From Collier's Magazine, 1908. A story of the American Civil War.
Her instructions had been unusually rigid; she was to take every precaution; use native disguise whether or not it might appear necessary, carry no papers, and let any man she might encounter make the advances until she was absolutely certain of him. For there was an ugly rumor afloat that he had been caught and hanged, and that a Confederate might attempt to impersonate him....
THE Volunteer Nurse sighed and spread out her slender, iodine-stained fingers on both knees, looking down at them retleetively.
"It is different now," she said; "sentiment dies under the scalpel. In the filth and squalor of reality neither the belief in romance nor the capacity for desiring it endure long. . . . Even pity becomes atrophied—or at least a reflex habit; sympathy, sorrow, remain as mechanical reactions, not spontaneous emotions. . . . You can understand that, dear?"
"Partly," said the Special Messenger, raising her pretty, dark eyes to her old schoolmate.
"In the beginning." said the Nurse, dreamily, "the men in their uniforms, the drums and horses and glitter, and the flags passing, and youth—youth—not that you and I are yet old in years; do you know what I mean!"
"I know," said the Special Messenger, smoothing out her riding gloves. "Do you remember the cadets at Oxley? You loved one of them."
"Yes; you know how it was in the cities; and even afterward in Washington—I mean the hospitals after Bull Run. Young bravery—the Zouaves—the multicolored guard regiments—and a romance in every death!" She laid one stained hand over the other, fingers still wide. "But here in this blackened horror they call the 'seat of war'—this festering bull-pen, choked with dreary regiments, all alike, all in filthy blue—here individuals vanish, men vanish. The schoolgirl dream of man dies here forever. Only unwashed, naked duty remains; and its inspiration, man—bloody, dirty, vermin-covered, terrible—sometimes; and sometimes whimpering, terrified, flinching, base, bereft of all his sex's glamour, all his mystery, shorn of authority, devoid of pride, pitiable, screaming under the knife. ... It is different now." said the pretty Volunteer Nurse. . . . "The war kills more than human life."
The Special Messenger drew her buckskin gloves carefully through her belt and buttoned the holster of her revolver.
"I have, seen war, too," she said; "and the men who dealt death and the men who received it. Their mystery remains—the glamour of a man remains for me—because he is a man."
"I have heard them crying like children in the stretchers."
"So have I. That solves nothing."
But the Nursre went on:
"And in the wards they are sometimes something betwixt devils and children. All the weakness and failings they attribute to women come out in them, too—fear, timidity, inconsequence. greed, malice, gossip! I tell you, women bear pain better."
"Yes, I have learned that. . . . It is not difficult to beguile them either: to lead them, to read them. That is part of my work. I do it. I know they are afraid in battle—the intelligent ones. Yet they fight. I know they are really children—impulsive, passionate, selfish, often cruel—but, after all, they are here fighting this war—here encamped all around us as far as the eye can see. throughout these hills and forests. . . . They have lost none of their glamour for me. Their mystery remains."
The Volunteer Nurse looked up with a tired smile:
"You always were emotional, dear."
"I am still."
"You don't have to drain wounds and dry out sores and do the thousand unspeakable offices that we do."
"Why do you do it?"
"I have to."
"You didn't have to enlist. Why did you?"
"Why do the men enlist?" asked the Nurse. "That's why you and I did—whatever—the motive may have been, God knows. . . . And it's killed part of me. . . . You don't cleanse ulcers."
"No; I am not fitted. I tried; and lost none of the romance in me. Only it happens that I can do—what I am doing—better."
The Nurse looked at her a trifle awed.
"To think, dear, that you should turn out to be the celebrated Special Messenger. You were timid in school."
"I am now. . . . You don't know how afraid a woman can be. Suppose in school—suppose that for one moment we could have foreseen our destiny—here together, you and I, as we are now."
The Nurse looked into the stained hollow of her right hand.
"I had the lines read once," she said drearily, "but nobody ever said I'd be here, or that there'd be any war," And she continued to examine her palm with a hurt expression in her blue eyes.
The Special Messenger laughed, and her lovely pale face lighted up with color.
"Don't you really think you are ever going to be capable of caring for a man again?"
"No, I don't, I know now how they're fashioned, how they think—how—how revolting they can be. . . . No, no! It's all gone—all the ideals, all the dreams. . . . Good Heavens, how romantic—how senseless we were in school!"
"I am still, I think," said the Special Messenger thoughtfully. "I like men. . . . A man—the right one—could easily make me love him. And I am afraid there are more than one 'right one. I have often been on the sentimental border. . . . But they died, or went away—or I did. . . . The trouble with me is. as you say, I am emotional, and very, very tender-hearted. . . . It is sometimes difficult to be loyal—to care for duty—the Union more than for a man. Not that there is any danger of my proving untrue—"
"No," murmured the Nurse; "loyalty is your inheritance."
"Yes, we—" she named her family under her breath—"are traditionally trustworthy. It is part of us—our race was always, will always be. . . . But—to see a man near death—and to care for him a little— even a rebel—and to know that one word might save him—only one little disloyal word!"
"No man would save you at that expense," said the Nurse disdainfully, "I know men,"
"Do you? I don't—in that way. There was once an offficer—a non-combatant. I could have cared for him. . . . Once there was a Confederate cavalryman. I struck him senseless with my revolver-butt—and I could have—loved him. He was very young. . . . I never can forget him. It is hard, dear, the business I am engaged in. . . . But it has never spoiled my interest in men—or my capacity for loving one of them. I am afraid I am easily moved."
She rose and stood erect, to adjust her soft riding hat, every line and contour of her youthfully slender figure in charming relief against the window.
"Won't you let me brew a little tea for you?" asked the Nurse, "Don't leave me so soon."
"When do you go on duty?"
"In about ten minutes. It will be easier to-morrow, when we send our sick North. Will you come in to-morrow?"
The Special Messenger shook her head dreamily.
"I don't know—I don't know. . . . Good-by."
"Are you going on duty?"
The Nurse rose and put both arms around her.
"I am so afraid for you," she said; "and it has been so good to see you. . . . I don't know whether we'll ever meet again—"
Her voice was drowned in the noisy outburst of bugles sounding the noon sick-call.
They went out together, where the Messenger's horse was tied under the trees. Beyond, through the pines, glimmered the tents of an emergency hospital. And now, in the open air not very far away, they could hear picket firing,
"Do be careful," said the blue-eyed Nurse. "They say you do such audacious things; and every day somebody says you have been taken or hanged or shot. Dear, you are so young and so pretty—"
"So are you. Don't take fever or smallpox or die from a scratch from a poisoned knife, . . . Good-by once more."
They kissed each other. A hospital orderly, passing hurriedly, stopped to hold her stirrup; she mounted, thanked the orderly, waved a smiling adieu to her old schoolmate, and. swinging her powerful horse westward, trotted off through the woods, passing the camp sentinels with a nod and a low-spoken word.
Farther out in the woods she encountered the first line of pickets; showed her credentials, then urged her horse forward at a gallop.
"Not that way!" shouted an officer, starting to run after her; "the Johnnies are out there!"
She turned in her saddle and nodded reassuringly, then spurred on again, expecting to jump the Union advance-guard every moment.
There seemed to be no firing anywhere in the vicinity; nothing to be seen but dusky pine woods; and after she had advanced almost to the edge of a little clearing, and not encountering the outer line of Union pickets, she drew bridle and sat stock still in her saddle, searching in every direction with alert dark eyes.
Nothing moved; the heated scent of the Southern pines hung heavy in the forest: in the long dry swale grass of the clearing, yellow butterflies were flying lazily; on a dead branch above her a huge woodpecker, with pointed, silky cap, uttered a querulous, lonely cry from moment to moment.
She strained her dainty, close-set ears; no sound of man stirred in this wilderness—only the strange birdery from above: only the ceaseless monotone of the pine-crests stirred by some high sky breeze unfelt below. A forest path, apparently leading west, attracted her attention into this she steered her horse and continued, even after her compass had warned her that the path was now running directly south.
The tree-growth was younger here; thickets of laurel and holly grew in the undergrowth, and, attempting a short cut out. she became entangled. For a few minutes her horse, stung by the holly, thrashed and floundered about in the maze of tough stems; and when at last she got him free, she was on the edge of another clearing—burnt one, lying like a path of black velvet in the sun. A cabin stood at the farther edge.
Three forest bridle-paths ran west, east, and south from this blackened clearing. She unbuttoned her waist, drew out a map, and, flattening it on her pommel, bent above it in eager silence. And, as she sat studying her map, she became aware of a faint tremor in the solid earth under her horse's feet. It grew to a dull jarring vibration—nearer—nearer—nearer—and she hastily backed her horse into the depths of the laurel, sprang to the ground, and placed both gauntleted hands over her horse's nostrils.
A moment later the Confederate cavalry swept through the clearing at a trot—a jaunty, gray column, riding two abreast, then falling into single file as they entered the bridle-path at a canter.
Breathless, she watched them as they flashed by among the pines, sitting their horses beautifully, the wind lifting the broad brims of their soft hats, the sun a bar of gold across each sunburnt face.
There were only a hundred of them—probably some of Stuart's riders, for they seemed strangely familiar—but it was not long before they had passed on their gay course, and the last tremor in the forest soil—the last distant rattle of saber and carbine—died away in the forest silence.
What were they doing here? She did not know. There seemed no logical reason for their presence.
For a while, awaiting their possible collision with the Union outposts, she listened, expecting the far rattle of rifles. No sound came. They must have sheered off east. So very calmly she addressed herself to the task in hand.
This must be the burnt clearing; her map and the cabin corroborated her belief. Then it was here that she was to meet this unknown man in Confederate uniform and Union pay—a spy like herself—and give him certain information and receive certain information in return.
Her instructions had been unusually rigid; she was to take every precaution; use native disguise whether or not it might appear necessary, carry no papers, and let any man she might encounter make the advances until she was absolutely certain of him. For there was an ugly rumor afloat that he had been caught and hanged, and that a Confederate might attempt to impersonate him. So she looked very carefully at her map, then out of the thicket at the burnt clearing. There was the wretched cabin named as rendezvous, the little garden patch with standing corn and beans, and here and there a yellowing squash.
Why had the passing rebel cavalry left all that good food undisturbed?
Fear, which within her was always latent, always too ready to influence her by masquerading as caution, stirred now. For almost an hour she stood, balancing her field-glasses across her saddle, eyes focused on the open cabin door. Nothing stirred there.
At last, with a slight shiver, she opened her saddle bags and drew out the dress she meant to wear—a dingy, earth-colored thing of gingham.
Deep in the thicket she undressed, folded her fine linen and silken stockings, laid them away in the saddle bags together with waist and skirt, field-glasses, gauntlets, and whip, and the map and papers, which latter, while affording no information to the enemy, would certainly serve to convict her.
Dressed now in the scanty, colorless clothing of a "poor white" of the pine-woods, limbs and body tanned with walnut, her slender feet rubbed in dust and then thrust stockingless into shapeless shoes, she let down the dark, lustrous mass of her hair, braided it, tied it with faded ribbon, rubbed her hands in wood-mold and crushed green leaves over them till they seemed all stained and marred with toil. Then she gathered an armful of splinter-wood.
Now ready, she tethered her horse, leaving him bitted and saddled; spread out his sack of feed, turned and I looked once more at the cabin, then walked noiselessly to the clearing's edge, carrying her aromatic splinters.
Underfoot, as she crossed it, the charred grass crumbled to powder; three wild doves flickered up into flight, making a soft clatter and displaying the four white feathers. A quail called from the bean-patch.
The heat was intense in tin; sun; perspiration streaked her features; her tender feet burned; the cabin seemed a long way off, a wavering blot through the dancing heat devils playing above the fire-scorched open.
Head bent, she moved on in the shiftless, hopeless fashion of the sort of humanity she was representing, furtively taking her bearings and making such sidelong observations as she dared. To know the shortest way back to her horse might mean life to her. She understood that. Also she fully realized that she might at that very instant be under hostile observation. In her easily excited imagination, all around her the forest seemed to conceal a hundred malevolent eyes. She shivered slightly, wiped the perspiration from her brow with one small bare fist, and plodded on, clutching her light- wood to her soft, rounded breast.
And now at last she was nearing the open cabin door; and she must not hesitate, must show no suspicion. So she went in, dragging her clumsily-shod feet.
A very young man in the uniform of a Confederate cavalry officer was seated inside before the empty fire. She looked at him, simulating dull surprise; he rose and greeted her gracefully.
"Howdy," she murmured in response, still staring.
"Is this your house?" he asked.
"Is this your house?"
"I reckon," she nodded. "How come you-all in my house?"
He replied with another question:
"What were you doing in the woods?"
"Light-wood," she answered briefly, stacking the fragrant splinters on the table.
"Do you live here all alone?"
"Reckon I'm alone when I live heah," sullenly.
"What is your name?" He had a trick of coloring easily.
"What may be yoh name, suh?" she retorted with a little flash of Southern spirit, never entirely quenched even in such as she seemed to be.
Genuine surprise brought the red back into his face and made it, worn as it was, seem almost handsome. The curious idea came to her that she had seen him before somewhere. At the same moment speech seemed to tremble on his lips; he hesitated, looked at her with a new and sudden keenness, and stood looking.
"I expected to meet somebody here," he said at length.
She did not seem to comprehend.
"I expected to meet a woman here."
"Who? Me?" incredulously.
He looked her over for a while carefully; looked at her dusty bare ankles, at her walnut-smeared face and throat. She seemed so small, so round-shouldered—so different from what he had expected. They had said that the woman he must find was pretty.
"Was yuh-all fixin' to meet up with me?" she repeated with a bold laugh.
"I—don't know," lie said. "By the Eternal, I don't know, ma'am. But I'm going to find out in right smart time. Did you ever hear anybody speak Latin?"
"Suh?" blankly; and the audacity faded.
"Latin," he repeated, a trifle discomfited. "For instance, 'sic itur.' Do you know what 'sic itur' means?"
"'Sic itur!' Oh, Lord, she is what she looks like!" he exclaimed in frank despair. He walked to the door, wheeled suddenly, came back, and confronted her.
"Either, ma'am, you are the most consummate actress in this war drama, or you don't know what I'm saying, and you think me crazy . . . . And now I'll ask you once for all: Is this the road?"
The Special Messenger looked him full in the eyes; then, as by magic, the loveliest of smiles transfigured the dull, blank features; her round shoulders, pendulous arms, slouching pose, melted into superb symmetry, quickening with grace and youth as she straightened him and faced him, erect, supple, laughing, adorable.
"Sic itur—ad Astra," she said demurely, and offered him her hand. "Continue," she added.
He neither stirred nor spoke; a deep flush mounted to the roots of his short, curly hair. She smiled encouragement, thinking him young and embarrassed, and a trifle chagrined.
"Continue the Latin formula," she noddded, laughing; "what follows, if you please—"
"Good God!" he broke out hoarsely.
And suddenly she knew there was nothing to follow except death—his or hers—realized she made an awful mistake—divined in one dreadful instant the unsuspected counter-mine beneath her very feet—cried out as she struck him full in the face with clenched fist, sprang back, whipping the revolver from her ragged bodice, dark eyes ablaze.
"Now," she panted, "hands high—and turn your back! Quickly!"
He stood still, very pale, one sun-burnt hand covering the cheek which she had struck. There was blood on it. He heard her breathless voice, warning him to obey, but he only took his hand from his face, looked at the blood on palm and finger, then turned his hopeless eyes on her.
"Too late," he said heavily. "But—I'd rather be you than I. . . . Look out of that window, Messenger!"
"Put up your hands!"
"Will you hold up your hands!"
"No, Messenger. . . . And I—didn't—know it was you when I came here. It's—it's a dirty business—for an officer." He sank down on the wooden chair, resting his head between both hands. A single drop of blood fell brightly from his cut cheek.
The Special Messenger stole a swift, sidelong glance toward the window, hesitated, and, always watching him warily, slid along the wall toward the door, menacing him at every step with leveled revolver. Then, at the door, she cast one rapid glance at the open field behind her and around. A thrill of horror stiffened her. The entire circle of the burnt clearing was ringed with the gray pickets of rebel cavalry.
The distant men sat motionless on their horses, carbine on thigh. Here and there a distant horse tossed his beautiful head, or perhaps some hat-brim fluttered. There was no other movement, not one sound.
Crouching to pass the windows beneath the sills she crept, heedless of her prisoner, to the rear door. That avenue to the near clustering woods was closed, too: she saw the glitter of carbines above the laurel.
"Special Messenger?" She turned, pale as a ghost. "I reckon we've got you."
"Yes," she said.
There was another chair by the table—the only other one. She seated herself, shaking all over, laid her revolver on the table, stared at the weapon, pushed it from her with a nervous shudder, and, ashy of lip and cheek, looked at the man she had struck.
"Will they—hang me?"
"I reckon, ma'am. They hung the other one—the man you took me for."
"Will there be a—trial?"
"Drumhead. . . . They've been after you a long, long while."
"Then—what are you waiting for?"
He was silent.
She found it hard to control the nervous tremor of her limbs and lips. The dryness in her throat made speech difficult.
"Then—if there is no chance—"
He bent forward swiftly and snatched her revolver from the table as her small hand fell heavily upon the spot where the weapon had rested.
"Would you do that?" he said in a low voice.
The desperate young eyes answered him. And, after a throbbing silence: "Won't you let me?" she asked, "it is indecent to h-hang a—woman—before—men—"
He did not answer.
"Please—please—" she whispered, "Give it back to me—if you are a—soldier. . . . You can go to the door and call them. . . . Nobody will know. . . . You can turn your back. ... It will only take a second!"
A big blue-bottle fly came blundering into the room and filled the silence with its noise. Years ago the big blue flies sometimes came into the quiet schoolroom; and how everybody giggled when the taller Miss Poucher, bristling from her prunella shoes to her side side-curls, charged indignantly upon the buzzing intruder.
Dry-eyed, dry-lipped, the Messenger straightened up quivering, and drew a quick, sharp breath; then her head fell forward, and, resting inert upon the table, she buried her face in her arms. The most dangerous spy in the Union service—the secret agent who had worked more evil to the Confederacy than any single Union army corps—the coolest, most resourceful, most trusted messenger on either side as long as the struggle lasted—caught at last.
The man, young, Southern, and a gentleman's son, sat staring at her. He had driven his finger-nails deep into his palms, bitten his under lip till it was raw.
She made no response.
"Are you afraid?"
Her head, prone in her arms, motioned dull negation. It was a lie and he knew it. He looked at the slender column of the neck—stained to a delicate amber—at the nape; and he thought of the rope and the knot under the left ear.
"Messenger," he said once more. "I did not know it was you I was to meet. Look at me, in God's name!"
She opened her eyes on him, then raised her head.
"Do you know me now?" he asked.
He touched the scar on his forehead; but there was no recognition in her eyes.
"Look, I tell you!" he repeated almost fiercely.
She said wearily: "I have seen so many men—so many men. . . . I can't remember you."
"And I have seen many women, Messenger; but I have never forgotten you—or what you did—or what you did—"
"You. . . . And from that night I have lived only to find you again. and—oh, God! To find you here! My Messenger! My little Messenger! "
"Who are you?" she whispered, leaning forward on the table, dark eyes dilating with hope.
He sat heavily for a while, head bowed as though stunned to silence; then slowly the white misery returned to his face and he looked up.
"So—after all—you have forgotten. And my romance is dead."
She did not answer, intent now on every word, every shade of his expression. And, as she looked, through the numbness of her desperation, hope stirred again, stealthily.
"Are you a friend?" Her voice scarcely sounded at all.
"Friends die for each other," he said. "Do you expect that of me?"
The silence between them became terrible; and at last he broke it with a bitter laugh:
"You once turned a boy's life to romance—riding through it—out of it—leaving scars on his brow and heart—and on his lips the touch of your own. And on his face your tears. Look at me once more!"
Her breath came quicker: far within her somewhere memory awoke, groping blindly for light.
"For three days we followed you," he said. "On the Pennsylvania line we cornered you; but you changed garb and shape and speech, almost under our eyes—as a chameleon changes color, matching the leaf it hides on. . . . I halted at that squatter's house—sure of you at last—and the pretty squatter's daughter cooked for us while we hunted you in the hills—and when I returned she gave me her bed to sleep on—"
Her hand caught at her throat and she half-rose, staring at him.
"Her own bed to sleep on," he repeated. "And I had been three days in the saddle; and I ate what she set before me, and slept on her bed—fell asleep—only a tired boy, not a soldier any longer. . . . And awoke to meet your startled eyes—to meet the blow from your revolver butt that made this scar—to fall back bewildered for a moment—half-stunned—Messenger! Do you know me now?"
"Yes," she said.
They looked breathlessly at one another; suddenly a hot blush covered her neck and face: and his eyes flashed triumph.
"You have not forgotten!" he cried.
And there, on the very edge of death itself, the bright shame glowed and glowed in her cheeks, and her distressed eyes fell before his.
"You kissed me," he said, looking at her.
"I—I thought I had—killed you—" she stammered.
"And you kissed me on the lips. . . . In that moment of peril you waited to do that. Your tears fell on my face. I felt them. And I tell you that, even had I been lying there dead instead of partly stunned, I would have known what you did to me after you struck me down."
Her head sank lower; the color ran riot from throat to brow.
He spoke again, quietly, yet a strange undertone of exaltation thrilled his voice and transfigured the thin, war-worn features she had forgotten, so that, as she lifted her eyes to him again, the same boy looked back at her from the mist of the long dead years.
"Messenger," he said, "I have never forgotten. And now it is too late to forget your tears on my face—the touch of your lips on mine. I would not if I could. . . . It was worth living for—dying for. . . . Once—I hoped—some day—after this—all this trouble ended—my romance might come—true—"
The boy choked, then:
"I came here under orders to take a woman spy whose password was the key to a Latin phrase. But until you stood straight in your rags and smiled at me, I did not know it was you—I did not know I was to take the Special Messenger! Do you believe me?"
The boy colored painfully. Then a queer, pallid change came over his face; he rose, bent over her where she rested heavily on the table:
"Little Messenger," he said. "I am in your debt for two blows and a kiss."
She lifted a dazed face to meet his gaze; he trembled, leaned down, and kissed her on the mouth.
Then in one bound he was at the door, signaling troopers with drawn saber—as once, long ago, she had seen him signal them in the Northern woods.
And, through the window, she saw the scattered cavalry forming column at a gallop, obeying every saber signal, trotting forward, wheeling fours right—and then—and then! the gray column swung into the western forest at a canter, and were gone!
The boy leaning in the doorway looked back at her over his shoulder and sheathed his saber. There was not a vestige of color left in his face.
"Go!" he said hoarsely.
"What?" she faltered.
"Go—go, in God's name! There's a door there! Can't you see it?"
SHE had been gone for full hour when at last he turned again. A bit of faded ribbon from her hair lay on the table. He went over to it, curiously. It was tied in a true lover's knot.
He drew it through his buttonhole and walked slowly back to the door again. For a long while he stood there, vague-eyed, silent. It was nearly sunset when once more he drew his saber, examined it carefully, bent it over one knee, and snapped the blade in two.
Then, with a last look at the sky, and standing very erect, he closed the door, set his back firmly against it, drew his revolver, and looked curiously into the muzzle.
A moment later the racket of the shot echoed through the deserted house.