of it."
"We will: what can I do for you, Davy?" asked Christie, wonderfully supported by the thought that she was going too.
"Keep your promise, dear," he answered, while the warlike expression changed to one of infinite tenderness.
"This;" and he held out his hand with a little paper in it. She saw it was a marriage license, and on it lay a wedding-ring. She did not hesitate an instant, but laid her own hand in his, and answered with her heart in her face:
"I'll keep it, David."
"I knew you would!" then holding her close he said in a tone that made it very hard for her to keep steady, as she had vowed she would do to the last: "I know it is much to ask, but I want to feel that you are mine before I go. Not only that, but it will be a help and protection to you, dear, when you follow. As a married woman you will get on better, as my wife you will be allowed to come to me if I need you, and as my"--he stopped there, for he could not add--"as my widow you will have my pension to support you."
She understood, put both arms about his neck as if to keep him safe, and whispered fervently:
"Nothing can part us any more, not even death; for love like ours will last for ever."
"Then you are quite willing to try the third great experiment?"
"Glad and proud to do it." "With no doubt, no fear, to mar your consent." "Not one, David." "That's true love, Christie!"
Then they stood quite still for a time, and in the silence the two hearts talked together in the sweet language no tongue can utter. Presently David said regretfully:
"I meant it should be so different. I always planned that we'd be married some bright summer day, with many friends about us; then take a happy little journey somewhere together, and come back to settle down at home in the dear old way. Now it's all so hurried, sorrowful, and strange. A dull November day; no friends but Mr. Power, who will be here soon; no journey but my march to Washington alone; and no happy coming home together in this world perhaps. Can you bear it, love?"
"Have no fear for me: I feel as if I could bear any thing just now; for I've got into a heroic mood and I mean to keep so as long as I can. I've always wanted to live in stirring times, to have a part in great deeds, to sacrifice and suffer something for a principle or a person; and now I have my wish. I like it, David: it's a grand time to live, a splendid chance to do and suffer; and I want to be in it heart and soul, and earn a little of the glory or the martyrdom that will come in the end. Surely I shall if I give you and myself to the cause; and I do it gladly, though I know that my heart has got to ache as it never has ached yet, when my courage fails, as it will by and by, and my selfish soul counts the cost of my offering after the excitement is over. Help me to be brave and strong, David: don't let me complain or regret, but show me what lies beyond, and teach me to believe that simply doing the right is reward and happiness enough."
Christie was lifted out of herself for the moment, and looked inspired by the high mood which was but the beginning of a nobler life for her. David caught the exaltation, and gave no further thought to any thing but the duty of the hour, finding himself stronger and braver for that long look into the illuminated face of the woman he loved.
"I'll try," was all his answer to her appeal; then proved that he meant it by adding, with his lips against her cheek: "I must go to mother and Letty. We leave them behind, and they must be comforted."
He went, and Christie vanished to make ready for her wedding, conscious, in spite of her exalted state of mind, that every thing was very hurried, sad, and strange, and very different from the happy day she had so often planned.
"No matter, we are 'well on't for love,' and that is all we really need," she thought, recalling with a smile Mrs. Wilkins's advice.
"David sends you these, dear. Can I help in any way?" asked Letty, coming with a cluster of lovely white roses in her hand, and a world of affection in her eyes.
"I thought he'd give me violets," and a shadow came over Christie's face.
"But they are mourning flowers, you know."
"Not to me. The roses are, for they remind me of poor Helen, and the first work I did with David was arranging flowers like these for a dead baby's little coffin."
"My dearest Christie, don't be superstitious: all brides wear roses, and Davy thought you'd like them," said Letty, troubled at her words.
"Then I'll wear them, and I won't have fancies if I can help it. But I think few brides dress with a braver, happier heart than mine, though I do choose a sober wedding-gown," answered Christie, smiling again, as she took from a half-packed trunk her new hospital suit of soft, gray, woollen stuff.
"Won't you wear the pretty silvery silk we like so well?" asked Letty timidly, for something in Christie's face and manner impressed her very much.
"No, I will be married in my uniform as David is," she answered with a look Letty long remembered.
"Mr. Power has come," she said softly a few minutes later, with an anxious glance at the clock.
"Go dear, I'll come directly. But first"--and Christie held her friend close a moment, kissed her tenderly, and whispered in a broken voice: "Remember, I don't take his heart from you, I only share it with my sister and my mother."
"I'm glad to give him to you, Christie; for now I feel as if I had partly paid the great debt I've owed so long," answered Letty through her tears.
Then she went away, and Christie soon followed, looking very like a Quaker bride in her gray gown with no ornament but delicate frills at neck and wrist, and the roses in her bosom.
"No bridal white, dear?" said David, going to her.
"Only this," and she touched the flowers, adding with her hand on the blue coat sleeve that embraced her: "I want to consecrate my uniform as you do yours by being married in it. Isn't it fitter for a soldier's wife than lace and silk at such a time as this?"
"Much fitter: I like it; and I find you beautiful, my Christie," whispered David, as she put one of her roses in his button-hole.
"Then I'm satisfied."
"Mr. Power is waiting: are you ready, love?"
Then they were married, with Letty and her mother standing beside them, Bennet and his wife dimly visible in the door-way, and poor Bran at his master's feet, looking up with wistful eyes, half human in the anxious affection they expressed.
Christie never forgot that service, so simple, sweet, and solemn; nor the look her husband gave her at the end, when he kissed her on lips and forehead, saying fervently, "God bless my wife!"
A tender little scene followed that can better be imagined than described; then Mr. Power said cheerily:
"One hour more is all you have, so make the most of it, dearly beloved. You young folks take a wedding-trip to the green-house, while we see how well we can get on without you."
"THEN THEY WERE MARRIED."
David and Christie went smiling away together, and if they shed any tears over the brief happiness no one saw them but the flowers, and they loyally kept the secret folded up in their tender hearts.
Mr. Power cheered the old lady, while Letty, always glad to serve, made ready the last meal David might ever take at home.
A very simple little marriage feast, but more love, good-will, and tender wishes adorned the plain table than is often found at wedding breakfasts; and better than any speech or song was Letty's broken whisper, as she folded her arms round David's empty chair when no one saw her, "Heaven bless and keep and bring him back to us."
How time went that day! The inexorable clock would strike twelve so soon, and then the minutes flew till one was at hand, and the last words were still half said, the last good-byes still unuttered.
"I must go!" cried David with a sort of desperation, as Letty clung to one arm, Christie to the other.
"I shall see you soon: good-by, rny husband," whispered Christie, setting him free.
"Give the last kiss to mother," added Letty, following her example, and in another minute David was gone.
At the turn of the lane, he looked back and swung his cap; all waved their hands to him; and then he marched away to the great work before him, leaving those loving hearts to ask the unanswerable question: "How will he come home?"
Christie was going to town to see the regiment off, and soon followed with Mr. Power. They went early to a certain favorable spot, and there found Mrs. Wilkins, with her entire family perched upon a fence, on the spikes of which they impaled themselves at intervals, and had to be plucked off by the stout girl engaged to assist in this memorable expedition.
"Yes, Lisha 's goin', and I was bound he should see every one of his blessed children the last thing, ef I took 'em all on my back. He knows where to look, and he's a goin' to see seven cheerful faces as he goes by. Time enough to cry byme by; so set stiddy, boys, and cheer loud when you see Pa," said Mrs. Wilkins, fanning her hot face, and utterly forgetting her cherished bonnet in the excitement of the moment.
"I hear drums! They're comin'!" cried Wash, after a long half hour's waiting had nearly driven him frantic.
The two younger boys immediately tumbled off the fence, and were with difficulty restored to their perches. Gusty began to cry, Ann Elizy to wave a minute red cotton handkerchief, and Adelaide to kick delightedly in her mother's arms.
"Jane Carter, take this child for massy sake: my legs do tremble so I can't h'ist her another minute. Hold on to me behind, somebody, for I must see ef I do pitch into the gutter," cried Mrs. Wilkins, with a gasp, as she wiped her eyes on her shawl, clutched the railing, and stood ready to cheer bravely when her conquering hero came.
Wash had heard drums every five minutes since he arrived, but this time he was right, and began to cheer the instant a red cockade appeared at the other end of the long street.
It was a different scene now than in the first enthusiastic, hopeful days. Young men and ardent boys filled the ranks then, brave by instinct, burning with loyal zeal, and blissfully ignorant of all that lay before them.
Now the blue coats were worn by mature men, some gray, all grave and resolute; husbands and fathers with the memory of wives and children tugging at their heart-strings; homes left desolate behind them, and before them the grim certainty of danger, hardship, and perhaps a captivity worse than death. Little of the glamour of romance about the war now: they saw what it was, a long, hard task; and here were the men to do it well.
Even the lookers-on were different. Once all was wild enthusiasm and glad uproar; now men's lips were set, and women's smileless even as they cheered; fewer handkerchiefs whitened the air, for wet eyes needed them; and sudden lulls, almost solemn in their stillness, followed the acclamations of the crowd. All watched with quickened breath and proud souls that living wave, blue below, and bright with a steely glitter above, as it flowed down the street and away to join the sea of dauntless hearts that for months had rolled up against the South, and ebbed back reddened with the blood of men like these.
As the inspiring music, the grand tramp drew near, Christie felt the old thrill and longed to fall in and follow the flag anywhere. Then she saw David, and the regiment became one man to her. He was pale, but his eyes shone, and his whole face expressed that two of the best and bravest emotions of a man, love and loyalty, were at their height as he gave his new-made wife a long, lingering look that seemed to say:
"I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more."
Christie smiled and waved her hand to him, showed him his wedding roses still on her breast, and bore up as gallantly as he, resolved that his last impression of her should be a cheerful one. But when it was all over, and nothing remained but the trampled street, the hurrying crowd, the bleak November sky, when Mrs. Wilkins sat sobbing on the steps like Niobe with her children scattered about her, then Christie's heart gave way, and she hid her face on Mr. Power's shoulder for a moment, all her ardor quenched in tears as she cried within herself:
"No, I could not bear it if I was not going too!"