FictionForest

Chapter 18 – Sunrise

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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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.

 

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