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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter27)

2006-09-07 20:28

  Chapter Twenty-Seventh.

  “In peace, love tunes the shepherd's reed;In war, he mounts the warrior's steed;In halls, in gay attire is seen;In hamlets, dances on the green;Love rules the court, the camp, the grove,And men below and saints above;For love is heaven, and heaven is love.”——SCOTT.

  “Escaped prisoners from Andersonville, eh?” queried the guard gathering about them.

  “Yes; and more than half-starved; especially my friend here, Captain Allison of the——”

  But the sentence was left unfinished; for at that instant Harold reeled, and would have fallen but for the strong arm of another officer quickly outstretched to save him.

  They made a litter and carried him into camp, where restoratives were immediately applied.

  He soon recovered from his faintness, but was found to be totally unfit for duty, and sent to the hospital at Washington, where he was placed in a bed adjoining that of his brother Richard, and allowed to share with him in the attentions of Dr. King, Miss Lottie, and his own sister May.

  How they all wept over him——reduced almost to a skeleton, so wan, so weak, so aged, in those few short months.

  He recognized his brother and sister with a faint smile, a murmured word or two, then sank into a state of semi-stupor, from which he roused only when spoken to, relapsing into it again immediately.

  Slowly, very slowly, medical skill and tender, careful nursing told upon his exhausted frame till at length he seemed to awake to new life, began to notice what was going on about him, was able to take part in a cheerful chat now and then, and became eager for news from home and of the progress of the war.

  Months had passed away. In the meantime Richard had returned to camp, and Harry Duncan, wounded in a late battle, now occupied his deserted bed in the hospital.

  Harry was suffering, but in excellent spirits.

  “Cheer up, Allison,” he said; “you and I will never go back to Andersonville; the war can't last much longer, and we may consider the Union saved. Ah! this is a vast improvement upon Andersonville fare,” he added gayly, as Lottie and May appeared before them, each bearing a tray with a delicious little lunch upon it. “Miss Lottie, I'm almost tempted to say it pays to be ill or wounded, that one may be tended by fair ladies' hands.”

  “Ah, that speech should have come from Mr. Allison, for May is fair and her hands are white, while mine are brown,” she answered demurely, as she set her tray within his reach, May doing the same for Harold.

  “None the less beautiful, Miss King,” returned Duncan gallantly. “Many a whiter hand is not half so shapely or so useful. Now reward me for that pretty compliment by coaxing your father to get me well as fast as possible, that I may have a share in the taking of Richmond.”

  “That would be a waste of breath, as he's doing all he can already; but I'll do my part with coddling, write all your letters for you——business, friendship, love——and do anything else desired; if in my power.”

  “You're very good,” he said, with a furtive glance at May, who seemed to see or hear nothing but her brother, who was asking about the last news from home; “very good indeed, Miss King; especially as regards the love-letters. I presume it would not be necessary for me even to be at the trouble of dictating them?”

  “Oh, no, certainly not!”

  “Joking aside, I shall be greatly obliged if you will write to Aunt Wealthy to-day for me.”

  “With pleasure; especially as I can tell her your wound is not a dangerous one, and you will not lose a limb. But do tell me. What did you poor fellows get to eat at Andersonville?”

  “Well, one week's daily ration consisted of one pint of corn-meal ground up cob and all together, four ounces of mule meat, generally spoiled and emitting anything but an appetizing odor; but then we were not troubled with want of——the best of sauce for our meals.”

  “Hunger?”

  “Yes; we'd plenty of that always. In addition to the corn-meal and meat, we had a half pint of peas full of bugs.”

  “Oh! you poor creatures! I hope it was a little better the alternate week.”

  “Just the same, except, in lieu of the corn-meal, we had three square inches of corn bread.”

  “Is it jest; or earnest?” asked Lottie, appealing to Harold.

  “Dead earnest, Miss King; and for medicine we had sumac and white-oak bark.”

  “No matter what ailed you?”

  “Oh, yes; that made no difference.”

  To Harry's impatience the winter wore slowly away while he was confined within the hospital walls; yet the daily, almost hourly sight of May Allison's sweet face, and the sound of her musical voice, went far to reconcile him to this life of inactivity and “inglorious ease,” as he termed it in his moments of restless longing to be again in the field.

  By the last of March this ardent desire was granted, and he hurried away in fine spirits, leaving May pale and tearful, but with a ring on her finger that had not been there before.

  “Ah,” said Lottie, pointing to it with a merry twinkle in her eye, and passing her arm about May's waist as she spoke, “I shall be very generous, and not tease as you did when somebody else treated me exactly so.”

  “It is good of you,” whispered May, laying her wet cheek on her friend's shoulder; “and I'm ever so glad you're to be my sister.”

  “And won't Aunt Wealthy rejoice over you as over a mine of gold!”

  Poor Harold, sitting pale and weak upon the side of his cot, longing to be with his friend, sharing his labors and perils, yet feeling that the springs of life were broken within him, was lifting up a silent prayer for strength to endure to the end.

  A familiar step drew near, and Dr. King laid his hand on the young man's shoulder.

  “Cheer up, my dear boy,” he said, “we are trying to get you leave to go home for thirty days, and the war will be over before the time expires; so that you will not have to come back.”

  “Home!” and Harold's eye brightened for a moment; “yes, I should like to die at home, with mother and father, brothers and sisters about me.”

  “But you are not going to die just yet,” returned the doctor, with assumed gayety; “and home and mother will do wonders for you.”

  “Dr. King,” and the blue eyes looked up calmly and steadily into the physician's face, “please tell me exactly what you think of my case. Is there any hope of recovery?”

  “You may improve very much: I think you will when you get home; and, though there is little hope of the entire recovery of your former health and strength, you may live for years.”

  “But it is likely I shall not live another year? do not be afraid to say so: I should rather welcome the news. Am I not right?”

  “Yes; I——I think you are nearing home, my dear boy; the land where 'the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick.'”

  There was genuine feeling in the doctor's tone.

  A moment's silence, and Harold said, “Thank you. It is what I have suspected for some time; and it causes me no regret, save for the sake of those who love me and will grieve over my early death.”

  “But don't forget that there is still a possibility of recuperation; while there's life there's hope.”

  “True! and I will let them hope on as long as they can.”

  The doctor passed on to another patient, and Harold was again left to the companionship of his own thoughts. But not for long; they were presently broken in upon by the appearance of May with a very bright face.

  “See!” she cried joyously, holding up a package; “letters from home, and Naples too. Rose writes to mamma, and she has enclosed the letter for our benefit.”

  “Then let us enjoy it together. Sit here and read it to me; will you? My eyes are rather weak, you know, and I see the ink is pale.”

  “But mamma's note to you?”

  “Can wait its turn. I always like to keep the best till the last.”

  Harold hardly acknowledged to himself that he was very eager to hear news from Elsie; even more than to read the loving words from his mother's pen.

  “Very well, then; there seems to be no secret,” said May, glancing over the contents; and seating herself by his side she began.

  After speaking of some other matters, Rose went on: “But I have kept my greatest piece till now. Our family is growing; we have another grandson who arrived about two weeks ago; Harold Allison Travilla by name.

  “Elsie is doing finely; the sleepy little newcomer is greatly admired and loved by old and young; we make as great a to-do over him as though he were the first instead of the fourth grandchild. My husband and I are growing quite patriarchal.

  “Elsie is the loveliest and the best of mothers, perfectly devoted to her children; so patient and so tender, so loving and gentle, and yet so firm. Mr. Travilla and she are of one mind in regard to their training, requiring as prompt and cheerful obedience as Horace always has; yet exceedingly indulgent wherever indulgence can do no harm. One does not often see so well-trained and yet so merry and happy a family of little folks.

  “Tell our Harold——my poor dear brother——that we hope his name-child will be an honor to him.”

  “Are you not pleased?” asked May, pausing to look up at him.

  “Yes,” he answered, with a quiet, rather melancholy smile; “they are very kind to remember me so. I hope they will soon bring the little fellow to see me. Ah, I knew Elsie would make just such a lovely mother.”

  “Nothing about the time of their return,” observed May, as she finished reading; “but they will hardly linger long after the close of the war.”

  May had left the room, and Harold lay languid and weak upon his cot. A Confederate officer, occupying the next, addressed him, rousing him out of the reverie into which he had fallen.

  “Excuse me, sir, but I could not help hearing some parts of the letter read aloud by the lady——your sister, I believe——”

  “Yes. Of course you could not help hearing, and there is no harm done,” Harold answered with a friendly tone and smile. “So no need for apologies.”

  “But there is something else. Did you know anything of a Lieutenant Walter Dinsmore, belonging to our side, who fell in the battle of Shiloh?”

  “Yes; knew and loved him!” exclaimed Harold, raising himself on his elbow, and turning a keenly interested, questioning gaze upon the stranger.

  “Then it is, it must be the same family,” said the latter, half to himself, half to Harold.

  “Same as what, sir?”

  “That letter I could not help hearing was dated Naples, signed Rose Dinsmore, and talked of Elsie, Mr. Travilla, and their children. Now Lieutenant Dinsmore told me he had a brother residing temporarily in Naples, and also a niece, a Mrs. Elsie Travilla; and before going into the fight he intrusted to me a small package directed to her, with the request that, if he fell, I would have it forwarded to her when an opportunity offered. Will you, sir, take charge of it, and see that it reaches the lady's hands?”

  “With pleasure. How glad she will be to get it, for she loved Walter dearly.”

  “They were near of an age?”

  “Yes; the uncle a trifle younger than the niece.”

  “Dinsmore and I were together almost constantly during the last six months of his life, and became very intimate. My haversack, Smith, if you please,” addressing a nurse.

  It was brought, opened, and a small package taken from it and given to Harold.

  He gazed upon it with sad thoughtfulness for a moment; then, bestowing it safely in his breast-pocket, “Thank you very much,” he said, “I will deliver it with my own hand, if she returns from Europe as soon as we expect.”

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