Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Ailsa Paige by Robert W. Chambers

Part 9 out of 9

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

But there was more than that in store for him; it was all very well
to authorise two new troops to a regiment, but another matter to
recruit them.

Colonel Arran, from his convalescent couch in the North, wrote to
Governor Morgan; and Berkley got his troop, and his orders to go to
New York and recruit it. And by the same mail came the first
letter Ailsa had been well enough to write him since her transfer
North on the transport _Long Branch_.

He read it a great many times; it was his only diversion while
awaiting transportation at the old Hygeia Hotel, where, in company
with hundreds of furloughed officers, he slept on the floors in his
blanket; he read it on deck, as the paddle-wheeled transport
weighed anchor, swung churning under the guns of the great
Fortress--so close that the artillerymen on the water-battery could
have tossed a biscuit aboard--and, heading north-east, passed out
between the capes, where, seaward, the towering black sides of a
sloop of war rose, bright work aglitter, smoke blowing fitfully
from her single funnel.

At Alexandria he telegraphed her: "Your letter received, I am on my
way North," and signed it with a thrill of boyish pride: "Philip O.
Berkley-Arran, Capt. Cavalry, U. S. V."

To his father he sent a similar telegram from the Willard in
Washington; wasted two days at the State, War, and Navy for an
audience with Mr. Stanton, and finally found himself, valise in
hand, waiting among throngs of officers of all grades, all arms of
the service, for a chance to board his train.

And, as he stood there, he felt cotton-gloved fingers fumbling for
the handle of his valise, and wheeled sharply, and began to laugh.

"Where the devil did you come from, Burgess? Did they give you a
furlough?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Well, you got more than I. What's the matter; do you want to
carry my bag?"

"Yes, sir."

"You don't have to."

"No, Captain. . . . If you don't object, sir, I'll carry it."

They found seats together; Philip, amused, tried to extract from
Burgess something besides the trite and obvious servant's
patter--something that might signify some possibility of a latent
independence--the germ of aspiration. And extracted nothing.
Burgess had not changed, had not developed. His ways were Philip's
ways; his loftier flights mounted no higher toward infinity than
the fashions prevailing in the year 1862, and their suitability to
his master's ultimate requirements.

For his regiment, for its welfare, its hopes, its glory, he
apparently cared nothing; nor did he appear to consider the part he
had borne in its fluctuating fortunes anything to be proud of.

Penned with the others in the brush field, he had done stolidly
what his superiors demanded of him; and it presently came out that
the only anxiety that assailed him was when, in the smoke of the
tangled thickets, he missed his late master.

"Well, what do you propose to do after the regiment is mustered
out?" inquired Philip curiously.

"Wait on you, sir."

"Don't you _want_ to do anything else?"

"No, sir."'

Philip looked at him, smiling.

"I suppose you like my cigars, and my brandy and my linen?"

The ghost of .a grin touched the man's features.

"Yes, sir," he said with an impudence that captivated Philip.

"All right, my friend; I can stand it as long as you can. . . .
And kindly feel in my overcoat for a cigar wrapped in paper. I'll
go forward and smoke for a while."

"Sir?"

"The cigar--I put it in my overcoat pocket wrapped in a bit of
paper. . . . You--you don't mean to tell me that it's not there!"

Burgess searched the pockets with a perfectly grave face.

"It ain't here; no, sir."

Philip flung himself into the corner of his seat, making no effort
to control his laughter:

"Burgess," he managed to say, "the dear old days are returning
already. I'll stay here and read; you go forward and smoke that
cigar. Do you hear?"

"Yes, sir."

Again, just as he had done every day since leaving camp, he reread
Ailsa's letter, settling down in his corner by the dirty, rattling
window-pane:

"Everybody writes to you except myself. I know they have told you
that it is taking a little longer for me to get well than anybody
expected. I was terribly tired. Your father has been so sweet;
everybody has been good to me--Celia, poor little Camilla, and
Stephen. I know that they all write to you; and somehow I have
been listlessly contented to let them tell you about home matters,
and wait until my strength returned. But you must not doubt where
every waking memory of mine has centred; my thoughts have circled
always around that central vortex from which, since I first laid
eyes on you, they have never strayed.

"Home news is what all good soldiers want; I write for you all I
know:

"The city is the same hot, noisy, dirty, dusty, muddy, gridiron,
changed in nowise except that everywhere one sees invalid soldiers;
and there are far too many officers lounging about, presumably on
furlough--too many Captain Dash's, twirling black moustaches in
front of fashionable hotels. There are no powder stains on their
uniforms, no sun-burn on their cheeks. They throng the city; and
it is a sinister phenomenon.

"I think Broadway was never as lively, never quite as licentious.
Those vivid cafes, saloons, concert halls, have sprung up
everywhere; theatres, museums, gardens are in full blast; shops are
crowded, hotels, street cars, stages overflowing with careless,
noisy, overdressed people. The city is _en fete_; and somehow when
I think of that Dance of Death thundering ceaselessly just south of
us, it appalls me to encounter such gaiety and irresponsibility in
the streets.

"Yet, after all, it may be the safety-valve of a brave people.
Those whirling daily in the Dance of Death have, at least, the
excitement to sustain them. Here the tension is constant and
terrible; and the human mind cannot endure too much tragedy.

". . . They say our President fits a witticism to the tragedy of
every battle-field; but it may be to preserve his own reason
through these infernal years. He has the saddest eyes of any man
since the last Martyr died.

"England behaves badly. It was her God-given opportunity to stand
by us. She has had chance after chance since the last patriot died
from lack of food and air in this sad old city of New York. . . .
The Prince Consort is kind; his wife is inclined to be what he is.
Napoleon is the sinister shape behind the arras; and the Tory
government licks his patent-leather boots. Vile is the attitude of
England, vile her threats, her sneers, her wicked contempt of a
great people in agony. Her murderous government, bludgeon in hand,
stands snarling at us in Mexico; her ministers glare at us from
every war port; her press mocks in infamous caricature our unhappy
President; only her poor are with us--the poor of England whom our
war is starving. Again and again we have forgiven her. But now,
standing on our blood-wet battle-fields, can we ever again forgive?

"You have heard from your family and from Celia, so what news I
write may be no news. Yet I know how it is with soldiers; they
never tire of such repetitions.

"Your father is slowly recovering. But he will never sit his
saddle again, dear. Don't expect it; the war is over as far as he
is concerned. But never have my eyes beheld such happiness, such
gratitude, such adoration as I see in his eyes when your letters
come. I think the burden of his conversation is you. I never hear
him speak of anything else. Your father walks now; and by the time
you are here he will be able to drive on Fifth Avenue and in the
new Central Park. But he is not the man who left this city at the
head of his regiment. His hair and moustache are white as snow;
there are a thousand tiny wrinkles on his hands and features. All
that heavy colour is gone; only a slight flush remains on his thin
face. He is very handsome, Phil. Once, never dreaming of what was
true, I thought he resembled you. Do you recollect my saying so
once? Even you would recognise the likeness now. He is absorbed,
wrapped up in you. . . . I can see, now, that he always has been.
How blind we are! How blind!

"Celia, the darling, has not changed one particle. She is the
prettiest thing you ever saw, cheerful, clever, courageous,
self-possessed, devoted to Stephen, whose leave has been extended
and who plays the role of a pale and interesting invalid hero with
placid satisfaction to himself, adored and hovered over by Paige
and Marye and all their girl friends. But when poor little
Camilla, in her deep mourning, appears at the door, he clears out
the others with a tyranny characteristic of young men; and I'm
somewhat sorry for his mother and sisters. But it's the
inevitable; and Camilla is the sweetest thing.

"Celia hears often from Curt, Poor Major Lent! It seems too hard
that Camilla should be left so utterly alone in the world. The
Major died as he would have wished to die, Curt writes. It was at
that terrible Stone Bridge--where God was merciful to me when your
squadron galloped across.

"He was found, seated against a tree, stone dead, one hand
stiffened over the Mexican war medal at his throat. Curt says his
face was calm, almost smiling. Camilla has his sword and medals.

"Did you know that your friend John Casson was dead? I was with
him; I did not know he was a friend of yours. He displayed the
same patience, the same desire not to be troublesome that so many
badly wounded do.

"Letty asked me to say that a zouave of the 5th Regiment, a Mr.
Cortlandt, was also killed. So many, many people I knew or had
heard of have been killed or have died of disease since the war
began. One sees a great many people wearing mourning in the
city--crape is so common, on sword-hilts, on arms, veils, gowns,
bonnets.

"Letty made the loveliest bride you or I ever beheld. Usually
brides do not look their best, but Letty was the most charming,
radiant, bewildering creature--and so absurdly young--as though
suddenly she had dropped a few years and was again beginning that
girlhood which I sometimes thought she had never had.

"Dr. Benton is a darling. He looks twenty years younger and wears
a monocle! They are back from their honeymoon, and are planning to
offer their services to the great central hospital at Philadelphia.

"Dear, your letter breaking the news to me that Marye Mead was
burned when the cavalry burned Edmund Ruffin's house was no news to
me. I saw it on fire. But, Philip, there was a fiercer flame
consuming me than ever swept that house. I thank God it Is
quenched for ever and that my heart and soul, refreshed, made new,
bear no scars now of that infernal conflagration.

"I sit here at my window and see below me the folds of the dear
flag stirring; in my ears, often, is the noise of drums from the
dusty avenue where new regiments are passing on into the
unknown--no longer the unknown to us--but the saddest of all truths.

"Sometimes Celia comes from the still, leafy seclusion of Fort
Greene Place, to love me, caress me, gently jeer at me for the hint
of melancholy in my gaze, shaming me for a love-sick thing that
droops and pines in the absence of all that animates her soul and
body with the desire to live.

"She is only partly right; I am very tired, Phil. Not that I am
ill. I am well, now. It only needs you. She knows it; I have
always known it. Your love, and loving you, is all that life means
to me.

"I see them all here--Celia fussing with my trousseau, gowns,
stockings, slippers, hovering over them with Paigie and Marye in
murmurous and intimate rapture. They lead me about to shops and in
busy thoroughfares; and I see and understand, and I hear my own
voice as at an infinite distance, and I am happy in the same
indefinite way. But, try as I may, I cannot fix my thoughts on
what I am about, on the pretty garments piled around me, on the
necessary arrangements to be made, on the future--our future! I
cannot even think clearly about that. All that my mind seems able
to contain is my love for you, the knowledge that you are coming,
that I am to see you, touch you.

"I try to realise that I am to be your wife; the heavenly reality
seems vaguely impossible. Yet every moment I am schooling myself
to the belief, telling myself that it is to be, repeating the
divine words again and again. And all I am capable of
understanding is that I love you, and that the world stands still,
waiting for you as I wait; and that without you nothing is real,
and I move in a world of phantoms.

"I have been to the mirror to look at myself. To be certain, I
also asked Celia. She says that you will not be disappointed.

"She sat here searching the morning paper for news of her husband's
regiment, but found none. What women endure for men no man that
ever lives can understand.

"She is perfectly cheerful about it all. And, oh, such a rebel!
She read aloud to me with amused malice the order from the War
Department which does away with regimental bands and substitutes a
brigade band.

"I sca'cely blame them,' she observed; 'I'd be ve'y glad myse'f to
hear less of Yankee Doodle and the Star-spangled Banner. When they
let President Davis alone, and when Curt comes home, I've got some
ve'y pretty songs fo' him to learn to appreciate.'

"She's down stairs now, seated at the piano, singing very softly to
herself some gaily impudent rebel song or other. I know it's a
rebel song by the way she sings it.

"And, as I sit here, alone, thinking of how I love you--far away I
hear the 'old line's bugle'--the quaint, quick rhythm of the fifes
and drums; and it stirs depths in me where my very soul lies
listening--and the tears spring to my eyes. And I try to
understand why every separate silver star in the flag is mine to
hold, mine to rescue and replace, mine to adore. And I try to
understand why all of it is part of the adoration of you, and of
God who gave you to me--Philip--Philip--my lover, my country, my
God--worshipped and adored of men!"

[Illustration: "Philip--Philip--my lover, my country, my
God--worshipped and adored of men!"]

THE END

Book of the day: