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Chapter 4 – A Night

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Being fond of the night side of nature, I was soon promoted to
the post of night nurse, with every facility for indulging in my
favorite pastime of "owling." My colleague, a black-eyed widow,
relieved me at dawn, we two taking care of the ward, between us,
like the immortal Sairy and Betsey, "turn and turn about." I
usually found my boys in the jolliest state of mind their
condition allowed; for it was a known fact that Nurse Periwinkle
objected to blue devils, and entertained a belief that he who
laughed most was surest of recovery. At the beginning of my
reign, dumps and dismals prevailed; the nurses looked anxious and
tired, the men gloomy or sad; and a general "Hark!-from-the-
tombs-a-doleful-sound" style of conversation seemed to be the
fashion: a state of things which caused one coming from a merry,
social New England town, to feel as if she had got into an
exhausted receiver; and the instinct of self-preservation, to say
nothing of a philanthropic desire to serve the race, caused a
speedy change in Ward No. 1.

More flattering than the most gracefully turned compliment, more
grateful than the most admiring glance, was the sight of those
rows of faces, all strange to me a little while ago, now lighting
up, with smiles of welcome, as I came among them, enjoying that
moment heartily, with a womanly pride in their regard, a motherly
affection for them all. The evenings were spent in reading aloud,
writing letters, waiting on and amusing the men, going the rounds
with Dr. P., as he made his second daily survey, dressing my
dozen wounds afresh, giving last doses, and making them cozy for
the long hours to come, till the nine o’clock bell rang, the gas
was turned down, the day nurses went off duty, the night watch
came on, and my nocturnal adventure began.

My ward was now divided into three rooms; and, under favor of the
matron, I had managed to sort out the patients in such a way that
I had what I called, "my duty room," my "pleasure room," and my
"pathetic room," and worked for each in a different way. One, I
visited, armed with a dressing tray, full of rollers, plasters,
and pins; another, with books, flowers, games, and gossip; a
third, with teapots, lullabies, consolation, and sometimes, a
shroud.

Wherever the sickest or most helpless man chanced to be, there I
held my watch, often visiting the other rooms, to see that the
general watchman of the ward did his duty by the fires and the
wounds, the latter needing constant wetting. Not only on this
account did I meander, but also to get fresher air than the close
rooms afforded; for, owing to the stupidity of that mysterious
"somebody" who does all the damage in the world, the windows had
been carefully nailed down above, and the lower sashes could only
be raised in the mildest weather, for the men lay just below. I
had suggested a summary smashing of a few panes here and there,
when frequent appeals to headquarters had proved unavailing, and
daily orders to lazy attendants had come to nothing. No one
seconded the motion, however, and the nails were far beyond my
reach; for, though belonging to the sisterhood of "ministering
angels," I had no wings, and might as well have asked for Jacob’s
ladder, as a pair of steps, in that charitable chaos.

One of the harmless ghosts who bore me company during the haunted
hours, was Dan, the watchman, whom I regarded with a certain awe;
for, though so much together, I never fairly saw his face, and,
but for his legs, should never have recognized him, as we seldom
met by day. These legs were remarkable, as was his whole figure,
for his body was short, rotund, and done up in a big jacket, and
muffler; his beard hid the lower part of his face, his hat-brim
the upper; and all I ever discovered was a pair of sleepy eyes,
and a very mild voice. But the legs! – very long, very thin, very
crooked and feeble, looking like grey sausages in their tight
coverings, without a ray of pegtopishness about them, and
finished off with a pair of expansive, green cloth shoes, very
like Chinese junks, with the sails down. This figure, gliding
noiselessly about the dimly lighted rooms, was strongly
suggestive of the spirit of a beer barrel mounted on cork-screws,
haunting the old hotel in search of its lost mates, emptied and
staved in long ago.

Another goblin who frequently appeared to me, was the attendant
of the pathetic room, who, being a faithful soul, was often up to
tend two or three men, weak and wandering as babies, after the
fever had gone. The amiable creature beguiled the watches of the
night by brewing jorums of a fearful beverage, which he called
coffee, and insisted on sharing with me; coming in with a great
bowl of something like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of
cream, rich in an all-pervading flavor of molasses, scorch and
tin pot. Such an amount of good will and neighborly kindness also
went into the mess, that I never could find the heart to refuse,
but always received it with thanks, sipped it with hypocritical
relish while he remained, and whipped it into the slop-jar the
instant he departed, thereby gratifying him, securing one rousing
laugh in the doziest hour of the night, and no one was the worse
for the transaction but the pigs. Whether they were "cut off
untimely in their sins," or not, I carefully abstained from
inquiring.

It was a strange life – asleep half the day, exploring Washington
the other half, and all night hovering, like a massive cherubim,
in a red rigolette, over the slumbering sons of man. I liked it,
and found many things to amuse, instruct, and interest me. The
snores alone were quite a study, varying from the mild sniff to
the stentorian snort, which startled the echoes and hoisted the
performer erect to accuse his neighbor of the deed, magnanimously
forgive him, and wrapping the drapery of his couch about him, lie
down to vocal slumber. After listening for a week to this band of
wind instruments, I indulged in the belief that I could recognize
each by the snore alone, and was tempted to join the chorus by
breaking out with John Brown’s favorite hymn:

"Blow ye the trumpet, blow!"

I would have given much to have possessed the art of sketching,
for many of the faces became wonderfully interesting when
unconscious. Some grew stern and grim, the men evidently dreaming
of war, as they gave orders, groaned over their wounds, or damned
the rebels vigorously; some grew sad and infinitely pathetic, as
if the pain borne silently all day, revenged itself by now
betraying what the man’s pride had concealed so well. Often the
roughest grew young and pleasant when sleep smoothed the hard
lines away, letting the real nature assert itself; many almost
seemed to speak, and I learned to know these men better by night
than through any intercourse by day. Sometimes they disappointed
me, for faces that looked merry and good in the light, grew bad
and sly when the shadows came; and though they made no
confidences in words, I read their lives, leaving them to wonder
at the change of manner this midnight magic wrought in their
nurse. A few talked busily; one drummer boy sang sweetly, though
no persuasions could win a note from him by day; and several
depended on being told what they had talked of in the morning.
Even my constitutionals in the chilly halls, possessed a certain
charm, for the house was never still. Sentinels tramped round it
all night long, their muskets glittering in the wintry moonlight
as they walked, or stood before the doors, straight and silent,
as figures of stone, causing one to conjure up romantic visions
of guarded forts, sudden surprises, and daring deeds; for in
these war times the hum drum life of Yankeedom had vanished, and
the most prosaic feel some thrill of that excitement which stirs
the nation’s heart, and makes its capital a camp of hospitals.
Wandering up and down these lower halls, I often heard cries from
above, steps hurrying to and fro, saw surgeons passing up, or men
coming down carrying a stretcher, where lay a long white
figure, whose face was shrouded and whose fight was done.
Sometimes I stopped to watch the passers in the street, the
moonlight shining on the spire opposite, or the gleam of some
vessel floating, like a white-winged sea-gull, down the broad
Potomac, whose fullest flow can never wash away the red stain of
the land.

The night whose events I have a fancy to record, opened with a
little comedy, and closed with a great tragedy; for a virtuous
and useful life untimely ended is always tragical to those who
see not as God sees. My headquarters were beside the bed of a New
Jersey boy, crazed by the horrors of that dreadful Saturday. A
slight wound in the knee brought him there; but his mind had
suffered more than his body; some string of that delicate machine
was over strained, and, for days, he had been reliving in
imagination, the scenes he could not forget, till his distress
broke out in incoherent ravings, pitiful to hear. As I sat by
him, endeavoring to soothe his poor distracted brain by the
constant touch of wet hands over his hot forehead, he lay
cheering his comrades on, hurrying them back, then counting them
as they fell around him, often clutching my arm, to drag me from
the vicinity of a bursting shell, or covering up his head to
screen himself from a shower of shot; his face brilliant with
fever; his eyes restless; his head never still; every muscle
strained and rigid; while an incessant stream of defiant shouts,
whispered warnings, and broken laments, poured from his lips with
that forceful bewilderment which makes such wanderings so hard to
overhear.

It was past eleven, and my patient was slowly wearying himself
into fitful intervals of quietude, when, in one of these pauses,
a curious sound arrested my attention. Looking over my shoulder,
I saw a one-legged phantom hopping nimbly down the room; and,
going to meet it, recognized a certain Pennsylvania gentleman,
whose wound-fever had taken a turn for the worse, and, depriving
him of the few wits a drunken campaign had left him, set him
literally tripping on the light, fantastic toe "toward home," as
he blandly informed me, touching the military cap which formed a
striking contrast to the severe simplicity of the rest of his
decidedly undress uniform. When sane, the least movement produced
a roar of pain or a volley of oaths; but the departure of reason
seemed to have wrought an agreeable change, both in the man and
his manners; for, balancing himself on one leg, like a meditative
stork, he plunged into an animated discussion of the war, the
President, lager beer, and Enfield rifles, regardless of any
suggestions of mine as to the propriety of returning to bed, lest
he be court-martialed for desertion.

Anything more supremely ridiculous can hardly be imagined than
this figure, scantily draped in white, its one foot covered with
a big blue sock, a dingy cap set rakingly askew on its shaven
head, and placid satisfaction beaming in its broad red face, as
it flourished a mug in one hand, an old boot in the other,
calling them canteen and knapsack, while it skipped and fluttered
in the most unearthly fashion. What to do with the creature I
didn’t know; Dan was absent, and if I went to find him, the
perambulator might festoon himself out of the window, set his
toga on fire, or do some of his neighbors a mischief. The
attendant of the room was sleeping like a near relative of the
celebrated Seven, and nothing short of pins would rouse him; for
he had been out that day, and whiskey asserted its supremacy in
balmy whiffs. Still declaiming, in a fine flow of eloquence, the
demented gentleman hopped on, blind and deaf to my graspings and
entreaties; and I was about to slam the door in his face, and run
for help, when a second and saner phantom, "all in white," came
to the rescue, in the likeness of a big Prussian, who spoke no
English, but divined the crisis, and put an end to it, by
bundling the lively monoped into his bed, like a baby, with an
authoritative command to "stay put," which received added weight
from being delivered in an odd conglomeration of French and
German, accompanied by warning wags of a head decorated with a
yellow cotton night cap, rendered most imposing by a tassel like
a bell-pull. Rather exhausted by his excursion, the member from
Pennsylvania subsided; and, after an irrepressible laugh
together, my Prussian ally and myself were returning to our
places, when the echo of a sob caused us to glance along the
beds. It came from one in the corner – such a little bed! – and such
a tearful little face looked up at us, as we stopped beside it!
The twelve years old drummer boy was not singing now, but
sobbing, with a manly effort all the while to stifle the
distressful sounds that would break out.

"What is it, Teddy?" I asked, as he rubbed the tears away, and
checked himself in the middle of a great sob to answer
plaintively:

"I’ve got a chill, ma’am, but I ain’t cryin’ for that, ’cause I’m
used to it. I dreamed Kit was here, and when I waked up he
wasn’t, and I couldn’t help it, then."

The boy came in with the rest, and the man who was taken dead
from the ambulance was the Kit he mourned. Well he might; for,
when the wounded were brought from Fredericksburg, the child lay
in one of the camps thereabout, and this good friend, though
sorely hurt himself, would not leave him to the exposure and
neglect of such a time and place; but, wrapping him in his own
blanket, carried him in his arms to the transport, tended him
during the passage, and only yielded up his charge when Death met
him at the door of the hospital which promised care and comfort
for the boy. For ten days, Teddy had shivered or burned with
fever and ague, pining the while for Kit, and refusing to be
comforted, because he had not been able to thank him for the
generous protection, which, perhaps, had cost the giver’s life.
The vivid dream had wrung the childish heart with a fresh pang,
and when I tried the solace fitted for his years, the remorseful
fear that haunted him found vent in a fresh burst of tears, as he
looked at the wasted hands I was endeavoring to warm:

"Oh! if I’d only been as thin when Kit carried me as I am now,
maybe he wouldn’t have died; but I was heavy, he was hurt worser
than we knew, and so it killed him; and I didn’t see him, to say
good bye."

This thought had troubled him in secret; and my assurances that
his friend would probably have died at all events, hardly
assuaged the bitterness of his regretful grief.

At this juncture, the delirious man began to shout; the one-
legged rose up in his bed, as if preparing for another dart,
Teddy bewailed himself more piteously than before: and if ever a
woman was at her wit’s end, that distracted female was Nurse
Periwinkle, during the space of two or three minutes, as she
vibrated between the three beds, like an agitated pendulum. Like
a most opportune reinforcement, Dan, the bandy, appeared, and
devoted himself to the lively party, leaving me free to return to
my post; for the Prussian, with a nod and a smile, took the lad
away to his own bed, and lulled him to sleep with a soothing
murmur, like a mammoth humble bee. I liked that in Fritz, and if
he ever wondered afterward at the dainties which sometimes found
their way into his rations, or the extra comforts of his bed, he
might have found a solution of the mystery in sundry persons’
knowledge of the fatherly action of that night.

Hardly was I settled again, when the inevitable bowl appeared,
and its bearer delivered a message I had expected, yet dreaded to
receive:

"John is going, ma’am, and wants to see you, if you can come."

"The moment this boy is asleep; tell him so, and let me know if I
am in danger of being too late."

My Ganymede departed, and while I quieted poor Shaw, I thought of
John. He came in a day or two after the others; and, one evening,
when I entered my "pathetic room," I found a lately emptied bed
occupied by a large, fair man, with a fine face, and the serenest
eyes I ever met. One of the earlier comers had often spoken of a
friend, who had remained behind, that those apparently worse
wounded than himself might reach a shelter first. It seemed a
David and Jonathan sort of friendship. The man fretted for his
mate, and was never tired of praising John – his courage, sobriety,
self-denial, and unfailing kindliness of heart; always winding up
with: "He’s an out an’ out fine feller, ma’am; you see if he
aint."

I had some curiosity to behold this piece of excellence, and when
he came, watched him for a night or two, before I made friends
with him; for, to tell the truth, I was a little afraid of the
stately looking man, whose bed had to be lengthened to
accommodate his commanding stature; who seldom spoke, uttered no
complaint, asked no sympathy, but tranquilly observed what went
on about him; and, as he lay high upon his pillows, no picture of
dying stateman or warrior was ever fuller of real dignity than
this Virginia blacksmith. A most attractive face he had, framed
in brown hair and beard, comely featured and full of vigor, as
yet unsubdued by pain; thoughtful and often beautifully mild
while watching the afflictions of others, as if entirely
forgetful of his own. His mouth was grave and firm, with plenty of
will and courage in its lines, but a smile could make it as sweet
as any woman’s; and his eyes were child’s eyes, looking one
fairly in the face, with a clear, straightforward glance, which
promised well for such as placed their faith in him. He seemed to
cling to life, as if it were rich in duties and delights, and he
had learned the secret of content. The only time I saw his
composure disturbed, was when my surgeon brought another to
examine John, who scrutinized their faces with an anxious look,
asking of the elder: "Do you think I shall pull through, sir?" "I
hope so, my man." And, as the two passed on, John’s eye still
followed them, with an intentness which would have won a clearer
answer from them, had they seen it. A momentary shadow flitted
over his face; then came the usual serenity, as if, in that brief
eclipse, he had acknowledged the existence of some hard
possibility, and, asking nothing yet hoping all things, left the
issue in God’s hands, with that submission which is true piety.

The next night, as I went my rounds with Dr. P., I happened to
ask which man in the room probably suffered most; and, to my
great surprise, he glanced at John:

"Every breath he draws is like a stab; for the ball pierced the
left lung, broke a rib, and did no end of damage here and there;
so the poor lad can find neither forgetfulness nor ease, because
he must lie on his wounded back or suffocate. It will be a hard
struggle, and a long one, for he possesses great vitality; but
even his temperate life can’t save him; I wish it could."

"You don’t mean he must die, Doctor?"

"Bless you there’s not the slightest hope for him; and you’d
better tell him so before long; women have a way of doing such
things comfortably, so I leave it to you. He won’t last more than
a day or two, at furthest."

I could have sat down on the spot and cried heartily, if I had
not learned the wisdom of bottling up one’s tears for leisure
moments. Such an end seemed very hard for such a man, when half a
dozen worn out, worthless bodies round him, were gathering up the
remnants of wasted lives, to linger on for years perhaps, burdens
to others, daily reproaches to themselves. The army needed men
like John, earnest, brave, and faithful; fighting for liberty and
justice with both heart and hand, true soldiers of the Lord. I
could not give him up so soon, or think with any patience of so
excellent a nature robbed of its fulfillment, and blundered into
eternity by the rashness or stupidity of those at whose hands so
many lives may be required. It was an easy thing for Dr. P. to
say: "Tell him he must die," but a cruelly hard thing to do, and
by no means as "comfortable" as he politely suggested. I had not
the heart to do it then, and privately indulged the hope that
some change for the better might take place, in spite of gloomy
prophesies; so, rendering my task unnecessary. A few minutes
later, as I came in again, with fresh rollers, I saw John sitting
erect, with no one to support him, while the surgeon dressed his
back. I had never hitherto seen it done; for, having simpler
wounds to attend to, and knowing the fidelity of the attendant, I
had left John to him, thinking it might be more agreeable and
safe; for both strength and experience were needed in his case. I
had forgotten that the strong man might long for the gentle
tendance of a woman’s hands, the sympathetic magnetism of a
woman’s presence, as well as the feebler souls about him. The
Doctor’s words caused me to reproach myself with neglect, not of
any real duty perhaps, but of those little cares and kindnesses
that solace homesick spirits, and make the heavy hours pass
easier. John looked lonely and forsaken just then, as he sat with
bent head, hands folded on his knee, and no outward sign of
suffering, till, looking nearer, I saw great tears roll down and
drop upon the floor. It was a new sight there; for, though I had
seen many suffer, some swore, some groaned, most endured
silently, but none wept. Yet it did not seem weak, only very
touching, and straightway my fear vanished, my heart opened wide
and took him in, as, gathering the bent head in my arms, as
freely as if he had been a little child, I said, "Let me help you
bear it, John."

Never, on any human countenance, have I seen so swift and
beautiful a look of gratitude, surprise and comfort, as that
which answered me more eloquently than the whispered –

"Thank you, ma’am, this is right good! this is what I wanted!"

"Then why not ask for it before?"

"I didn’t like to be a trouble; you seemed so busy, and I could
manage to get on alone."

"You shall not want it any more, John."

Nor did he; for now I understood the wistful look that sometimes
followed me, as I went out, after a brief pause beside his bed,
or merely a passing nod, while busied with those who seemed to
need me more than he, because more urgent in their demands; now I
knew that to him, as to so many, I was the poor substitute for
mother, wife, or sister, and in his eyes no stranger, but a
friend who hitherto had seemed neglectful; for, in his modesty,
he had never guessed the truth. This was changed now; and,
through the tedious operation of probing, bathing, and dressing
his wounds, he leaned against me, holding my hand fast, and, if
pain wrung further tears from him, no one saw them fall but me.
When he was laid down again, I hovered about him, in a remorseful
state of mind that would not let me rest, till I had bathed his
face, brushed his "bonny brown hair," set all things smooth about
him, and laid a knot of heath and heliotrope on his clean pillow.
While doing this, he watched me with the satisfied expression I
so liked to see; and when I offered the little nosegay, held it
carefully in his great hand, smoothed a ruffled leaf or two,
surveyed and smelt it with an air of genuine delight, and lay
contentedly regarding the glimmer of the sunshine on the green.
Although the manliest man among my forty, he said, "Yes, ma’am,"
like a little boy; received suggestions for his comfort with the
quick smile that brightened his whole face; and now and then, as
I stood tidying the table by his bed, I felt him softly touch my
gown, as if to assure himself that I was there. Anything more
natural and frank I never saw, and found this brave John as
bashful as brave, yet full of excellencies and fine aspirations,
which, having no power to express themselves in words, seemed to
have bloomed into his character and made him what he was.

After that night, an hour of each evening that remained to him
was devoted to his ease or pleasure. He could not talk much, for
breath was precious, and he spoke in whispers; but from
occasional conversations, I gleaned scraps of private history
which only added to the affection and respect I felt for him.
Once he asked me to write a letter, and as I settled pen and
paper, I said, with an irrepressible glimmer of feminine
curiosity, "Shall it be addressed to wife, or mother, John?"

"Neither, ma’am; I’ve got no wife, and will write to mother
myself when I get better. Did you think I was married because of
this?" he asked, touching a plain ring he wore, and often turned
thoughtfully on his finger when he lay alone.

"Partly that, but more from a settled sort of look you have; a
look which young men seldom get until they marry."

"I didn’t know that; but I’m not so very young, ma’am, thirty in
May, and have been what you might call settled this ten years;
for mother’s a widow, I’m the oldest child she has, and it
wouldn’t do for me to marry until Lizzy has a home of her own,
and Laurie’s learned his trade; for we’re not rich, and I must be
father to the children and husband to the dear old woman, if I
can."

"No doubt but you are both, John; yet how came you to go to war,
if you felt so? Wasn’t enlisting as bad as marrying?"

"No, ma’am, not as I see it, for one is helping my neighbor, the
other pleasing myself. I went because I couldn’t help it. I
didn’t want the glory or the pay; I wanted the right thing done,
and people kept saying the men who were in earnest ought to
fight. I was in earnest, the Lord knows! but I held off as long
as I could, not knowing which was my duty; mother saw the case,
gave me her ring to keep me steady, and said ‘Go:’ so I went."

A short story and a simple one, but the man and the mother were
portrayed better than pages of fine writing could have done it.

"Do you ever regret that you came, when you lie here suffering so
much?"

"Never, ma’am; I haven’t helped a great deal, but I’ve shown I
was willing to give my life, and perhaps I’ve got to; but I don’t
blame anybody, and if it was to do over again, I’d do it. I’m a
little sorry I wasn’t wounded in front; it looks cowardly to be
hit in the back, but I obeyed orders, and it don’t matter in the
end, I know."

Poor John! it did not matter now, except that a shot in the front
might have spared the long agony in store for him. He seemed to
read the thought that troubled me, as he spoke so hopefully when
there was no hope, for he suddenly added:

"This is my first battle; do they think it’s going to be my
last?"

"I’m afraid they do, John."

It was the hardest question I had ever been called upon to
answer; doubly hard with those clear eyes fixed on mine, forcing
a truthful answer by their own truth. He seemed a little startled
at first, pondered over the fateful fact a moment, then shook his
head, with a glance at the broad chest and muscular limbs
stretched out before him:

"I’m not afraid, but it’s difficult to believe all at once. I’m
so strong it don’t seem possible for such a little wound to kill
me."

Merry Mercutio’s dying words glanced through my memory as he
spoke: "’Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door,
but ’tis enough." And John would have said the same could he have
seen the ominous black holes between his shoulders; he never had;
and, seeing the ghastly sights about him, could not believe his
own wound more fatal than these, for all the suffering it caused
him.

"Shall I write to your mother, now?" I asked, thinking that these
sudden tidings might change all plans and purposes; but they did
not; for the man received the order of the Divine Commander to
march with the same unquestioning obedience with which the
soldier had received that of the human one; doubtless remembering
that the first led him to life, and the last to death.

"No, ma’am; to Laurie just the same; he’ll break it to her best,
and I’ll add a line to her myself when you get done."

So I wrote the letter which he dictated, finding it better than
any I had sent; for, though here and there a little ungrammatical
or inelegant, each sentence came to me briefly worded, but most
expressive; full of excellent counsel to the boy, tenderly
bequeathing "mother and Lizzie" to his care, and bidding him good
bye in words the sadder for their simplicity. He added a few
lines, with steady hand, and, as I sealed it, said, with a
patient sort of sigh, "I hope the answer will come in time for me
to see it;" then, turning away his face, laid the flowers against
his lips, as if to hide some quiver of emotion at the thought of
such a sudden sundering of all the dear home ties.

These things had happened two days before; now John was dying,
and the letter had not come. I had been summoned to many death
beds in my life, but to none that made my heart ache as it did
then, since my mother called me to watch the departure of a
spirit akin to this in its gentleness and patient strength. As I
went in, John stretched out both hands:

"I know you’d come! I guess I’m moving on, ma’am."

He was; and so rapidly that, even while he spoke, over his face I
saw the grey veil falling that no human hand can lift. I sat down
by him, wiped the drops from his forehead, stirred the air about
him with the slow wave of a fan, and waited to help him die. He
stood in sore need of help – and I could do so little; for, as the
doctor had foretold, the strong body rebelled against death, and
fought every inch of the way, forcing him to draw each breath
with a spasm, and clench his hands with an imploring look, as if
he asked, "How long must I endure this, and be still!" For hours
he suffered dumbly, without a moment’s respire, or a moment’s
murmuring; his limbs grew cold, his face damp, his lips white,
and, again and again, he tore the covering off his breast, as if
the lightest weight added to his agony; yet through it all, his
eyes never lost their perfect serenity, and the man’s soul seemed
to sit therein, undaunted by the ills that vexed his flesh.

One by one, the men woke, and round the room appeared a circle of
pale faces and watchful eyes, full of awe and pity; for, though a
stranger, John was beloved by all. Each man there had wondered at
his patience, respected his piety, admired his fortitude, and now
lamented his hard death; for the influence of an upright nature
had made itself deeply felt, even in one little week. Presently,
the Jonathan who so loved this comely David, came creeping from
his bed for a last look and word. The kind soul was full of
trouble, as the choke in his voice, the grasp of his hand,
betrayed; but there were no tears, and the farewell of the
friends was the more touching for its brevity.

"Old boy, how are you?" faltered the one.

"Most through, thank heaven!" whispered the other.

"Can I say or do anything for you anywheres?"

"Take my things home, and tell them that I did my best."

"I will! I will!"

"Good bye, Ned."

"Good bye, John, good bye!"

They kissed each other, tenderly as women, and so parted, for
poor Ned could not stay to see his comrade die. For a little
while, there was no sound in the room but the drip of water, from
a stump or two, and John’s distressful gasps, as he slowly
breathed his life away. I thought him nearly gone, and had just
laid down the fan, believing its help to be no longer needed,
when suddenly he rose up in his bed, and cried out with a bitter
cry that broke the silence, sharply startling every one with its
agonized appeal:

"For God’s sake, give me air!"

It was the only cry pain or death had wrung from him, the only
boon he had asked; and none of us could grant it, for all the
airs that blew were useless now. Dan flung up the window. The
first red streak of dawn was warming the grey east, a herald of
the coming sun; John saw it, and with the love of light which
lingers in us to the end, seemed to read in it a sign of hope of
help, for, over his whole face there broke that mysterious
expression, brighter than any smile, which often comes to eyes
that look their last. He laid himself gently down; and,
stretching out his strong right arm, as if to grasp and bring the
blessed air to his lips in a fuller flow, lapsed into a merciful
unconsciousness, which assured us that for him suffering was
forever past. He died then; for, though the heavy breaths still
tore their way up for a little longer, they were but the waves of
an ebbing tide that beat unfelt against the wreck, which an
immortal voyager had deserted with a smile. He never spoke again,
but to the end held my hand close, so close that when he was
asleep at last, I could not draw it away. Dan helped me, warning
me as he did so that it was unsafe for dead and living flesh to
lie so long together; but though my hand was strangely cold and
stiff, and four white marks remained across its back, even when
warmth and color had returned elsewhere, I could not but be glad
that, through its touch, the presence of human sympathy, perhaps,
had lightened that hard hour.

When they had made him ready for the grave, John lay in state for
half an hour, a thing which seldom happened in that busy place;
but a universal sentiment of reverence and affection seemed to
fill the hearts of all who had known or heard of him; and when
the rumor of his death went through the house, always astir, many
came to see him, and I felt a tender sort of pride in my lost
patient; for he looked a most heroic figure, lying there stately
and still as the statue of some young knight asleep upon his
tomb. The lovely expression which so often beautifies dead faces,
soon replaced the marks of pain, and I longed for those who loved
him best to see him when half an hour’s acquaintance with Death
had made them friends. As we stood looking at him, the ward
master handed me a letter, saying it had been forgotten the night
before. It was John’s letter, come just an hour too late to
gladden the eyes that had longed and looked for it so eagerly!
yet he had it; for, after I had cut some brown locks for his
mother, and taken off the ring to send her, telling how well the
talisman had done its work, I kissed this good son for her sake,
and laid the letter in his hand, still folded as when I drew my
own away, feeling that its place was there, and making myself
happy with the thought, that, even in his solitary place in the
"Government Lot," he would not be without some token of the love
which makes life beautiful and outlives death. Then I left him,
glad to have known so genuine a man, and carrying with me an
enduring memory of the brave Virginia blacksmith, as he lay
serenely waiting for the dawn of that long day which knows no
night.

 

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