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Short Story Classics




Louisa May Alcott


The Blue and the Gray

by Louisa May Alcott


"DON'T bring him in here; every corner is full," said the nurse, eying with dismay the gaunt figure lying on the stretcher in the doorway.

     "Where shall we put him, then? They can't have him in either of the other wards on this floor. He's ordered up here, and here he must stay, if he's put in the hall, poor devil!" said the foremost bearer, looking around the crowded room in despair.

     The nurse's eye followed his, and both saw a thin hand beckoning from the end of the long ward.

     "It's Murry; I'll see what he wants;" and Miss Mercy went to him with her quick, noiseless step, and the smile her grave face always wore for him.

     "There's room here, if you turn my bed 'round, you see. Don't let them leave him in the hall," said Murry, lifting his great eyes to hers, brilliant with the fever burning his strength away, and pathetic with the silent protest of life against death.

     "It's like you to think of it; he's a rebel," began Miss Mercy.

     "So much more reason to take him in. I don't mind having him here; but it will distress me dreadfully to know that any poor soul was turned away, from the comfort of this ward especially."

     The look he gave her made the words an eloquent compliment, and his pity for a fallen enemy reproached her for her own lack of it. Her face softened as she nodded, and glanced about the recess.

     "You will have the light in your eyes, and only the little table between you and a very disagreeable neighbor," she said.

     "I can shut my eyes if the light troubles them; I've nothing else to do now," he answered, with a faint laugh. "I was too comfortable before; I'd more than my share of luxuries; so bring him along, and it will be all right."

     The order was given, and, after a brief bustle, the two narrow beds stood side by side in the recess under the organ-loft—for the hospital had been a church. Left alone for a moment, the two men eyed each other silently. Murry saw a tall, sallow man, with fierce black eyes, wild hair and beard, and a thin-lipped, cruel mouth. A ragged gray uniform was visible under the blanket thrown over him; and in strange contrast to the squalor of his dress, and the neglect of his person, was the diamond ring that shone on his unwounded hand. The right arm was bound up, the right leg amputated at the knee; and, though the man's face was white and haggard with suffering, not a sound escaped him as he lay with his eyes fixed half defiantly upon his neighbor.

     John Clay, the new-comer, saw opposite him a small, wasted figure, and a plain face; yet both face and figure were singularly attractive, for suffering seemed to have refined away all the grosser elements, and left the spiritual very visible through that frail tenement of flesh. Pale-brown hair streaked the hollow temples and white forehead. A deep color burned in the thin cheeks still tanned by the wind and weather of a long campaign. The mouth was grave and sweet, and in the gray eyes lay an infinite patience touched with melancholy. He wore a dressing-gown, but across his feet lay a faded coat of army-blue. As the other watched him, he saw a shadow pass across his tranquil face, and for a moment he laid his wasted hand over the eyes that had been so full of pity. Then he gently pushed a mug of fresh water, and the last of a bunch of grapes, toward the exhausted rebel, saying, in a cordial tone,—

     "You look faint and thirsty; have 'em."

     Clay's lips were parched, and his hand went involuntarily toward the cup; but he caught it back, and, leaning forward, asked, in a shrill whisper,—

     "Where are you hurt?"

     "A shot in the side," answered Murry, visibly surprised at the man's manner.

     "What battle?"

     "The Wilderness."

     "Is it bad?"

     "I'm dying of wound-fever; there's no hope, they say."

     That reply, so simple, so serenely given, would have touched almost any hearer; but Clay smiled grimly, and lay down as if satisfied, with his one hand clenched, and an exulting glitter in his eyes, muttering to himself,—

     "The loss of my leg comes easier after hearing that."

     Murry saw his lips move, but caught no sound, and asked, with friendly solicitude,—

     "Do you want anything, neighbor?"

     "Yes—to be let alone," was the curt reply, with a savage frown.

     "That's easily done. I sha'n't trouble you very long, any way;" and, with a sigh, Murry turned his face away, and lay silent till the surgeon came up on his morning round.

     "Oh! you're here, are you? It's like Mercy Carrol to take you in," said Dr. Fitz Hugh, as he surveyed the rebel, with a slight frown; for, in spite of his benevolence and skill, he was a stanch loyalist, and hated the South just then.

     "Don't praise me; he never would have been here but for Murry," answered Miss Mercy, as she approached, with her dressing-tray in her hand.

     "Bless the lad! he'll give up his bed next, and feel offended if he's thanked for it. How are you, my good fellow?" and the doctor turned to press the hot hand, with a friendly face.

     "Much easier and stronger, thank you, doctor," was the cheerful answer.

     "Less fever, pulse better, breath freer—good symptoms. Keep on so for twenty-four hours, and, by my soul, I believe you'll have a chance for your life, Murry," cried the doctor, as his experienced eye took note of a hopeful change.

     "In spite of the opinion of three good surgeons to the contrary?" asked Murry, with a wistful smile.

     "Hang everybody's opinion! We are but mortal men, and the best of us make mistakes in spite of science and experience. There's Parker; we all gave him up, and the rascal is larking 'round Washington as well as ever to-day. While there's life there's hope; so cheer up my lad, and do your best for the little girl at home."

     "Do you really think I may hope?" cried Murry, white with the joy of this unexpected reprieve.

     "Hope is a capital medicine, and I prescribe it for a day at least. Don't build on this change too much, but if you are as well to-morrow as this morning, I give you my word I think you'll pull through."

     Murry laid his hands over his face with a broken "Thank God for that!" and the doctor turned away with a sonorous "Hem!" and an air of intense satisfaction.

     During this conversation Miss Mercy had been watching the rebel, who looked and listened to the others so intently that he forgot her presence. She saw an expression of rage and disappointment gather in his face as the doctor spoke; and when Murry accepted the hope held out to him, Clay set his teeth with an evil look, that would have boded ill for his neighbor had he not been helpless.

     "Ungrateful traitor! I'll watch him, for he'll do mischief if he can," she thought, and reluctantly began to unbind his arm for the doctor's inspection.

     "Only a flesh-wound,—no bones broken,—a good syringing, rubber cushion, plenty of water, and it will soon heal. You'll attend to that, Miss Mercy; this stump is more in my line;" and Dr. Fitz Hugh turned to the leg, leaving the arm to the nurse's skilful care.

     "Evidently amputated in a hurry, and neglected since. If you're not careful, young man, you'll change places with your neighbor here."

     "Damn him!" muttered Clay in his beard, with an emphasis which caused the doctor to glance at his vengeful face.

     "Don't be a brute, if you can help it. But for him you'd have fared ill," began the doctor.

     "But for him I never should have been here," muttered the man, in French, with a furtive glance about the room.

     "You owe this to him?" asked the doctor, touching the wound, and speaking in the same tongue.

     "Yes; but he paid for it—at least, I thought he had."

     "By the Lord! if you are the sneaking rascal that shot him as he lay wounded in the ambulance, I shall be tempted to leave you to your fate!" cried the doctor, with a wrathful flash in his keen eyes.

     "Do it, then, for it was I," answered the man defiantly; adding, as if anxious to explain, "We had a tussle, and each got hurt in the thick of the skirmish. He was put in the ambulance afterward, and I was left to live or die, as luck would have it. I was hurt the worst; they should have taken me too; it made me mad to see him chosen, and I fired my last shot as he drove away. I didn't know whether I hit him or not; but when they told me I must lose my leg I hoped I had, and now I am satisfied."

     He spoke rapidly, with clenched hand and fiery eyes, and the two listeners watched him with a sort of fascination as he hissed out the last words, glancing at the occupant of the next bed. Murry evidently did not understand French; he lay with averted face, closed eyes, and a hopeful smile still on his lips, quite unconscious of the meaning of the fierce words uttered close beside him. Dr. Fitz Hugh had laid down his instruments, and knit his black brows irefully while he listened. But as the man paused, the doctor looked at Miss Mercy, who was quietly going on with her work, though there was an expression about her handsome mouth that made her womanly face look almost grim. Taking up his tools, the doctor followed her example, saying slowly,—

     "If I didn't believe Murry was mending, I'd turn you over to Roberts, whom the patients dread as they do the devil. I must do my duty, and you may thank Murry for it."

     "Does he know you are the man who shot him?" asked Mercy, still in French.

     "No; I shouldn't stay here long if he did," answered Clay, with a short laugh.

     "Don't tell him, then—at least, till after you are moved," she said, in a tone of command.

     "Where am I going?" demanded the man.

     "Anywhere out of my ward," was the brief answer, with a look that made the black eyes waver and fall.

     In silence nurse and doctor did their work, and passed on. In silence Murry lay hour after hour, and silently did Clay watch and wait, till, utterly exhausted by the suffering he was too proud to confess, he sank into a stupor, oblivious alike of hatred, defeat, and pain. Finding him in this pitiable condition, Mercy relented, and, womanlike, forgot her contempt in pity. He was not moved, but tended carefully all that day and night; and when he woke from a heavy sleep, the morning sun shone again on two pale faces in the beds, and flashed on the buttons of two army-coats hanging side by side on the recess wall, on loyalist and rebel, on the blue and the gray.

     Dr. Fitz Hugh stood beside Murry's cot, saying cheerily, "You are doing well, my lad—better than I hoped. Keep calm and cool, and, if all goes right, we'll have little Mary here to pet you in a week."

     "Who's Mary?" whispered the rebel to the attendant who was washing his face.

     "His sweetheart; he left her for the war, and she's waitin' for him back—poor soul!" answered the man, with a somewhat vicious scrub across the sallow cheek he was wiping.

     "So he'll get well, and go home and marry the girl he left behind him, will he?" sneered Clay, fingering a little case that hung about his neck, and was now visible as his rough valet unbuttoned his collar.

     "What's that,—your sweetheart's picter?" asked Jim, the attendant, eying the gold chain anxiously.

     "I've got none," was the gruff answer.

     "So much the wus for you, then. Small chance of gettin' one here; our girls won't look at you, and you ain't likely to see any of your own sort for a long spell, I reckon," added Jim, working away at the rebel's long-neglected hair.

     Clay lay looking at Mercy Carrol as she went to and fro among the men, leaving a smile behind her, and carrying comfort wherever she turned,—a right womanly woman, lovely and lovable, strong yet tender, patient yet decided, skilful, kind, and tireless in the discharge of duties that would have daunted most women. It was in vain she wore the plain gray gown and long apron, for neither could hide the grace of her figure. It was in vain she brushed her luxuriant hair back into a net, for the wavy locks would fall on her forehead, and stray curls would creep out or glisten like gold under the meshes meant to conceal them. Busy days and watchful nights had not faded the beautiful bloom on her cheeks, or dimmed the brightness of her hazel eyes. Always ready, fresh, and fair, Mercy Carrol was regarded as the good angel of the hospital, and not a man in it, sick or well, but was a loyal friend to her. None dared to be a lover, for her little romance was known; and, though still a maid, she was a widow in their eyes, for she had sent her lover to his death, and over the brave man's grave had said, "Well done."

     Jim watched Clay as his eye followed the one female figure there, and, observing that he clutched the case still tighter, asked again,—

     "What is that—a charm?"

     "Yes,—against pain, captivity and shame."

     "Strikes me it a'n't kep' you from any one of 'em," said Jim, with a laugh.

     "I haven't tried it yet."

     "How does it work?" Jim asked more respectfully, being impressed by something in the rebel's manner.

     "You will see when I use it. Now let me alone;" and Clay turned impatiently away.

     "You've got p'ison, or some deviltry, in that thing. If you don't let me look, I swear I'll have it took away from you;" and Jim put his big hand on the slender chain with a resolute air.

     Clay smiled a scornful smile, and offered the trinket, saying coolly,—

     "I only fooled you. Look as much as you like; you'll find nothing dangerous."

     Jim opened the pocket, saw a lock of gray hair, and nothing more.

     "Is that your mother's?"

     "Yes; my dead mother's."

     It was strange to gee the instantaneous change that passed over the two men as each uttered that dearest word in all tongues. Rough Jim gently reclosed and returned the case, saying kindly,—

     "Keep it; I wouldn't rob you on't for no money."

     Clay thrust it jealously into his breast, and the first trace of emotion he had shown softened his dark face, as he answered, with a grateful tremor in his voice,—

     "Thank you. I wouldn't lose it for the world."

     "May I say good-morning, neighbor?" asked a feeble voice, as Murry turned a very wan, but cheerful face toward him, when Jim moved on with his basin and towel.

     "If you like," returned Clay, looking at him with those quick, suspicious eyes of his.

     "Well, I do like; so I say it, and hope you are better," returned the cordial voice.

     "Are you?"

     "Yes, thank God!"

     "Is it sure?"

     "Nothing is sure, in a case like mine, till I'm on my legs again; but I'm certainly better. I don't expect you to be glad, but I hope you don't regret it very much."

     "I don't." The smile that accompanied the words surprised Murry as much as the reply, for both seemed honest, and his kind heart warmed toward his suffering enemy.

     "I hope you'll be exchanged as soon as you are able. Till then, you can go to one of the other hospitals, where there are many reb—I would say, Southerners. If you'd like, I'll speak to Dr. Fitz Hugh, and he'll see you moved," said Murry, in his friendly way.

     "I'd rather stay here, thank you." Clay smiled again as he spoke in the mild tone that surprised Murry as much as it pleased him.

     "You like to be in my corner, then?" he said, with a boyish laugh.

     "Very much—for a while."

     "I'm very glad. Do you suffer much?"

     "I shall suffer more by and by, if I go on; but I'll risk it," answered Clay, fixing his feverish eyes on Murry's placid face.

     "You expect to have a hard time with your leg?" said Murry, compassionately.

     "With my soul."

     It was an odd answer, and given with such an odd expression, as Clay turned his face away, that Murry said no more, fancying his brain a little touched by the fever evidently coming on.

     They spoke but seldom to each other that day, for Clay lay apparently asleep, with a flushed cheek and restless head, and Murry tranquilly dreamed waking dreams of home and little Mary. That night, after all was still, Miss Mercy went up into the organ-loft to get fresh rollers for the morrow,—the boxes of old linen, and such matters, being kept there. As she stood looking down on the thirty pale sleepers, she remembered that she had not played a hymn on the little organ for Murry, as she had promised that day. Stealing softly to the front, she peeped over the gallery, to see if he was asleep; if not, she would keep her word, for he was her favorite.

     A screen had been drawn before the recess where the two beds stood, shutting their occupants from the sight of the other men. Murry lay sleeping, but Clay was awake, and a quick thrill tingled along the young woman's nerves as she saw his face. Leaning on one arm, he peered about the place with an eager, watchful air, and glanced up at the dark gallery, but did not see the startled face behind the central pillar. Pausing an instant, he shook his one clenched hand at the unconscious sleeper, and then threw out the locket cautiously. Two white mugs, just alike, stood on the little table between the beds, water in each. With another furtive glance about him, Clay suddenly stretched out his long arm, and dropped something from the locket into Murry's cup. An instant he remained motionless, with a sinister smile on his face; then, as Jim's step sounded beyond the screen, he threw his arm over his face, and lay, breathing heavily, as if asleep.

     Mercy's first impulse was to cry out; her next, to fly down and seize the cup. No time was to be lost, for Murry might wake and drink at any moment. What was in the cup? Poison, doubtless; that was the charm Clay carried to free himself from "pain, captivity and shame," when all other hopes of escape vanished. This hidden helper he gave up to destroy his enemy, who was to outlive his shot, it seemed. Like a shadow, Mercy glided down, forming her plan as she went. A dozen mugs stood about the room, all alike in size and color; catching up one, she partly filled it, and, concealing it under the clean sheet hanging on her arm, went toward the recess, saying audibly,—

     "I want some fresh water, Jim."

     Thus warned of her approach, Clay lay with carefully-averted face as she came in, and never stirred as she bent over him, while she dexterously changed Murry's mug for the one she carried. Hiding the poisoned cup, she went away, saying aloud,—

     "Never mind the water, now, Jim. Murry is asleep, and so is Clay; they'll not need it yet."

     Straight to Dr. Fitz Hugh's room she went, and gave the cup into his keeping, with the story of what she had seen. A man was dying, and there was no time to test the water then; but putting it carefully away, he promised to set her fears at rest in the morning. To quiet her impatience, Mercy went back to watch over Murry till day dawned. As she sat down, she caught the glimmer of a satisfied smile on Clay's lips, and looking into the cup she had left, she saw that it was empty.

     "He is satisfied, for he thinks his horrible revenge is secure. Sleep in peace, my poor boy! you are safe while I am here."

     As she thought this, she put her hand on the broad, pale forehead of the sleeper with a motherly caress, but started to feel how damp and cold it was. Looking nearer, she saw that a change had passed over Murry, for dark shadows showed about his sunken eyes, his once quiet breath was faint and fitful now, his hand deathly cold, and a chilly dampness had gathered on his face. She looked at her watch; it was past twelve, and her heart sunk within her, for she had so often seen that solemn change come over men's faces then, that the hour was doubly weird and woful to her. Sending a message to Dr. Fitz Hugh, she waited anxiously, trying to believe that she deceived herself.

     The doctor came at once, and a single look convinced him that he had left one death-bed for another.

     "As I feared," he said; "that sudden rally was but a last effort of nature. There was just one chance for him, and he has missed it. Poor lad! I can do nothing; he'll sink rapidly, and go without pain."

     "Can I do nothing?" asked Mercy, with dim eyes, as she held the cold hand close in both her own with tender pressure.

     "Give him stimulants as long as he can swallow, and, if he's conscious, take any messages he may have. Poor Hall is dying hard, and I can help him; I'll come again in an hour, and say good-by."

     The kind doctor choked, touched the pale sleeper with a gentle caress, and went away to help Hall die.

     Murry slept on for an hour, then woke, and knew without words that his brief hope was gone. He looked up wistfully, and whispered, as Mercy tried to smile with trembling lips that refused to tell the heavy truth,—

     "I know—I feel it; don't grieve yourself by trying to tell me, dear friend. It's best so; I can bear it,—but I did want to live."

     "Have you any word for Mary, dear?" asked Mercy, for he seemed but a boy to her since she had nursed him.

     One look of sharp anguish and dark despair passed over his face, as he wrung his thin hands and shut his eyes, finding death terrible. It passed in a moment, and his pallid countenance grew beautiful with the pathetic patience of one who submits without complaint to the inevitable.

     "Tell her I was ready, and the only bitterness was leaving her. I shall remember, and wait until she comes. My little Mary! O, be kind to her, for my sake, when you tell her this."

     "I will, Murry, as God hears me. I will be a sister to her while I live."

     As Mercy spoke, with fervent voice, he laid the hand that had ministered to him so faithfully against his cheek, and lay silent, as if content.

     "What else? let me do something more. Is there no other friend to be comforted?"

     "No; she is all I have in the world. I hoped to make her so happy, to be so much to her, for she's a lonely little thing; but God says 'No,' and I submit."

     A long pause, as he lay breathing heavily, with eyes that were dimming fast fixed on the gentle face beside him.

     "Give Jim my clothes, send Mary a bit of my hair, and—may I give you this? it's a poor thing, but all I have to leave you, best and kindest of women."

     He tried to draw off a slender ring, but the strength had gone out of his wasted fingers, and she helped him, thanking him with the first tears he had seen her shed. He seemed satisfied, but suddenly turned his eyes on Clay, who lay as if asleep. A sigh broke from Murry, and Mercy caught the words,—

     "How could he do it, and I so helpless!"

     "Do you know him?" she whispered, eagerly, as she remembered Clay's own words.

     "I knew he was the man who shot me, when he came. I forgive him; but I wish he had spared me, for Mary's sake," he answered sorrowfully, not angrily.

     "Do you really pardon him?" cried Mercy, wondering, yet touched by the words.

     "I do. He will be sorry one day, perhaps; at any rate, he did what he thought his duty; and war makes brutes of us all sometimes, I fear. I'd like to say good-by; but he's asleep after a weary day, so don't wake him. Tell him I'm glad he is to live, and that I forgive him heartily."

     Although uttered between long pauses, these words seemed to have exhausted Murry, and he spoke no more till Dr. Fitz Hugh came. To him he feebly returned thanks, and whispered his farewell, then sank into a stupor, during which life ebbed fast. Both nurse and doctor forgot Clay as they hung over Murry, and neither saw the strange intentness of his face, the half awe-struck, half remorseful look he bent upon the dying man.

     As the sun rose, sending its ruddy beams across the silent ward, Murry looked up and smiled, for the bright ray fell athwart the two coats hanging on the wall beside him. Some passer-by had brushed one sleeve of the blue coat across the gray, as if the inanimate things were shaking hands.

     "It should be so—love our enemies; we should be brothers," he murmured faintly; and, with the last impulse of a noble nature, stretched his hand toward the man who had murdered him.

     But Clay shrunk back, and covered his face without a word. When he ventured to look up, Murry was no longer there. A pale, peaceful figure lay on the narrow bed, and Mercy was smoothing the brown locks as she cut a curl for Mary and herself. Clay could not take his eyes away; as if fascinated by its serenity, he watched the dead face with gloomy eyes, till Mercy, having done her part, stooped and kissed the cold lips tenderly as she left him to his sleep. Then, as if afraid to be alone with the dead, he bid Jim put the screen between the beds, and bring him a book. His order was obeyed; but he never turned his pages, and lay, with muffled head, trying to shut out little Watts' sobs, as the wounded drummer boy mourned for Murry.

     Death in an hospital makes no stir, and in an hour no trace of the departed remained but the coat upon the wall, for Jim would not take it down, though it was his now. The empty bed stood freshly made, the clean cup and worn Bible lay ready for other hands, and the card at the bed's head hung blank for a new-comer's name. In the hurry of this event, Clay's attempted crime was forgotten for a time. But that evening Dr. Fitz Hugh told Mercy that her suspicions were correct, for the water was poisoned.

     "How horrible! what shall we do?" she cried, with a gesture full of energetic indignation.

     "Leave him to remorse!" replied the doctor, sternly. "I've thought over the matter, and believe this to be the only thing we can do. I fancy the man won't live a week; his leg is in a bad way, and he is such a fiery devil he gives himself no chance. Let him believe he killed poor Murry, at least for a few days. He thinks so now, and tries to rejoice; but if he has a human heart he will repent."

     "But he may not. Should we not tell of this? Can he not be punished?"

     "Law won't hang a dying man, and I'll not denounce him. Let remorse punish him while he lives, and God judge him when he dies. Murry pardoned him,—can we do less?"

     Mercy's indignant face softened at the name, and for Murry's sake she yielded. Neither spoke of what they tried to think the act of a half-delirious man; and soon they could not refuse to pity him, for the doctor's prophecy proved true.

     Clay was a haunted man, and remorse gnawed like a worm at his heart. Day and night he saw that tranquil face on the pillow opposite; day and night he saw the pale hand outstretched to him; day and night he heard the faint voice murmuring kindly, regretfully, "I forgive him; but I wish he had spared me, for Mary's sake."

     As the days passed, and his strength visibly declined, he began to suspect that he must soon follow Murry. No one told him; for, though both doctor and nurse did their duty faithfully, neither lingered long at his bedside, and not one of the men showed any interest in him. No new patient occupied the other bed, and he lay alone in the recess with his own gloomy thoughts.

     "It will be all up with me in a few days, won't it?" he asked, abruptly, as Jim made his toilet one morning with unusual care, and such visible pity in his rough face that Clay could not but observe it.

     "I heard the doctor say you wouldn't suffer much more. Is there any one you'd like to see, or leave a message for?" answered Jim, smoothing the long locks as gently as a woman.

     "There isn't a soul in the world that cares whether I live or die, except the man who wants my money," said Clay, bitterly, as his dark face grew a shade paler at this confirmation of his fear.

     "Can't you head him off some way, and leave your money to some one that's been kind to you? Here's the doctor—or, better still, Miss Carrol. Neither on 'em is rich, and both on 'em has been good friends to you, or you'd 'a' fared a deal wus than you have," said Jim, not without the hope that, in saying a good word for them, he might say one for himself also.

     Clay lay thinking for a moment as his face clouded over, and then brightened again:

     "Miss Mercy wouldn't take it, nor the doctor either; but I know who will—and, by G—d, I'll do it!" he exclaimed, with sudden energy.

     His eye happened to rest on Jim as he spoke, and feeling sure that he was to be the heir, Jim retired to send Miss Mercy, that the matter might be settled before Clay's mood changed. Miss Carrol came, and began to cut the buttons off Murry's coat while she waited for Clay to speak.

     "What's that for?" he asked, restlessly.

     "The men want them, and Jim is willing, for the coat is very old and ragged, you see. Murry gave his good one away to a sicker comrade, and took this instead. It was like him,—my poor boy!"

     "I'd like to speak to you, if you have a minute to spare," began Clay, after a pause, during which he watched her with a wistful, almost tender expression, unseen by her.

     "I have time; what can I do for you?" Very gentle was Mercy's voice, very pitiful her glance, as she sat down by him, for the change in his manner, and the thought of his approaching death, touched her heart.

     Trying to resume his former gruffness, and cold expression, Clay said, as he picked nervously at the blanket,—

     "I've a little property that I put into the care of a friend going North. He's kept it safe; and now, as I'll never want it myself, I'd like to leave it to—." He paused an instant, glanced quickly at Mercy's face, and seeing only womanly compassion there, added, with an irrepressible tremble in his voice,—"To little Mary."

     If he had expected any reward for the act, any comfort for his lonely death-bed, he received both in fullest measure when he saw Mercy's beautiful face flush with surprise and pleasure, her eyes fill with sudden tears, and heard her cordial voice, as she pressed his hand warmly in her own.

     "I wish I could tell you how glad I am for this! I thought you were better than you seemed; I was sure you had both heart and conscience, and that you would repent before you died."

     "Repent of what?" he asked, with a startled look.

     "Need I tell you?" and her eye went from the empty bed to his face.

     "You mean that shot? But it was only fair, after all; we killed each other, and war is nothing but wholesale murder, any way." He spoke easily, but his eyes were full of trouble, and other words seemed to tremble on his lips.

     Leaning nearer, Mercy whispered in his ear,—

     "I mean the other murder, which you would have committed when you poisoned the cup of water he offered you, his enemy."

     Every vestige of color faded out of Clay's thin face, and his haggard eyes seemed fascinated by some spectre opposite, as he muttered slowly,—

     "How do you know?"

     "I saw you;" and she told him all the truth.

     A look of intense relief passed over Clay's countenance, and the remorseful shadow lifted as he murmured, brokenly,—

     "Thank God I didn't kill him! Now, dying isn't so hard; now I can have a little peace."

     Neither spoke for several minutes; Mercy had no words for such a time, and Clay forgot her presence as the tears dropped from between the wasted fingers spread before his face.

     Presently he looked up, saying eagerly, as if his fluttering breath and rapidly failing strength warned him of approaching death,—

     "Will you write down a few words for me, so Mary can have the money? She needn't know anything about me, only that I was one to whom Murry was kind, and so I gave her all I had."

     "I'll get my pen and paper; rest, now, my poor fellow," said Mercy, wiping the unheeded tears away for him.

     "How good it seems to hear you speak so to me! How can you do it?" he whispered, with such grateful wonder in his dim eyes that Mercy's heart smote her for the past.

     "I do it for Murry's sake, and because I sincerely pity you."

     Timidly turning his lips to that kind hand, he kissed it, and then hid his face in his pillow. When Mercy returned, she observed that there were but seven tarnished buttons where she had left eight. She guessed who had taken it, but said nothing, and endeavored to render poor Clay's last hours as happy as sympathy and care could make them. The letter and will were prepared as well as they could be, and none too soon; for, as if that secret was the burden that bound Clay's spirit to the shattered body, no sooner was it lifted off than the diviner part seemed ready to be gone.

     "You'll stay with me; you'll help me die; and—oh, if I dared to ask it, I'd beg you to kiss me once when I am dead, as you did Murry. I think I could rest then, and be fitter to meet him, if the Lord lets me," he cried imploringly, as the last night gathered around him, and the coming change seemed awful to a soul that possessed no inward peace, and no firm hope to lean on through the valley of the shadow.

     "I will—I will! Hold fast to me, and believe in the eternal mercy of God," whispered Miss Carrol, with her firm hand in his, her tender face bending over him as the long struggle began.

     "Mercy," he murmured, catching that word, and smiling feebly as he repeated it lingeringly. "Mercy! yes, I believe in her; she'll save me, if any one can. Lord, bless and keep her forever and forever."

     There was no morning sunshine to gladden his dim eyes as they looked their last, but the pale glimmer of the lamp shone full on the blue and the gray coats hanging side by side. As if the sight recalled that other death-bed, that last act of brotherly love and pardon, Clay rose up in his bed, and while one hand clutched the button hidden in his breast, the other was outstretched toward the empty bed, as his last breath parted in a cry of remorseful longing,—

     "I will! I will! Forgive me, Murry, and let me say good-by!"



Last updated:
April 5, 2004
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