THREE months later the war seemed drawing toward an end, and Christie was dreaming happy dreams of home and rest with David, when, as she sat one day writing a letter full of good news to the wife of a patient, a telegram was handed to her, and tearing it open she read:
"Captain Sterling dangerously wounded. Tell his wife to come at once. E. WILKINS."
"No bad news I hope, ma'am?" said the young fellow anxiously, as his half-written letter fluttered to the ground, and Christie sat looking at that fateful strip of paper with all the strength and color stricken out of her face by the fear that fell upon her.
"It might be worse. They told me he was dying once, and when I got to him he met me at the door. I'll hope for the best now as I did then, but I never felt like this before," and she hid her face as if daunted by ominous forebodings too strong to be controlled.
In a moment she was up and doing as calm and steady as if her heart was not torn by an anxiety too keen for words. By the time the news had flown through the house, she was ready; and, coming down with no luggage but a basket of comforts on her arm, she found the hall full of wan and crippled creatures gathered there to see her off, for no nurse in the hospital was more beloved than Mrs. Sterling. Many eyes followed her,--many lips blessed her, many hands were outstretched for a sympathetic grasp: and, as the ambulance went clattering away, many hearts echoed the words of one grateful ghost of a man, "The Lord go with her and stand by her as she's stood by us."
It was not a long journey that lay before her; but to Christie it seemed interminable, for all the way one unanswerable question haunted her, "Surely God will not be so cruel as to take David now when he has done his part so well and the reward is so near."
It was dark when she arrived at the appointed spot; but Elisha Wilkins was there to receive her, and to her first breathless question, "How is David?" answered briskly:
"Asleep and doin' well, ma'am. At least I should say so, and I peeked at him the last thing before I started."
"Where is he?"
"In the little hospital over yonder. Camp warn't no place for him, and I fetched him here as the nighest, and the best thing I could do for him."
"How is he wounded?"
"Shot in the shoulder, side, and arm."
"Dangerously you said?"
"No, ma'am, that warn't and ain't my opinion. The sergeant sent that telegram, and I think he done wrong. The Captain is hit pretty bad; but it ain't by no means desperate accordin' to my way of thinkin'," replied the hopeful Wilkins, who seemed mercifully gifted with an unusual flow of language.
"Thank heaven! Now go on and tell me all about it as fast as you can," commanded Christie, walking along the rough road so rapidly that Private Wilkins would have been distressed both in wind and limb if discipline and hardship had not done much for him.
"Well, you see we've been skirmishin' round here for a week, for the woods are full of rebs waitin' to surprise some commissary stores that's expected along. Contrabands is always comin' into camp, and we do the best we can for the poor devils, and send 'em along where they'll be safe. Yesterday four women and a boy come: about as desperate a lot as I ever see; for they'd been two days and a night in the big swamp, wadin' up to their waists in mud and water, with nothin' to eat, and babies on their backs all the way. Every woman had a child, one dead, but she'd fetched it, 'so it might be buried free,' the poor soul said."
Mr. Wilkins stopped an instant as if for breath, but the thought of his own "little chaps" filled his heart with pity for that bereaved mother; and he understood now why decent men were willing to be shot and starved for "the confounded niggers," as he once called them.
"Go on," said Christie, and he made haste to tell the little story that was so full of intense interest to his listener.
"I never saw the Captain so worked up as he was by the sight of them wretched women. He fed and warmed 'em, comforted their poor scared souls, give what clothes we could find, buried the dead baby with his own hands, and nussed the other little creeters as if they were his own. It warn't safe to keep 'em more 'n a day, so when night come the Captain got 'em off down the river as quiet as he could. Me and another man helped him, for he wouldn't trust no one but himself to boss the job. A boat was ready,--blest if I know how he got it,--and about midnight we led them women down to it. The boy was a strong lad, and any of 'em could help row, for the current would take 'em along rapid. This way, ma'am; be we goin' too fast for you?"
"Not fast enough. Finish quick."
"We got down the bank all right, the Captain standing in the little path that led to the river to keep guard, while Bates held the boat stiddy and I put the women in. Things was goin' lovely when the poor gal who'd lost her baby must needs jump out and run up to thank the Captain agin for all he'd done for her. Some of them sly rascals was watchin' the river: they see her, heard Bates call out, 'Come back, wench; come back!' and they fired. She did come back like a shot, and we give that boat a push that sent it into the middle of the stream. Then we run along below the bank, and come out further down to draw off the rebs. Some followed us and we give it to 'em handsome. But some warn't deceived, and we heard 'em firin' away at the Captain; so we got back to him as fast as we could, but it warn't soon enough.--Take my arm, Mis' Sterlin': it's kinder rough here."
"And you found him?"--
"Lyin' right acrost the path with two dead men in front of him; for he'd kep 'em off like a lion till the firin' brought up a lot of our fellers and the rebs skedaddled. I thought he was dead, for by the starlight I see he was bleedin' awful,--hold on, my dear, hold on to me,--he warn't, thank God, and looked up at me and sez, sez he, 'Are they safe?' 'They be, Captain,' sez I. 'Then it's all right,' sez he, smilin' in that bright way of his, and then dropped off as quiet as a lamb. We got him back to camp double quick, and when the surgeon see them three wounds he shook his head, and I mistrusted that it warn't no joke. So when the Captain come to I asked him what I could do or git for him, and he answered in a whisper, 'My wife.'"
For an instant Christie did "hold on" to Mr. Wilkins's arm, for those two words seemed to take all her strength away. Then the thought that David was waiting for her strung her nerves and gave her courage to bear any thing.
"Is he here?" she asked of her guide a moment later, as he stopped before a large, half-ruined house, through whose windows dim lights and figures were seen moving to and fro.
"Yes, ma'am; we've made a hospital of this; the Captain's got the best room in it, and now he's got the best miss that's goin' anywheres. Won't you have a drop of something jest as a stand-by before you see him?"
"Nothing; take me to him at once."
"Here we be then. Still sleepin': that looks well."
Mr. Wilkins softly led the way down a long hall, opened a door, and after one look fell back and saluted as the Captain's wife passed in.
A surgeon was bending over the low bed, and when a hoarse voice at his elbow asked:
"How is he?" The doctor answered without looking up:
"Done for: this shot through the lungs will finish him before morning I'm afraid."
"Then leave him to me: I am his wife," said the voice, clear and sharp now with the anguish those hard words had brought.
"Good God, why did no one tell me! My dear lady, I thought you were a nurse!" cried the poor surgeon rent with remorse for what now seemed the brutal frankness of his answer, as he saw the white face of the woman at his side, with a look in her eyes harder to see than the bitterest tears that ever fell.
"I am a nurse. If you can do nothing, please go and leave him to me the little while he has to live."
Without a word the surgeon vanished, and Christie was alone with David.
The instant she saw him she felt that there was no hope, for she had seen too many faces wear the look his wore to be deceived even by her love. Lying with closed eyes already sunken by keen suffering, hair damp with the cold dew on his forehead, a scarlet spot on either cheek, gray lines about the mouth, and pale lips parted by the painful breaths that came in heavy gasps or fluttered fitfully. This was what Christie saw, and after that long look she knew the truth, and sunk down beside the bed, crying with an exceeding bitter cry:
"O David, O my husband, must I give you up so soon?"
His eyes opened then, and he turned his cheek to hers, whispering with a look that tried to be a smile, but ended in a sigh of satisfaction:
"I knew you'd come;" then, as a tearless sob shook her from head to foot, he added steadily, though each breath cost a pang, "'Yes, dear, I must go first, but it won't be hard with you to help me do it bravely."
In that supremely bitter moment there returned to Christie's memory certain words of the marriage service that had seemed so beautiful when she took part in it: "For better for worse, till death us do part." She had known the better, so short, so sweet! This was the worse, and till death came she must keep faithfully the promise made with such a happy heart. The thought brought with it unexpected strength, and gave her courage to crush down her grief, seal up her tears, and show a brave and tender face as she took that feeble hand in hers ready to help her husband die.
He saw and thanked her for the effort, felt the sustaining power of a true wife's heart, and seemed to have no other care, since she was by him steadfast to the end. He lay looking at her with such serene and happy eyes that she would not let a tear, a murmur, mar his peace; and for a little while she felt as if she had gone out of this turbulent world into a heavenly one, where love reigned supreme.
But such hours are as brief as beautiful, and at midnight mortal suffering proved that immortal joy had not yet begun.
Christie had sat by many death-beds, but never one like this; for, through all the bitter pangs that tried his flesh, David's soul remained patient and strong, upheld by the faith that conquers pain and makes even Death a friend. In the quiet time that went before, he had told his last wishes, given his last messages of love, and now had but one desire,--to go soon that Christie might be spared the trial of seeing suffering she could neither lighten nor share.
"Go and rest, dear; go and rest," he whispered more than once. "Let Wilkins come: this is too much for you. I thought it would be easier, but I am so strong life fights for me inch by inch."
But Christie would not go, and for her sake David made haste to die.
Hour after hour the tide ebbed fast, hour after hour the man's patient soul sat waiting for release, and hour after hour the woman's passionate heart clung to the love that seemed drifting away leaving her alone upon the shore. Once or twice she could not bear it, and cried out in her despair:
"No, it is not just that you should suffer this for a creature whose whole life is not worth a day of your brave, useful, precious one! Why did you pay such a price for that girl's liberty?" she said, as the thought of her own wrecked future fell upon her dark and heavy.
"Because I owed it;--she suffered more than this seeing her baby die;--I thought of you in her place, and I could not help doing it."
The broken answer, the reproachful look, wrung Christie's heart, and she was silent: for, in all the knightly tales she loved so well, what Sir Galahad had rescued a more wretched, wronged, and helpless woman than the poor soul whose dead baby David buried tenderly before he bought the mother's freedom with his life?
Only one regret escaped him as the end drew very near, and mortal weakness brought relief from mortal pain. The first red streaks of dawn shone in the east, and his dim eyes brightened at the sight;
"Such a beautiful world!" he whispered with the ghost of a smile, "and so much good work to do in it, I wish I could stay and help a little longer," he added, while the shadow deepened on his face. But soon he said, trying to press Christie's hand, still holding his: "You will do my part, and do it better than I could. Don't mourn, dear heart, but work; and by and by you will be comforted."
"DON'T MOURN, DEAR HEART, BUT WORK."
"I will try; but I think I shall soon follow you, and need no comfort here," answered Christie, already finding consolation in the thought. "What is it, David?" she asked a little later, as she saw his eyes turn wistfully toward the window where the rosy glow was slowly creeping up the sky.
"I want to see the sun rise;--that used to be our happy time;--turn my face toward the light, Christie, and we'll wait for it together."
An hour later when the first pale ray crept in at the low window, two faces lay upon the pillow; one full of the despairing grief for which there seems no balm; the other with lips and eyes of solemn peace, and that mysterious expression, lovelier than any smile, which death leaves as a tender token that all is well with the new-born soul.
To Christie that was the darkest hour of the dawn, but for David sunrise had already come.