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- Taken Alive - 20/66 -
Southern accent and vernacular, yet Nichol's voice! Such similarity combined with such dissimilarity is like a nightmare. Of course it's not Nichol. He was killed nearly two years ago. I'd be more than human if I could wish him back now; but never in my life have I been so shocked and startled. This apparition must account for itself in the morning."
But he could not wait till morning; he could not control himself five minutes. He felt that he must banish that horrible semblance of Nichol from his mind by convincing himself of its absurdity.
He waited a few moments in order to compose his nerves, and then returned. The man had evidently gone to sleep.
"What a fool I am!" Martine again muttered. "Let the poor fellow sleep. The fact that he doesn't know me is proof enough. The idea of wanting any proof! I can investigate his case in the morning, and, no doubt, in broad light that astonishing suggestion of Nichol will disappear."
He was about to turn away when the patient who had called for water groaned slightly. As if his ears were as sensitive to such sounds as those of a mother who hears her child even when it stirs, the man arose. Seeing Martine standing by him, he asked in slight irritation, "What yer want? Why kyant yer say what yer want en have done 'th it? Lemme 'tend ter that feller yander firs'. We uns don't want no mo' stiffs;" and he shuffled with a peculiar, noiseless tread to the patient whose case seemed on his mind. Martine followed, his very hair rising at the well-remembered tones, and the mysterious principle of identity again revealed within the circle of light.
"This is simply horrible!" he groaned inwardly, "and I must have that man account for himself instantly."
"Now I'll 'tend ter yer, but yer mout let a feller sleep when he kin,"
"Don't you know me?" faltered Martine, overpowered.
"Please tell me your real name, not your nickname."
"Ain' got no name 'cept Yankee Blank. What's the matter with yer, anyhow?"
"Didn't you ever hear of Captain Nichol?"
"Reckon not. Mout have. I've nussed mo' cap'ins than I kin reckerlect."
"Are you a hospital nurse?"
"Sorter 'spect I am. That's what I does, anyhow. Have you anything agin it? Don't yer come 'ferin' round with me less yer a doctor, astin' no end o' questions. Air you a new doctor?"
"My name is Hobart Martine," the speaker forced himself to say, expecting fearfully a sign of recognition, for the impression that it was Nichol grew upon him every moment, in spite of apparent proof to the contrary.
"Hump! Hob't Ma'tine. Never yeared on yer. Ef yer want ter chin mo' in the mawnin', I'll be yere."
"Wait a moment, Yan--"
"Yankee Blank, I tole yer."
"Well, here's a dollar for the trouble I'm making you," and Martine's face flushed with shame at the act, so divided was his impression about the man.
Yankee Blank took the money readily, grinned, and said, "Now I'll chin till mawnin' ef yer wants hit."
"I won't keep you long. You remind me of--of--well, of Captain Nichol."
"He must 'a' been a cur'ous chap. Folks all say I'm a cur'ous chap."
"Won't you please tell me all that you can remember about yourself?"
"'Tain't much. Short hoss soon curried. Allus ben in hospitals. Had high ole jinks with a wound on my haid. Piece o' shell, they sez, cut me yere," and he pointed to a scar across his forehead. "That's what they tole me. Lor'! I couldn't mek much out o' the gibberish I firs' year, en they sez I talked gibberish too. But I soon got the hang o' the talk in the hospital. Well, ez I wuz sayin', I've allus been in hospitals firs' one, then anuther. I got well, en the sojers call me Yankee Blank en set me waitin' on sick uns en the wounded. That's what I'm a-doin' now."
"You were in Southern hospitals?"
"I reckon. They called the place Richman."
"Why did you come here?"
"Kaze I wuz bro't yere. They said I was 'changed."
"Exchanged, wasn't it?"
"Reckon it was. Anyhow I wuz bro't yere with a lot o' sick fellers. I wuzn't sick. For a long time the doctors kep' a- pesterin' me with questions, but they lemme 'lone now. I 'spected you wuz a new doctor, en at it agin."
"Don't you remember the village of Alton?"
The man shook his head.
"Don't you--" and Martine's voice grew husky--"don't you remember Helen Kemble?"
"Never yeared on her. I only reckerlect people I've seen in hospitals. Women come foolin' roun' some days, but Lor'! I kin beat any on 'em teekin' keer o' the patients; en wen they dies, I kin lay 'em out. You ast the wardmaster ef I kant lay out a stiff with the best o' 'em."
"That will do. You can go to sleep now."
"All right, Doc. I call everybody doc who asts sech a lot o' questions." He shuffled to his cot and was soon asleep.
"HOW CAN I?"
Martine sank into his chair again. Although the conversation had been carried on in low tones, it was the voice of Nichol that he had heard. Closer inspection of the slightly disfigured face proved that, apart from the scar on the forehead, it was the countenance of Nichol. A possible solution of the mystery was beginning to force itself in Hobart's reluctant mind. When Nichol had fallen in the Wilderness, the shock of his injury had rendered him senseless and caused him to appear dead to the hasty scrutiny of Sam and Jim Wetherby. They were terribly excited and had no time for close examination. Nichol might have revived, have been gathered up with the Confederate wounded, and sent to Richmond. There was dire and tremendous confusion at that period, when within the space of two or three days tens of thousands were either killed or disabled. In a Southern hospital Nichol might have recovered physical health while, from injury to the brain, suffering complete eclipse of memory. In this case he would have to begin life anew, like a child, and so would pick up the vernacular and bearing of the enlisted men with whom he would chiefly associate.
Because he remembered nothing and know nothing, he may at first have been tolerated as a "cur'ous chap," then employed as he had explained. He could take the place of a better man where men were greatly needed.
This theory could solve the problem; and Martine's hospital experience prepared his mind to understand what would be a hopeless mystery to many. He was so fearfully excited that be could not remain in the ward. The very proximity to this strange being, who had virtually risen from the dead and appeared to him of all others, was a sort of torture in itself.
What effect would this discovery have on his relations to Helen? He dared not think yet he must think. Already the temptation of his life was forming in his mind. His cousin was sleeping; and with a wild impatience to escape, to get away from all his kind, he stole noiselessly out into the midnight and deserted streets. On, on he went, limping he knew not, cared not where, for his passion and mental agony drove him hither and thither like a leaf before a fitful gale.
"No one knows of this," he groaned. "I can still return and marry Helen. But oh, what a secret to carry!"
Then his heart pleaded. "This is not the lover she lost--only a horrible, mocking semblance. He has lost his own identity; he does not even know himself--would not know her. Ah! I'm not sure of that. I would be dead indeed if her dear features did not kindle my eyes in recognition. It may be that the sight of her face is the one thing essential to restore him. I feel this would be true were it my case. But how can I give her up now? How can?--how can I? Oh, this terrible journey! No wonder Helen had forebodings. She loves me; she is mine. No one else has so good a right. We were to be married only a few hours hence. Then she whom I've loved from childhood would make my home a heaves on earth. And yet--and yet-- " Even in the darkness he buried his face in his hands, shuddered, moaned, writhed, and grated his teeth in the torment of the conflict.
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