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- His Sombre Rivals - 40/66 -
"My reason's throne is often as rickety as a two-legged stool. No, I won't laugh at you. There's not a braver man in the service than you. If you feel as you say, there's some cause for it; and yet so complex is our organism that both cause and effect may not be worthy of very grave consideration, as I have hinted."
"Think what you please, this was my dream. I had made my dispositions for the night, and went to sleep as a matter of course. I had not slept an hour by my watch--I looked at it afterward--when I seemed to hear some one moaning and crying, and I thought I started up wide awake, and I saw the old library at home--the room you know so well. Every article of furniture was before me more distinctly than I can see any object now, and on the rug before the open fire Grace was crouching, while she moaned and wrung her hands and cried as if her heart was breaking. She was dressed in black--Oh, how white her hands and neck and face appeared against that mournful black--and, strangest of all, her hair fell around her snowy white, like a silver veil. I started forward to clasp her in my arms, and then truly awoke, for there was nothing before me but my drooping horse, a few red coals of my expiring fire, and over all the black, black shadow of this accursed grove. Oh, for sunlight! Oh, for a gale of wind, that I might breathe freely again!" and the powerful man sprang to his feet and threw open his coat at his breast.
As he ceased speaking, the silence and darkness of the grove did seem ominous and oppressive, and Graham's old wretched presentiment of Christmas morning returned, but he strove with all the ingenuity in his power to reason his friend out of his morbid mood, as he termed it. He kindled his fire into a cheerful blaze, and Hilland cowered and shivered over it; then looking up abruptly, he said, "Graham, you and I accepted the belief long ago that man was only highly organized matter. I must admit to you that my mind has often revolted at this belief; and the thought that Grace was merely of the earth has always seemed to me sacrilegious. She never was what you would call a religious girl; but she once had a quiet, simple faith in a God and a hereafter, and she expected to see her mother again. I fear that our views have troubled her exceedingly; although with that rare reserve in a woman, she never interfered with one's strong personal convictions. The shallow woman tries to set everybody right with the weighty reason, 'Oh, because it IS so; all good people say it is so.' I fear our views have unsettled hers also. I wish they had not; indeed I wish I could believe somewhat as she did.
"Once, only once, she spoke to me with a strange bitterness, but it revealed the workings of her mind. I, perhaps, was showing a little too much eagerness in my spirit and preparation for active service, and she broke out abruptly, 'Oh, yes, you and Alford can rush into scenes of carnage very complacently. You believe that if the bullet is only sure enough, your troubles are over forever, as Alford once said. I suppose you are right, for you learned men have studied into things as we poor women never can. If it's true, those who love as we do should die together.' It has often seemed that her very love--nay, that mine--was an argument against our belief. That a feeling so pure, vivid, and unselfish, so devoid of mere earthiness--a feeling that apparently contains within itself the very essence of immortality--can be instantly blotted out as a flame is extinguished, has become a terrible thought. Grace Hilland is worthy of an immortal life, and she has all the capacity for it. It's not her lovely form and face that I love so much as the lovely something--call it soul, spirit, or what you choose--that will maintain her charm through all the changes from youth to feeble and withered age. How can I be sure that the same gentle, womanly spirit may not exist after the final change we call death, and that to those worthy of immortal life the boon is not given? Reason is a grand thing, and I know we once thought we settled this question; but reason fails me to-night, or else love and the intense longings of the heart teach a truer and deeper philosophy--
"You are silent, Graham. You think me morbid--that wishes are fathers of my thoughts. Well, I'm not. I honestly don't know what the truth is. I only wish to-night that I had the simple belief in a reunion with Grace which she had with regard to her mother. I fear we have unsettled her faith; not that we ever urged our views--indeed we have scarcely ever spoken of them--but there has been before her the ever- present and silent force of example. It was natural for her to believe that those were right in whom she most believed; and I'm not sure we are right--I'm not _sure_. I've not been sure for a long time."
"My dear Warren, you are not well. Exposure to all sorts of weather in this malarial country is telling on you; and I fear your feelings to- night are the prelude of a fever. You shall stay and sleep by my fire, and if I hear the slightest suspicious sound I will waken you. You need not hesitate, for I intend to watch till morning, whether you stay or not."
"Well, Graham, I will. I wish to get through this horrible night in the quickest way possible. But I'll first go and bring my horse here, so the poor orderly can have a nap."
He soon returned and lay down close to the genial fire, and Graham threw over him his own blankets.
"What a good, honest friend you are, Graham!--too honest even to say some hollow words favoring my doubts of my doubt and unbelief. If it hadn't been for you, I should have been dead long ago. In my blind confidence, I should have rushed into the war, and probably should have been knocked on the head at Bull Run. How many happy months I've passed with Grace since then!--how many since you virtually gave your life for me last autumn! You made sure that I took a man's, not a fool's, part in the war. Oh, Grace and I know it all and appreciate it; and--and--Alford, if I should fall, I commend Grace to your care."
"Hilland, stop, or you will unman me. This accursed grove _is_ haunted, I half believe; and were I in command I would order 'Boots and Saddles' to be sounded at once. There, sleep, Warren, and in the morning you will be your own grand self. Why speak of anything I could do for you and Grace? How could I serve myself in any surer way? As schoolgirls say, 'I won't speak to you again.' I'm going to prowl around a little, and see that all is right;" and he disappeared among the shadowy boles of the trees.
When he returned from his rounds his friend was sleeping, but uneasily, with sudden fits and starts.
"He is surely going to have a fever," Graham muttered. "I'd give a year's pay if we were safe back in camp." He stood before the fire with folded arms, watching his boyhood's friend, his gigantic shadow stretching away into the obscurity as unwaveringly as those of the tree-trunks around him. His lips were compressed. He sought to make his will as inflexible as his form. He would not think of Grace, of danger to her and Hilland; and yet, by some horrible necromancy of the hour and place, the scene in Hilland's dream would rise before him with a vividness that was overawing. In the sighing of the wind through the foliage, he seemed to hear the poor wife's moans.
"Oh," he muttered, "would that I could die a thousand deaths to prevent a scene like that!"
When would the interminable night pass? At last he looked at his watch and saw that the dawn could not be far distant. How still everything had become! The men were in their deepest slumber. Even the wind had died out, and the silence was to his overwrought mind like the hush of expectancy.
This silence was at last broken by a shot on the road leading to the west. Other shots followed in quick succession.
Hilland was on his feet instantly. "We're attacked," he shouted, and was about to spring upon his horse when Graham grasped his hand in both of his as he said, "In the name of Grace Hilland, be prudent"
Then both the men were in the saddle, Hilland dashing toward his own command, and each shouting, "Awake! Mount!"
At the same instant the bugle from headquarters rang through the grove, giving the well-known order of "Boots and Saddles."
In place of the profound stillness of a moment before, there were a thousand discordant sounds--the trampling of feet, the jingling of sabres, the champing of bits by aroused, restless horses that understood the bugle call as well as the men, hoarse, rapid orders of officers, above all which in the distance could be heard Hilland's clarion voice.
Again and again from headquarters the brief, musical strains of the bugle echoed through the gloom, each one giving to the veterans a definite command. Within four minutes there was a line of battle on the western edge of the grove, and a charging column was in the road leading to the west, down which the patrols were galloping at a headlong pace. Pickets were rushing in, firing as they came. To the uninitiated it might have seemed a scene of dire confusion. In fact, it was one of perfect order and discipline. Even in the darkness each man knew just what to do and where to go, as he heard the bugle calls and the stern, brief, supplementary orders of the officers.
Graham found himself on the line of battle at the right of the road, and the sound that followed close upon the sharp gallop of the patrol was ominous indeed. It was the rushing, thunderous sound of a heavy body of cavalry--too heavy, his ear soon foretold him, to promise equal battle.
The experienced colonel recognized the fact at the same moment, and would not leave his men in the road to meet the furious onset. Again, sharp, quick, and decisive as the vocal order had been, the bugle rang out the command for a change of position. Its strains had not ceased when the officers were repeating the order all down the column that had been formed in the road for a charge, and scarcely a moment elapsed before the western pike was clear, and faced by a line of battle a little back among the trees. The Union force would now ask nothing better than that the enemy should charge down that road within pointblank range.
If the Nationals were veterans they were also dealing with veterans who were masters of the situation in their overwhelming force and their knowledge of the comparative insignificance of their opponents, whose numbers had been quite accurately estimated the day before.
The patrols were already within the Union lines and at their proper places when the Confederate column emerged into the narrow open space before the grove. Its advance had subsided into a sharp trot; but, instead of charging by column or platoon, the enemy deployed to right and left with incredible swiftness. Men dismounted and formed into line almost instantly, their gray forms looking phantom-like in the gray dawn that tinged the east.
The vigilant colonel was as prompt as they, and at the first evidence of their tactics the bugle resounded, and the line of battle facing the road which led westward wheeled at a gallop through the open trees and formed at right angles with the road behind the first line of battle. Again there was a bugle call. The men in both lines dismounted
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