What Answer?


20. Chapter XX

"Drink,--for thy necessity is yet greater than mine."

Sir Philip Sidney

The hospital boat, going out of Beaufort, was a sad, yet great sight. It was but necessary to look around it to see that the men here gathered had stood on the slippery battle-sod, and scorned to flinch. You heard no cries, scarcely a groan; whatever anguish wrung them as they were lifted into their berths, or were turned or raised for comfort, found little outward sign,--a long, gasping breath now and then; a suppressed exclamation; sometimes a laugh, to cover what would else be a cry of mortal agony; almost no swearing; these men had been too near the awful realities of death and eternity, some of them were still too near, to make a mock at either. Having demonstrated themselves heroes in action, they would, one and all, be equally heroes in the hour of suffering, or on the bed of lingering death.

Jim, so wounded as to make every movement a pang, had been carefully carried in on a stretcher, and as carefully lifted into a middle berth.

"Good," said one of the men, as he eased him down on his pillow.

"What's good?" queried Jim.

"The berth; middle berth. Put you in as easy as into the lowest one: bad lifting such a leg as yours into the top one, and it's the comfortablest of the three when you're in."

"O, that's it, is it? all right; glad I'm here then; getting in didn't hurt more than a flea-bite,"--saying which Jim turned his face away to put his teeth down hard on a lip already bleeding. The wrench to his shattered leg was excruciating, "But then," as he announced to himself, "no snivelling, James; you're not going to make a spooney of yourself." Presently he moved, and lay quietly watching the others they were bringing in.

"Why!" he called, "that's Bertie Curtis, ain't it?" as a slight, beautiful-faced boy was carried past him, and raised to his place.

"Yes, it is," answered one of the men, shortly, to cover some strong feeling.

Jim leaned out of his berth, regardless of his protesting leg, canteen in hand. "Here, Bertie!" he called, "my canteen's full of fresh water, just filled. I know it'll taste good to you."

The boy's fine face flushed. "O, thank you, Given, it would taste deliriously, but I can't take it,"--glancing down. Jim followed the look, to see that both arms were gone, close to the graceful, boyish form; seeing which his face twitched painfully,--not with his own suffering,--and for a moment words failed him. Just then came up one of the sanitary nurses with some cooling drink, and fresh, wet bandages for the fevered stumps.

Great drops were standing on Bertie's forehead, and ominous gray shadows had already settled about the mouth, and under the long, shut lashes. Looking at the face, so young, so refined, some mother's pride and darling, the nurse brushed back tenderly the fair hair, murmuring, "Poor fellow!"

The eyes unclosed quickly: "There are no poor fellows here, sir!" he said.

"Well, brave fellow, then!"

"I did but do my duty,"--a smile breaking through the gathering mists.

Here some poor fellow,--poor indeed,--delirious with fever, called out, "Mother! mother! I want to see my mother!"

Tears rushed to the clear, steady eyes, dimmed them, dropped down unchecked upon the face. The nurse, with a sob choking in his throat, softly raised his hand to brush them away. "Mother," Bertie whispered,--"mother!" and was gone where God wipes away the tears from all eyes.

For the space of five minutes, as Jim said afterwards, in telling about it, "that boat was like a meeting-house." Used as they were to death in all forms, more than one brave fellow's eye was dim as the silent shape was carried away to make place for the stricken living,--one of whom was directly brought in, and the stretcher put down near Jim.

"What's up?" he called, for the man's face was turned from him, and his wounded body so covered as to give no clew to its condition. "What's wrong?" seeing the bearers did not offer to lift him, and that they were anxiously scanning the long rows of berths.

"Berth's wrong," one of them answered.

"What's the matter with the berth?"

"Matter enough! not a middle one nor a lower one empty."

"Well," called a wounded boy from the third tier, "plenty of room up here; sky-parlor,--airy lodgings,--all fine,--I see a lot of empty houses that'll take him in."

"Like enough,--but he's about blown to pieces," said the bearer in a low voice, "and it'll be aw--ful putting him up there; however,"--commencing to take off the light cover.

"Helloa!" cried Jim, "that's a dilapidated-looking leg,"--his head out, looking at it. "Stop a bit!"--body half after the head,--"you just stop that, and come here and catch hold of a fellow; now put me up there. I reckon I'll bear hoisting better'n he will, anyway. Ugh! ah! um! owh! here we are! bully!"

If Jim had been of the fainting or praying order he would certainly have fainted or prayed; as it was, he said "Bully!" but lay for a while thereafter still as a mouse.

"Given, you're a brick!" one of the boys was apostrophizing him. Jim took no notice. "And your man's in, safe and sound"; he turned at that, and leaned forward, as well as he could, to look at the occupant of his late bed.

"Jemime!" he cried, when he saw the face. "I say, boys! it's Ercildoune--Robert--flag--Wagner--hurray--let's give three cheers for the color-sergeant,--long may he wave!"

The men, propped up or lying down, gave the three cheers with a will, and then three more; and then, delighted with their performance, three more after that, Jim winding up the whole with an "a-a-ah,--Tiger!" that made them all laugh; then relapsing into silence and a hard battle with pain.

A weary voyage,--a weary journey thereafter to the Northern hospitals,--some dying by the way, and lowered through the shifting, restless waves, or buried with hasty yet kindly hands in alien soil,--accounted strangers and foemen in the land of their birth. God grant that no tread of rebellion in the years to come, nor thunder of contending armies, may disturb their peace!

Some stopped in the heat and dust of Washington to be nursed and tended in the great barracks of hospitals,--uncomfortable-looking without, clean and spacious and admirable within; some to their homes, on long-desired and eagerly welcomed furloughs, there to be cured speedily, the body swayed by the mind; some to suffer and die; some to struggle against winds and tides of mortality and conquer,--yet scarred and maimed; some to go out, as giants refreshed with new wine, to take their places once more in the great conflict, and fight there faithfully to the end.

Among these last was Jim; but not till after many a hard battle, and buffet, and back-set did life triumph and strength prevail. One thing which sadly retarded his recovery was his incessant anxiety about Sallie, and his longing to see her once more. He had himself, after his first hurt, written her that he was slightly wounded; but when he reached Washington, and the surgeon, looking at his shattered leg, talked about amputation and death, Jim decided that Sallie should not know a word of all this till something definite was pronounced.

"She oughtn't to have an ugly, one-legged fellow," he said, "to drag round with her; and, if she knows how bad it is, she'll post straight down here, to nurse and look after me,--I know her! and she'll have me in the end, out of sheer pity; and I ain't going to take any such mean advantage of her: no, sir-ee, not if I know myself. If I get well, safe and sound, I'll go to her; and, if I'm going to die, I'll send for her; so I'll wait,"--which he did.

He found, however, that it was a great deal easier making the decision, than keeping it when made. Sallie, hearing nothing from him,--supposing him still in the South,--fearful as she had all along been that she stood on uncertain ground,--Mrs. Surrey away in New York,--and Robert Ercildoune, as the papers asserted in their published lists, mortally wounded,--having no indirect means of communication with him, and fearing to write again without some sign from him,--was sorrowing in silence at home.

The silence reacted on him; not realizing its cause he grew fretful and impatient, and the fretfulness and impatience told on his leg, intensified his fever, and put the day of recovery--if recovery it was to be--farther into the future.

"See here, my man,"--said the quick little surgeon one day, "you're worrying about something. This'll never do; if you don't stop it, you'll die, as sure as fate; and you might as well make up your mind to it at once,--so, now!"

"Well, sir," answered Jim, "it's as good a time to die now, I reckon, as often happens; but I ain't dead yet, not by a long shot; and I ain't going to die neither; so, now, yourself!"

The doctor laughed. "All right; if you'll get up that spirit, and keep it, I'll bet my pile on your recovery,--but you'll have to stop fretting. You've got something on your mind that's troubling you; and the sooner you get rid of it, if you can, the better. That's all I've got to say." And he marched off.

"Get rid of it," mused Jim, "how in thunder'll I get rid of it if I don't hear from Sallie? Let me see--ah! I have it!" and looking more cheerful on the instant he lay still, watching for the doctor to come down the ward once more. "Helloa!" he called, then. "Helloa!" responded the doctor, coming over to him, "what's the go now? you're improved already."

"Got any objection to telling a lie?"--this might be called coming to the point.

"That depends--" said the doctor.

"Well, all's fair in love and war, they say. This is for love. Help a fellow?"

"Of course,--if I can,--and the fellow's a good one, like Jim Given. What is it you want?"

"Well, I want a letter written, and I can't do it myself, you know,"--looking down at his still bandaged arm,--"likewise I want a lie told in it, and these ladies here are all angels, and of course you can't ask an angel to tell a lie,--no offence to you; so if you can take the time, and'll do it, I'll stand your everlasting debtor, and shoulder the responsibility if you're afraid of the weight."

"What sort of a lie?"

"A capital one; listen. I want a young lady to know that I'm wounded in the arm,--you see? not bad; nor nothing over which she need worry, and nothing that hurts me much; and I ain't damaged in any other way; legs not mentioned in this concern,--you understand?" The doctor nodded. "But it's tied up my hand, so that I have to get you to say all this for me. I'll be well pretty soon; and, if I can get a furlough, I'll be up in Philadelphia in a jiffy,--so she can just prepare for the infliction, &c. Comprendy? And'll you do it?"

"Of course I will, if you don't want the truth told, and the fib'll do you any good; and, upon my word, the way you're looking I really think it will. So now for it."

Thus the letter was written, and read, and re-read, to make sure that there was nothing in it to alarm Sallie; and, being satisfactory on that head, was finally sent away, to rejoice the poor girl who had waited, and watched, and hoped for it through such a weary time. When she answered it, her letter was so full of happiness and solicitude, and a love that, in spite of herself, spoke out in every line, that Jim furtively kissed it, and read it into tatters in the first few hours of its possession; then tucking it away in his hospital shirt, over his heart, proceeded to get well as fast as fast could be.

"Well," said the doctor, a few weeks afterwards, as Jim was going home on his coveted sick-leave, "Mr. Thomas Carlyle calls fibs wind-bags. If that singular remedy would work to such a charm with all my men, I'd tell lies with impunity. Good by, Jim, and the best of good luck to you."

"The same to you, Doctor, and I hope you may always find a friend in need, to lie for you. Good by, and God bless you!" wringing his hand hard,--"and now, hurrah for home!"

"Hurrah it is!" cried the little surgeon after him, as, happy and proud, he limped down the ward, and turned his face towards home.