From A Soldier's Wife.
AT Paducah, Kentucky, I first realized what it required to be a soldier's wife. I had seen much before, and borne a great deal, yet it seemed but little comparatively when I came to take leave of my husband, and turned back to my lonely room to await his return.
True, I had expected this — was prepared for it in a measure; yet a strange and overpowering sense of my position came over me that I had not felt before, when I stood by the window to catch a last glimpse of a beloved form. He was standing upon the deck of a large boat, with hundreds of others around him; yet I seemed to see him only, his sad face turned to me in a mute farewell as the bell clanged and the ponderous vessel swept slowly out into the stream, and turned her prow toward the mouth of the Tennessee. It was but a moment, during which I leaned against the casement, breathless, agonized. There the waters lay cold and glittering under the spring sunbeams, and the sadness of utter desolation seemed to have fallen upon my spirits.
I am ashamed to say that I shut every ray of the bright, beautiful sun from my room, feeling as if it was a mockery too bitter to endure in that hour; that I threw myself upon my couch and wept as if my heart would break, for the time forgetful that there were any in the world more sorrowful, and with deeper cause for sorrow than I. But it is true, and here I confess my selfish weakness repentantly, glad to be able to say that I have since that time learned to think less of myself and more of others on whom the hand of affliction has fallen heavily, while I am still unscathed.
After the first burst of grief I roused myself with the question, "What shall I do?" and the answer came so quickly that my cheek was dyed with shame. What should I do, with three hospitals in sight of my window? No need to ponder the question long. The call of duty was loud and strong, and I obeyed it without delay.
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon when I first entered the Presbyterian church, which had been converted into a hospital, and walked up its aisle under the gaze of a hundred eyes. The very remembrance of that time thrills me again with the same sensation of pity and pain that rose in my heart as I looked upon the pale, emaciated faces around me. Near the pulpit two men were standing, whom I rightly supposed to be the doctor and steward. Toward them I went directly, and addressed the tallest of the two.
"Is this the attending physician of the hospital?"
"It is, madam. Dr. L— , at your service. What can I do for you?"
"Tell me, Sir, how I can make myself useful to others. My husband has gone to Pittsburg Landing, to be away for several weeks, perhaps, during which, time I shall have no thing to do, unless you make me useful here. Can I be of service?"
"Look about you and see. There has not been a lady within these walls since I came, nearly five weeks ago. Your voice is soft, your hand light and skillful — all women's are — and I have no doubt but your eyes will be quick to see what should be done. I shall be glad to have you come."
"Thank you. I may come to you for advice when I want it?" I asked.
"Certainly. I shall be happy to assist yon at all times."
I bowed and turned away, feeling as if about to realize, indeed, some of the terrible consequences of war.
In a few moments I had laid aside my hat and cloak, rolled my sleeves away from my wrists, and constructed an impromptu apron of an old sheet which I found among the bandages in the linen room. Thus prepared for the work which I saw before me, I went out to the kitchen and obtained warm water, a tin wash-basin, and some towels. For combs and brushes I was compelled to send out before I could do any thing.
Then the work began in earnest. Commencing with the lower berth, I went up the entire length of the aisle, taking each patient in his turn until I got through. Grimed faces and hands were to be bathed, hair and beard trimmed and brushed — a long and distressing task. But I had undertaken it with a will, and, though my arms and neck ached, I would not yield until the last sufferer had been relieved.
It was half past eight o'clock in the evening before I had done, and when I reached the hotel I could scarcely stand for very weariness. Such duties were new to me then, and the excitement helped to wear away my strength. But the memory of grateful thanks, tearful eves, and broken, trembling exclamations of relief more than repaid me. Even as I sat beside them passing the cool sponge over their faces or brushing the tangled hair, many of the sufferers had fallen asleep.
I slept little that night. It was vain to attempt sleep after such an experience. Moreover, an idea came to me that filled me with unrest. I had observed when tea was brought in how coarse and unpalatable the food was, and that many turned from it with loathing. There was hard, brown bread crisped to a blackened toast; some fat bacon, and black tea without milk served to the men on that evening. The tea was sweetened with very coarse brown sugar, stirred into it with large iron spoons. They drank from tin cups and ate from tin plates. This would have made little difference had the food been nice and palatable, which certainly was not. Some of the men told me, in answer to my questions, that they could not have swallowed a mouthful to save their lives. I rose very early the following morning, filled with the idea that many of those brave sufferers were actually starving, and determined to look
623into the matter more closely. But few of the nurses were astir in the hospital, and I went to the kitchen, where the cook had just commenced the preparation of the morning meal, and was greeted with a surly "Good-morgen" in mixed German-English. In a moment I saw that I should not have a very pleasant time in my examinations. After a few careless remarks, to set the man in a good-humor, I asked him to show me the hospital stores for the day's consumption, which he did ungraciously enough. A moment's observation filled me with horror and indignation.
"Do you tell me that you are going to cook all this stuff for those men in the other room?" I said, indignantly. "Look at this tea, black and mouldy as it can be, and this bacon is one living mass! Here are salt fish laid upon boards over the sugar-barrel, brine dripping through into the sugar! I hope you have not been using this for their tea."
"It is not my fault. I am not ze prowider far ze hospital," growled the cook in response. "I does my duty so fur as I can. I cooks ze rations zat is bring to me, and zat is all so fur as I go."
"Well, that is farther than you will go in less than a week from now!" I answered, quickly. "If you had the soul of a man in you you would refuse to have any thing to do with such horrible things as those! Poor boys! No wonder they turned away from such food in disgust. Some of those men are starving to death. Do you know it?"
He stared at me aghast and made no reply. "It is really true, and I know it. How can they eat such bread and meat — drink such tea as this? They are weakened by illness, and require delicacies. It would be utterly impossible for many of those men to swallow coarse food, even if clear and palatable. How then can they eat this?" I repeated, looking at him steadily till his head drooped, and I began to suspect that he was even more guilty than at first appeared. Afterward I found that he had carefully put aside all the delicacies that found their way to the hospital and feasted upon them, while those for whom they were intended faded and pined day by day under his eyes.
When Dr. L— came I went to him at once and told him how I had been engaged, and what I had found in my researches. He looked so much surprised that indignation was redoubled, and I could not forbear expressing it in plain words.
"Can it be possible that you, the physician in charge of a hospital, do not know, after five weeks service, what your patients have to eat?"
"I am not here when the meals are served. I give orders for such diet as my patients must have, and my steward's business is to carry out my instructions."
"Do you never inquire into the condition of the stores? Have you never examined to see if they were as they should be? It seems to me you ought to know all about what is going on here. If three hundred lives were in my hands as they are in yours I should not dare to trifle with them thus!"
"You are severe, madam!"
"Ask yourself if I am unjustly so, Sir. I do not desire to appear rude or assuming; but indeed I won't look upon this unmoved. What I saw last night and this morning has opened my eyes to a condition that is a shame to any hospital. See the confusion all around us! Remember how long helpless men have lain without even a face bath or a wound dressed for three days, to say nothing of the more dreadful slow starvation to which they are subjected! If all hospitals are kept like this God pity the poor soldiers!"
"Since you see the evils so plainly, perhaps you can suggest a remedy," remarked Dr. L— , sarcastically.
"I will try, if you will act upon the suggestion," I answered, quickly.
"In the first place, then, what do you do when a man fails to draw his regular rations?
"He is entitled to its value in money if he wishes it."
"Then why not refuse to draw such rations as those, and with the money buy food that can be eaten?"
"It might be done if there was any thing to buy. I am afraid it will be hard work if you attempt it."
"No matter; it must be done. If you will furnish me with a boy to do errands, I will see if I can not get fresh butter, eggs, and chickens, at least — perhaps milk also. These would prove invaluable just now. To-day I intend to send to a Society for some sheets and mattresses; and, if you have no decided objection, will try to bring order out of chaos, if possible."
"I see you are one of the working kind," said the Doctor. "Do all you wish, and call upon me when I can render any assistance."
"That will be very frequently, I assure you." And with that I turned away, still too much incensed to treat him civilly. He was willing enough to let other people take his work off his hands, since he would come in for a full share of the credit in the end. At least that was my uncharitable thought at the moment; and I am not sure now that I was far wrong, as I know his character better.
The same day I went to him again about the boy, but he had forgotten all about the matter, so I went to the Quarter-master instead. He furnished a horse, and I sent my own waiting-man out to the country for supplies, making him take a receipt for every penny he paid in his purchases. This was for the purpose of ascertaining precisely how much was spent, as I desired to render a faithful account of my stewardship. I was fully aware that the ground I was taking might easily prove a dangerous one should I fail to keep precise accounts of my expenditures, and resolved to give no chances for misrepresentation. Every receipt; and bill of
624sale, after being duly copied in my own account-book, was carefully filed in the Quarter-master's office, subject to the inspection of any who chose to examine them.
Mr. P— , the Quarter-master, was a kind, gentlemanly man, in whom I found an ever-ready assistant. He had received a donation in money, for the benefit of the wounded, from some one in Illinois, which he begged me to use as designed, and I did so gladly. Even with that I had not enough, and was often compelled to draw from my own purse the means wherewith to supply the many wants of the patients.
It took me a week to get fairly started in my vocation as hospital nurse. There was such an entire absence of system in the establishment, that it seemed almost impossible to bring it into any thing like order. The nurses were detailed each day from the convalescent corps — weak, spiritless men, who thought more of themselves than of the charges placed in their hands. I had seen them lounging about and sleeping while the sicker men, failing to make them hear, would try to struggle into a sitting posture to get at the medicines to be taken from time to time.
All this had to be changed, and strong, able men detailed for duty. The ward-master drank fearfully, and I was compelled to report him and get another man put into his place. With the assistance of these, however, after the changes were made I got along very well. Every morning we had the floor nicely washed, and when the sun shone the windows were opened to let in the fresh, balmy air, the effect of which was almost magical; eyes would brighten, and lips wreathe in pleasant, hopeful, smiles, beautiful to behold.
It was with more joy than words can express that I observed the rapid improvement of the men under careful attention. When the new sheets and comforters, with pillows and mattresses came, we were able to keep the place perfectly fresh and comfortable. But it required the most constant attention. I went to my hotel only for my meals, devoting the day, from half past five in the morning to nine in the evening, to the care of the sick. I must be there at every meal, or many would go without any thing at all. Some of the feeblest had to be fed like children, and what they ate could be prepared by myself only. I must toast the bread and make the tea; then I must sit down and support their heads with my left hand, while with the right I conveyed the food to their lips. Such constant care was very wearing, and I was often tempted to steal away for an hour's rest, trusting to some one to take my place for a time; but when I gave it a second thought the temptation faded. Suppose the man should die, could I feel that I had done all in my power to save him? Not if I should yield to the inclination I felt to abandon my post; so I remained, and tried to be patient.
Two hours each day were devoted to letter-writing for those who were unable to correspond with their friends. And sometimes, after tea, I would send for my guitar and sing for them, at the request of the music-loving ones under my charge. So the days sped, and all things began to run smoothly — for a time, at least. Death was not banished from our midst, however. Sometimes it was my fate to walk up the aisle in the morning and find some berth empty in which a favorite patient had lain. I might here go into particulars, and detail some of the most touching scenes in life; but I will, here speak of only one case:
One evening I was sitting by a dying man, reading a favorite chapter in the Bible, to which he listened eagerly, even while his eyes drooped under the shades of death. One clammy hand groped for mine, and clasped it with a feeble, tremulous touch, and as I finished his lips moved painfully: "Write to my wife and children. Tell them I can not come to them, but they may soon follow me to that place of which the Saviour said, In my Father's house are many mansions: I go to prepare a place for you. Oh, how sweet and comforting! Let not your hearts be troubled: ye believe in God; believe also in me. Jesus, Saviour, I do believe in thee. Receive thou my spirit!" And the voice sank softly. A few moments later the last fluttering breath went out, and the mysteries of the unknown world were mysteries to him no longer.
Tears fell fast as I pressed the white lids over the blue eyes, thinking of those who were far away, and denied the sad privilege of paying the last tender rites to the dead. Poor children! Poor mother! How my heart ached to think that mine must be the task to tell them the story of death, of which, perhaps, they were not dreaming now!
Before I had finished a boy came in hurriedly and said something to the steward, of which I caught only the words, "been fighting all day — rebels attacked them this morning — had a very hard time of it."
I grew for a moment sick with a terrible fear, A battle had taken place, and who should say how many lives in a few short hours had been crowned with the thorny wreath of affliction? It might be that I, too, was destined to feel the force of an awful blow. If so, God help me!
I could gain no particulars at the hospital, and was forced to wait until I reached home. There I learned that an attack had been made upon our forces Sunday morning, and the Confederates had occupied our camps for some time. Afterward they were driven out again, but we had lost many lives. They were still fighting an hour before nightfall. Further than this nothing was known.
All night I walked the floor in an agony of suspense and dread. Would the morning's dawn come to me with a message of gladness; or should I rank among the doomed, who henceforth must walk the earth in the darkness and gloom of utter desolation?
Ah, how I prayed that night! How I wres-
625tied with my own fearful heart, and chided myself for the lack of faith which should have borne me up in that hour!
Monday came, freighted with death to thousands! All day the battle raged, and at night it was said that the Federals had achieved a great victory. A victory it was; but oh! at what a fearful cost ! How many hundreds of young heads were that day laid low in the dust, never to rise again! How many hopeful hearts throbbed their last impulses of human aspirations and ambition!
Tuesday and Wednesday brought hundreds from the field of action. Some of the wounded were transported to Paducah, and I was called upon to dress their wounds and to assist in amputations, which required all the strength I possessed. The duty was a terrible one; but I nerved myself resolutely to perform it, hoping that, if need be, some one would as willingly attend to one of whose fate I had as yet learned nothing.
On Thursday morning the St. Francis Hotel was alive with officers from Shiloh, but still I was left in ignorance of my husband's fate, and the suspense was becoming insupportable. Every excuse that could be made for a delay of tidings had been utterly exhausted, and I felt now that he was either killed or wounded.
In the hope of hearing something definite I went out to the table for the first time since the battle, and took my usual seat, near which sat two wounded officers. One had his head bandaged; the other's arm was in a sling; and both were pale and weary-looking. But they were talking of the late contest, and after listening for a few moments I yielded to an uncontrollable impulse and asked the one nearest me if he knew any thing of the fate of the — Regiment.
He turned politely, with a look of interest I could but remark, and answered:
"I am sorry to say, madam, that it fared very badly. Some other regiments of the same division showed the white feather, and, perfectly panic-stricken, broke ranks and fled. That gallant regiment alone stood its ground, and was literally cut to pieces. Those who were not killed were taken prisoners, only a few escaping."
"And the officers — were they all — ?" I could not finish the sentence for the deathly sickness that was choking my utterance, and he answered it gently:
"I believe every one was killed. Did you have any friends among them, may I ask?"
"My husband," I gasped. " Captain S—"
I saw them exchange glances; and then, as if in a dream, a voice seemed to murmur afar off amidst the rushing of waters.
"Poor thing! He fell in the first onset. But see! She is falling!"
A strong hand grasped my arm, and a glass of water was pressed to my lips; but the shock of that deadly blow was too heavy, and I sank slowly into utter oblivion, conscious of a wish, as sight and sound faded, that I might never waken again!
It was an hour before they brought me back to a sense of my bereavement, and then I turned from the kind faces clustered about the couch to which I had been borne, and gave vent to a bitter cry.
"Ah! why did you not let me die? The world is so cold and desolate!"
Two firm, soft hands clasped mine, and drew them away from my face, and I saw the mild, reproachful eyes of a stranger gazing into mine. He was an old man, with hair as white as the snows of winter, and a voice soft and gentle as a tender mother's.
"My child, you are rebellions! Rouse yourself, and learn to say, Not my will, but thine, O Lord, be done!"
"I can not! — can not bring myself to feel that there is any mercy or love in the power that could deal such a blow. God knew that he was all I had on earth, and he has taken him from me. It was cruel!"
"Hush! Resignation will come when you have time to think. Perhaps, after all, it is a mistake. There has been no official report of your husband's death, and he may only be wounded or a prisoner."
I started up, wild with the hope his words awakened.
"Nay, be not too hasty! I only say it may be possible."
I was silenced, but the hope was not crushed. It stung me to life again, and made every idle moment seem like an eternity of agony.
In a few moments they began to leave the room, and only one or two ladies remained in conversation with the old gentleman, who was a physician, and had been summoned hastily when I fainted. Seeing them thus engaged, I formed a sudden resolution, and raised myself from the pillows.
"What are you going to do?" asked the doctor, turning his face toward me.
"Find my husband — dead or alive," I answered, getting off the bed.
"My dear child, you are mad!" he expostulated. "You can not do any thing. Look at your face — it is as pallid as marble, and your eyes would frighten any one."
"That is because I have not slept or eaten scarcely since last Saturday night," I said, in reply. "Besides, I have been half mad with suspense. Only for the sick at the hospital, who claimed my care, I don't think I could have borne it at all."
"Go back and lie down on the bed," pleaded one of the ladies. "It makes my heart ache to look at you."
"How dreadfully you must have suffered!"
"God and my own heart only know how much," I answered, gulping down a sob. Her tone of womanly sympathy shook my strong self-control till I trembled. Then I broke down entirely, and with a bitter cry fell upon my knees by a chair.
"O Charley, Charley! my heart is breaking!"
Instantly her kind arms were twined round me — her soft lips pressed to my forehead. She held me to her heart, and suffered me to weep until the fountain of my tears was exhausted.
"There! you feel better now, don't you?" said the doctor, kindly. "You must lie down and keep quiet a while, or you will be ill. Your hands are like two burning coals now, while only a moment since they were like ice. You must not fall ill."
"Oh no! I can not afford to be ill. I must search for my husband," I answered, rising. "There — it is over now! I am done with tears for the present, and am ready to work. If I do not, I shall soon lose my reason. Don't talk to me, any of you!" I cried, as I saw them about to remonstrate. "I am determined to go up the river, and if I should never return, try to remember me kindly."
"The authorities will not permit you to go," said the doctor. "An order has been issued to allow no lady to pass up the river, and Colonel N— has locked himself up to escape the importunities of the people."
"I shall go, nevertheless," was my reply. "How will you manage it?" asked the old man, curiously.
"I don't know yet. But I shall go. Before night I will be on my way to Pittsburg Landing."
They looked at me pityingly; but I paid no attention further, and when they left the room I began to pack some articles in a small trunk which I could easily take with me.
About noon a boat, chartered at Cincinnati and sent after the wounded, touched at Paducah, and I obtained passage. Fortune seemed to favor me here, for I not only found myself able to carry out my design, but came into the midst of sympathizing friends, who received me cordially, and did all in their power to make me comfortable.
There were a number of surgeons and their assistants on board. Three Sisters of Charity and two ladies from Cincinnati completed the list, and in about an hour we entered the mouth of the river and proceeded on our sorrowful errand.
I will not dwell upon the tediousness of the trip. To me it seemed like an eternity of mis-cry. On Thursday, about one o'clock, we left Paducah, and did not arrive at Pittsburg Landing until Saturday night, near eight o'clock.
I shall never forget that night or a single incident connected with it. As we made fast to the shore I was standing upon the hurricane deck, looking abroad, with my heart full of a wild and bitter fear. Here was Shiloh! There were the black, forbidding bluffs directly over my head, the banks of the river lined with boats from which profane and noisy men were unloading Government stores. Across the river two or three gun-boats stretched their black, snake-like lengths along the waters, and from them only a fiery gleam, was now and then discernible. Above, the sky was clear and blue, and studded with myriads of stars that looked, oh so calmly! down upon that terrible spot. There, where rivers of blood had flowed, lay the silvery white moonbeams, and on the death-laden air floated the rich perfume of spring flowers.
Even while I stood looking around me the Continental swung loose from her fastenings, and rounded out into the stream followed by half a dozen others. Now the lights blazed from every vessel, and a band struck up "Dixie" in the most spirited manner.
General Halleck was going up the river to destroy a bridge, and, convoyed by two of the gunboats, they started two and two abreast, keeping in this order until a sudden turn hid them from sight.
Turning my face once more toward the shore, some dark objects became visible lying some distance up the side of the hill; but I could not discern precisely what they were, and the next moment my attention was absorbed in a painful scene taking place on the deck of a boat just along side of the Lancaster.
There were a number of men lying upon berths in the open air, and around one of them was a surgeon and his group of assistants. The wounded man had his arm bared to the shoulder, and had I not seen the glittering of instruments in the light of the numerous lamps held around him I should still have divined his fate. Poor fellow! I heard him sob and plead piteously, "Oh, doctor, don't take my arm off! If I lose it my little sister will have no one to work for her. I'd rather die!"
"Die you will if it does not come off, and that very soon," was the response. "No help for it, boy, so be a man and bear it bravely."
The next moment a handkerchief was held to his face, and after a brief struggle he yielded to the powerful influence of chloroform. I hear the deep, quick gasping so painful to the listener and the tears ran down my cheeks unrestrainedly.
Captain V— came up to me. " Mrs. S— , I have been making inquiries for you, and can gain no intelligence whatever concerning your husband. I see no way but to wait until daylight, and then I will find a conveyance and send some one with you."
"Can not I go to-night? It seems as if it is impossible to wait."
"No, it is out of the question. The mud is two feet deep on shore, and it is quite dark in the woods. I am sorry for you, but it will be only a little while longer. Try to be as patient as you can."
"Thank you, I will. But it is very, very hard."
"I am sure of it. But let me say a word to you here, Mrs. S— . I fear you are hoping too much. Remember he fell early on Sunday, and the chances are that he was hastily buried with many others in the trenches."
"For Heaven's sake go no further!" I
627implored." My husband buried in a trench!
Oh, God forbid!"
He took my hand, and drawing it within his arm led me to the ladies cabin, which now presented a singular appearance, converted as it was into a hospital, and peopled by the wounded which the men were carrying on board.
There were three rows of mattresses spread upon the floor, the one in the middle capable of accommodating two patients, and one on each side a single man.
All these were filled already, and the clamor was terrible. Some called for food, others for water, and a few lay moaning piteously, their hunger and thirst forgotten in the sharp pain of undressed wounds.
One boy near the stern of the boat seemed to be in such distress that I hastened to his side and bent over him.
"Where are you wounded?" I asked.
"In the shoulder. I got it Monday, and it's never been dressed. I can not get at it myself."
Hastily getting a basin of water, sponge, and bandages, I exposed the inflamed and swollen shoulder and began to bathe it carefully. He regarded me for a moment with wide, fearful eyes, then as he felt the gentle touch and cooling sponge, his eyes closed and he heaved a great sigh of relief.
"Ah, that is so nice!" he murmured, presently. " I tell you it's hard enough to be shot down like a dog; but when it comes to lying out for a whole week in the open air, with only a blanket, a cracker, and a slice of dried beef, with an occasional drink of water, it's harder still. I thought I should starve to death before they could get a boat to take us off, and if I could only have had my shoulder dressed! Oh, how good that feels!"
I had just laid a folded napkin wet with ice-water over the wound, and it was this which called forth such an exclamation of delight.
"I am glad you feel better. Now I am going to bring you a cup of tea, with some bread and butter. If you are so nearly starved, it is time you should have something to eat."
"Oh, thank you!"
I hastened away, and in a few moments came back with the tea and bread, which he ate like a man who was indeed starving. The glare of his large dark eyes was perfectly terrible.
"More, more!" he gasped pantingly, swallowing the last drop of tea at a draught.
"Not now. In half an hour you shall have more. To give it you now will do you more harm than good. We must try to keep down fever. Now, shall I bathe your face and hands for you?"
"If you please," with an eager, wistful look it the empty cup and plate that made my eyes grow humid.
While I was engaged in the operation Doctor P— , from Cincinnati, passed me.
"Who taught you to nurse?" he asked. "I wish all women would take right hold of the boys as you do. There would be less suffering."
"They have surely earned this much at our hands, at least," I said, in reply.
"Ay, to be sure. But I know plenty who would never get down on their knees on the floor as you are doing, and take hold of an object like that."
"I hope not. I believe there are few who would not do it if in such circumstances. There is not one who has a father, brother, or husband in the service who would refuse to do it, I am sure."
He passed on with some careless reply, and I continued attending the soldiers until it grew late. After three o'clock I threw myself upon a sofa in the chamber-maid's room, and slept until half past five. Then I rose and went again among the wounded until such an hour as I could set out upon my journey over the field.
I will here mention a case that may seem incredible to many; but if so, it will not surprise me, for I could scarcely believe the evidence of my own senses, when one of the surgeons came to me directly after I entered the cabin the night before, and asked me to come and "see a sight." I told him I would as soon as I finished " feeding my patient;" and did so, he meeting me half-way when he saw me coming.
About midway of the cabin lay a rebel prisoner, badly wounded in the head. A ball had passed behind his eyes, forcing both upon the cheeks, where they lay in a most horrible and swollen condition. From the wounds in each temple a portion of the brains was slowly oozing, and the doctor pointed to it, saying,
"In all my life I have seen nothing like that. He has been lying here for the last ten minutes in that condition, quarreling with this Federal soldier just opposite."
"Surely he can not know what he is saying!" I ejaculated.
"Yes, he does, perfectly. You should hear him."
I had an opportunity soon, for in a moment he called out:
"Say! look here, Yank! I want a drink of water!"
"All right! You shall have it in a moment," answered one of the men in waiting. "I'm tending to a feller, and shall be done in a minute."
"Oh yes, I'll be bound you'll tend to your Yanks before you do to me! But when a man's on his last legs you might stop a moment to give him a drop of water. I sha'n't ask it of you more than an hour or so longer. Then I'm going straight to — !"
I shuddered and retreated from the spot. Such profanity and recklessness upon the very brink of eternity! It was awful!
"Poor wretch! God pity and have mercy upon you!" said the doctor. "You have none for yourself."
"I don't want any of your cant, Sir," said the man, in reply. "My soul is not yours, and you need not trouble yourself about it in the least."
When I came again into the cabin the following morning he was just breathing his last — going home to his Creator hardened, reckless — utterly careless of the fate that awaited him.
An hour later Captain V— sent for a conveyance, but could get none, to carry me over the field in search of the camp from which I hoped to gain some intelligence that should end suspense. While striving to devise some means the medical director of the — Division came on board, and offered me one of his horses, proposing himself to guide me to the place where the — Regiment was camped. There were but few left, he said, but what there were had pitched their tents about five miles distant, and he thought he could take me to the place without difficulty.
Thanking him warmly I accepted the offer, and erelong found myself mounted and laboring through the mud up the side of the bluff.
The path led round it, ascending gradually to the top, and once upon the shore, I discovered the dark objects that had puzzled me the night previous were human bodies lying under the broiling sun waiting for burial.
Through the mud, over fallen trees, broken artillery, and pieces of shells, the carcasses of horses and mules, and by strips of woodland cut down like grass by the rains of iron and lead! How strange and solemn and fearful it seemed! Giant trees pierced by balls and shorn of their bark till the trunks showed a hundred grinning scars; boughs severed and hanging by a single fibre, or lying prone upon the ground, trampled and blood-stained!
Our progress was slow. It was long past noon ere we reached the little hollow in which the tents I sought had been pitched; and then, as we came in sight of the little blue wreaths of smoke, and saw a few solitary men moving about, I began to tremble. I knew that I was about to meet my fate, and the thought of what it might be almost deprived me of the necessary strength to go on to the end.
Presently, after passing through several encampments, we descended into the hollow and alighted before the officers quarters, which seemed almost deserted. There the doctor bade me go in and wait while he made inquiries of those around outside.
On first entering I saw nothing but a berth, on which lay a man with his face turned from me; but the next moment I discovered that another was seated beyond, his head resting against the side of the berth, fast asleep. A pillow supported the right arm of the invalid, and by the bandages I knew he had been wounded. My heart swelled with pity, and stealing softly toward the bed, I leaned over to catch a glimpse of his face.
Pale — oh, so pale and wan! with the rich brown hair pushed back from the broad brow, pure and white as marble. The blue eyes were half closed, and the lips parted with such an expression of suffering that a loving woman's heart might almost break in looking upon it.
Yet I did not moan, nor faint, nor cry out, I only fell upon my knees, and taking the white, clammy fingers of the left hand in my own, covered it with warm tears and gentle kisses — for it was my own dear husband, whom God had spared to me, and I had found him at last!
"I thank Thee, O my Father!" was the cry of my soul in that hour, and my lips breathed it audibly. With the sound Charley opened his eyes and looked into my face with a bewildered stare. Then a light broke all over his pale face, and his glad smile sent happy tears raining over my cheeks.
"Is it you, darling? I thought you would never come!" he breathed faintly. "But you are here now, and you will not leave me again, will you?"
"No, indeed. I will take care of you, and get you well again. Ah, how you must have missed me!"
"Missed you! It has been an eternity of misery since I fell, and I have called your name vainly a thousand times."
"They told me you were killed!" I said, chokingly. "I waited for tidings from you till I thought I should go mad, and then they said you were dead, and when I declared my intention of finding you, tried to keep me from coming. But I would not be stayed, and, thank God! I have found you alive."
"Ay! Thank God from your soul, for it is one of His greatest blessings that he is here now!" said the doctor, who had entered and laid his hand upon my head.
"Toll her all about it," whispered my husband's faint voice, and as his fingers clasped mine closer the old man sat down upon a camp-stool and began:
"I have just heard the story from one of the boys, and it is a wonder to me how he lived through that long time without the least care. He must have crept into the thicket where they found him very soon after falling, and there remained for four days. There was a dead soldier near him, and from his canteen and haversack he managed to obtain water and food; but his wound bled terribly. They say, to judge by the stains around and where they came across him, he had just a spark of life left. He will need you now to nurse him back to life again, and it will take nice nursing too."
"Will he lose his arm, doctor?" I asked, in a suppressed voice, lest Charley should hear.
"I will tell you after a while," was the answer; and accordingly "after a while" he examined it closely. As he left the tent I followed him out.
"All right, my little anxious woman! The Captain can carry that arm through several campaigns yet, I hope," he said, heartily; and I went back to my boy, my eyes wet with glad tears.
Three weeks later we were within our own quiet home, where I was nursing him back to strength to be ready for the Fall campaign.