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- His Sombre Rivals - 50/66 -
even those who loved her most were pained and troubled. There was not enough to keep her busy all the time, and yet she was ever impelled to do something.
One day she said to Graham, "I wish I could go back with you to the war; not that I wish to shed another drop of blood, but I would like to march, march forever."
Shrewd Mrs. Mayburn, who had been watching Grace closely for the last week or two, said quietly: "Take her back with you, Alford. Let her become a nurse in some hospital. It will do both her and a lot of poor fellows a world of good."
"Mrs. Mayburn, you have thought of just the thing," cried Grace. "In a hospital full of sick and wounded men I could make my life amount to something; I should never need to be idle then."
"Yes, you would. You would be under orders like Alford, and would have to rest when off duty. But, as you say, you could be of great service, instead of wasting your energy in coddling two old people. You might save many a poor fellow's life."
"Oh," she exclaimed, clasping her hands, "the bare thought of saving one poor woman from such suffering as mine is almost overwhelming. But how can I leave papa?"
"I'll take care of the major and insure his consent. If men are so possessed to make wounds, it's time women did more to cure them. It's all settled: you are to go. I'll see the major about it now, if he _has_ just begun his newspaper;" and the old lady took her knitting and departed with her wonted prompt energy.
At first Graham was almost speechless from surprise, mingled doubt and pleasure; but the more he thought of it, the more he was convinced that the plan was an inspiration.
"Alford, you will take me?" she said, appealingly.
"Yes," he replied, smilingly, "if you will promise to obey my orders in part, as well as those of your superiors."
"I'll promise anything if you will only take me. Am I not under your care?"
"Oh, Grace, Grace, I can do so little for you!"
"No one living can do more. In providing this chance of relieving a little pain, of preventing a little suffering, you help me, you serve me, you comfort me, as no one else could. And, Alford, if you are wounded, come to the hospital where I am; I will never leave you till you are well. Take me to some exposed place in the field, where there is danger, where men are brought in desperately wounded, where you would be apt to be."
"I don't know where I shall be, but I would covet any wound that would bring you to my side as nurse."
She thought a few moments, and then said, resolutely: "I will keep as near to you as I can. I ask no pay for my services. On the contrary, I will employ my useless wealth in providing for exposed hospitals. When I attempt to take care of the sick or wounded, I will act scrupulously under the orders of the surgeon in charge; but I do not see why, if I pay my own way, I cannot come and go as I think I can be the most useful."
"Perhaps you could, to a certain extent, if you had a permit," said Graham, thoughtfully; "but I think you would accomplish more by remaining in one hospital and acquiring skill by regular work. It would be a source of indescribable anxiety to me to think of your going about alone. If I know just where you are, I can find you and write to you."
"I will do just what you wish," she said, gently.
"I wish for only what is best for you."
"I know that. It would be strange if I did not."
Mrs. Mayburn was not long in convincing the major that her plan might be the means of incalculable benefit to Grace as well as to others. He, as well as herself and Graham, had seen with deep anxiety that Grace was giving way to a fever of unrest; and he acquiesced in the view that it might better run its course in wholesome and useful activity, amid scenes of suffering that might tend to reconcile her to her own sorrow.
Graham, however, took the precaution of calling on Dr. Markham, who, to his relief, heartily approved of the measure. On one point Graham was firm. He would not permit her to go to a hospital in the field, liable to vicissitudes from sudden movements of the contending armies. He found one for her, however, in which she would have ample scope for all her efforts; and before he left he interested those in charge so deeply in the white-haired nurse that he felt she would always be under watchful, friendly eyes.
"Grace," he said, as he was taking leave, "I have tried to be a true friend to you."
"Oh, Alford!" she exclaimed, and she seized his hand and held it in both of hers.
His face grew stern rather than tender as he added: "You will not be a true friend to me--you will wrong me deeply--if you are reckless of your health and strength. Remember that, like myself, you have entered the service, and that you are pledged to do your duty, and not to work with feverish zeal until your strength fails. You are just as much under obligation to take essential rest as to care for the most sorely wounded in your ward. I shall take the advice I give. Believing that I am somewhat essential to your welfare and the happiness of those whom we have left at home, I shall incur no risks beyond those which properly fall to my lot. I ask you to be equally conscientious and considerate of those whose lives are bound up in you."
"I'll try," she said, with that same pathetic look and utterance which had so moved him on the fearful night of his return from the army. "But, Alford, do not speak to me so gravely, I had almost said sternly, just as we are saying good-by."
He raised her hand to his lips, and smiled into her pleading face as he replied, "I only meant to impress you with the truth that you have a patient who is not in your ward--one who will often be sleeping under the open sky, I know not where. Care a little for him, as well as for the unknown men in your charge. This you can do only by taking care of yourself. You, of all others, should know that there are wounds besides those which will bring men to this hospital."
Tears rushed into her eyes as she faltered, "You could not have made a stronger appeal."
"You will write to me often?"
"Yes, and you cannot write too often. Oh, Alford, I cannot wish you had never seen me; but it would have been far, far better for you if you had not."
"No, no," he said, in low, strong emphasis. "Grace Hilland, I would rather be your friend than have the love of any woman that ever lived."
"You do yourself great wrong (pardon me for saying it, but your happiness is so dear to me), you do yourself great wrong. A girl like Pearl Anderson could make you truly happy; and you could make her happy."
"Sweet little Pearl will be happy some day; and I may be one of the causes, but not in the way you suggest. It is hard to say good-by and leave you here alone, and every moment I stay only makes it harder."
He raised her hand once more to his lips, then almost rushed away.
Days lapsed into weeks, and weeks into months. The tireless nurse alleviated suffering of every kind; and her silvery hair was like a halo around a saintly head to many a poor fellow. She had the deep solace of knowing that not a few wives and mothers would have mourned had it not been for her faithfulness.
But her own wound would not heal. She sometimes felt that she was slowly bleeding to death. The deep, dark tide of suffering, in spite of all she could do, grew deeper and darker; and she was growing weary and discouraged.
Graham saw her at rare intervals; and although she brightened greatly at his presence, and made heroic efforts to satisfy him that she was doing well, he grew anxious and depressed. But there was nothing tangible, nothing definite. She was only a little paler, a little thinner; and when he spoke of it she smilingly told him that he was growing gaunt himself with his hard campaigning.
"But you, Grace," he complained, "are beginning to look like a wraith that may vanish some moonlight night."
Her letters were frequent, sometimes even cheerful, but brief. He wrote at great length, filling his pages with descriptions of nature, with scenes that were often humorous but not trivial, with genuine life, but none of its froth. Life for both had become too deep a tragedy for any nonsense. He passed through many dangers, but these, as far as possible, he kept in the background; and fate, pitying his one deep wound, spared him any others.
At last there came the terrible battle of the Wilderness, and the wards were filled with desperately wounded men. The poor nurse gathered up her failing powers for one more effort; and Confederate and Union men looked after her wonderingly and reverently, even in their mortal weakness. To many she seemed like a ministering spirit rather than a woman of flesh and blood; and lips of dying men blessed her again and again. But they brought no blessing. She only shuddered and grew more faint of heart as the scenes of agony and death increased. Each wound was a type of Hilland's wound, and in every expiring man she saw her husband die. Her poor little hands trembled now as she sought to stem the black, black tide that deepened and broadened and foamed around her.
Late one night, after a new influx of the wounded, she was greatly startled while passing down her ward by hearing a voice exclaim, "Grace--Grace Brentford!"
It was her mother's name.
The call was repeated; and she tremblingly approached a cot on which was lying a gray-haired man.
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