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   Chapter 25 No.25

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 24888

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Rivers gathered no comfort from a consultation of surgeons, who talked of the long-lasting effects of concussion of the brain. Made careful by the sad change he had observed in Ann Penhallow when last seen, he sent his telegram for Leila to the care of the post-mistress, and a day later a brief letter.

Understanding the mode of address, Mrs. Crocker walked at once to Grey

Pine, and found Leila in the garden. "Where is your aunt?" she asked.

"Lying down in her room. I got your kind note about the fight last evening. Is it true? Is the news confirmed?"

"Yes. There was a terrible battle at Gettysburg. The Rebels were defeated by General Meade and are retreating."

"I did not tell Aunt Ann anything. I waited to hear, as I was sure I would from Uncle James. Is there evil news?"

"I don't know. Here is a telegram to my care for you from Mr. Rivers. It must have been delayed-and then came this letter to Mrs. Penhallow from him."

"Then-then-there is bad news," she cried as she tore open the telegram and stood still.

"What is it?-you know how we all love him."

"Uncle Jim is wounded-not seriously-and will be here shortly."

"Oh, but I am sorry-and glad."

"Yes-yes-I must tell aunt at once. She has not left her room for two days, and I forbade the maids to talk of the victory until it was sure-now she must know all. I must tell her at once."

"Why not get Dr. McGregor?"

"No-no," she returned with decision. "I shall know best how to tell-it wants a woman."

The ruddy, stout post-mistress looked at the tall young woman with sudden appreciation of her self-command and mental growth. "Maybe you're about right, but I thought-well, fact is, I've seen of late so many people just tear open a letter-and go all to pieces."

Leila smiled. "You don't know my aunt. Now I must go. Oh, this war-this war! To-morrow will scatter joy and grief over all the land."

"Yes, I've been near about mobbed to-day. Good-bye."

The messenger of evil news went straight from the garden path, where the roses were in unusual abundance. To her surprise she saw her aunt on the back porch. As Leila hesitated, she said, "I saw Mrs. Crocker from my window, Leila. She gave you something-a letter-or a telegram. What is it? I suppose after what I have heard of the Confederates at York and Carlisle, they may be in Harrisburg by this time and the railroad to the west cut off. It may be well to know." She spoke rapidly as she came down the steps to meet her niece. "It is as well James Penhallow is not in it."

The two women stood facing one another in one of those immeasurably brief silences which are to timeless thought as are ages. Her husband safe, General Lee victorious-some slight look of satisfaction could be seen in her face-a faint smile, too easily read-and then-

"Well, dear, your news?"

Anger, tenderness, love, pity-all dictated answers. "Aunt Ann, I have bad news."

"Of course, dear. It was to be expected. You won't believe me, but I am sorry for you and for James."

The face of the tall young woman flushed hot. She had meant to spare her-to be tender. She said, "General Lee is retreating after losing a great battle at Gettysburg."

Her aunt said quickly, "But James Penhallow-he is in Washington?"

"No, he was in the army-he is wounded-not seriously-and he is coming home."

"I might have known it." A great illumination came over her face not understood by Leila. She was strangely glad for him that he had been in the field and not in peaceful safety at Washington. With abrupt change of expression, she added, "Wounded? Not seriously. That isn't like him to come home for a slight wound. You or Mark Rivers are hiding something."

"Not I, aunt; but any wound that kept him off duty would be better cared for here. Lee's defeat leaves him free for a time-I mean at ease-"

"Don't talk nonsense!" she cried. "What do I care for Lee-or Meade-or battles! James Penhallow is all the world to me. Victory!"-she flamed with mounting colour-"it is I am the victor! He comes back with honour-I have no duties-no country-I have only my love. Oh, my God! if he had died-if-if-I should have hated!-" She spoke with harsh vehemence, and of a sudden stopped, and breathing fast gasped in low-voiced broken tones, "Don't stare at me-I am not a fool-I am-I am-only the fool of a great love. You don't know what it means. My God! I have no child-James Penhallow is to me children, husband-all-everything." She stood still, wide-eyed, staring down the garden paths, a wonder of yearning tenderness in her face, with Rivers's letter in her hand.

"Read your letter, Aunt."

"Yes-yes-I forgot it." She read it, and said, "It only confirms the telegram."

The storm of passionate emotion was over. Leila amazed and fearful of results-twice seen before-watched her. "You have seen," she said in a low voice, "the soul of a great love laid bare. May you too some day, my child, love as I do! Have no fear for me-I see it in your looks. Come in-I have to see to things-I have to give some orders-there will be much to do." She was at once quiet, and composedly led the way into the house, the astonished girl following her.

In the hall Mrs. Penhallow said, "I fear, dear, I have left too much of the management of the house to you-of late, I mean. What with the farms and stables, I am not surprised that things have not been quite as James would desire. I am going to relieve you a little. I suppose the stables are all right."

"They are," returned Leila, feeling hurt. Her aunt had not been in the kitchen or given an order for nearly a month, and house, farm and stables, had been by degrees allowed to slip into Leila's well-trained and competent hands. Meanwhile Ann Penhallow had gradually failed in health and lost interest in duties which had been to her, as Rivers said, what social pleasures were to some women. She yielded by degrees and not without resistance to mere physical weakness, and under the emotional stress of war, and above all the absence of the man on whom she depended, had lapsed to McGregor's dismay into a state of mind and body for which he had no remedy.

Every physician of large experience must have seen cases of self-created, unresisted invalidism end with mysterious abruptness and the return of mental, moral and physical competence, under the influence of some call upon their sense of duty made by calamity, such as an acute illness in the household, financial ruin, or the death of a husband. The return of a wounded man and the need to care for him acted thus upon Ann Penhallow.

Leila looked on in surprise. Her aunt's astounding indifference to the results of defeat for her beloved South when she learned of her husband's injury left the younger woman utterly bewildered. Nothing in her own nature, as she thought it all over, enabled her to understand it, nor was her aunt's rapid gain in health and cheerfulness during the next few days more easy to explain. At first with effort, but very soon with increase of ability, she gradually became more and more her old self.

Ann Penhallow spent the remainder of the next day in one of those household inspections which let no failure in neatness or order escape attention. James Penhallow's library was to be cleaned and cared for in a way to distress any man-minded man, while Leila looked on. Had her aunt's recent look of ill-health represented nothing but the depressing influence of a year of anxiety? And, if so, why under the distress of a nearer and more material disaster should she grow so quickly active, and apparently strong in place of becoming more feeble. She followed her aunt about the house trying to be helpful, and a little amused at her return to some of the ways which at times annoyed Penhallow into positive revolt. As she thought of it, Ann was standing over a battered army-chest, open and half full of well-worn cavalry uniforms.

"Really, Leila," she said, "these old army clothes had better be disposed of-and that shabby smoking-jacket-I have not seen it for years. Why do men keep their useless, shabby clothes?"

"I think Uncle Jim wouldn't like those old army uniforms given away, aunt; and don't you remember how he looked like an old Van Dyke portrait in that lovely brown velvet jacket?"

Ann, standing with the much used garment in her hand, let it drop into the chest, saying, "I really cannot see the use of keeping things as men love to do-"

"And women never!" cried Leila, closing the lid of the box, and remarking that he would like to find things as he left them; and had Aunt Ann noticed that there were moths about the bear skins. Now a moth has the power of singularly exciting some women-the diversion proved effectual.

And still as the week went by Ann seemed to be gaining in strength.

At lunch, a telegram from Charles Grey, Baltimore, said, "Penhallow here, doing well. Will return on the 14th, by afternoon train, with Rivers and servant."

"Read that, dear-I want you, Leila, to ride to the mills and tell Dr.

McGregor that I will send the carriage for him in time for him to meet

your uncle at the station. I had better not meet him-and there will be

Mark Rivers and Josiah and-but you will see to all that."

"Certainly, aunt."

"It will be the day after to-morrow. Be sure that the doctor makes no mistake. There are two trains-he will be on the four o'clock express." This was in the manner of her Aunt Ann of former days. "Shall I write it down?"

Leila cried, "No," and fled, laughing.

The next day to Leila's surprise and pleasure her aunt came down to breakfast and quietly took her place as mistress of the tea-urn. The talent of common sense as applicable to the lesser social commerce of life was one of Leila's gifts, and she made no comment on her aunt's amazing resumption of her old habits. Ann herself felt some inclination to explain her rapid recovery of health, and said as she took the long-vacant seat at the breakfast table, "I think, Leila, the doctor's last tonic has been of use to me-I feel quite like myself." Having thus anticipated her too sharp-eyed niece's congratulations, Leila's expression of pleasure came in accordant place. Whereupon they both smiled across the table, having that delicate appreciation of the needs of the situation which is rarely at the service of the blundering mind of man.

The moment of gentle hypocrisy passed, the mistress of Grey Pine took up her memoranda for the day, and said with some attempt at being just her usual self, "I shall walk to Westways after breakfast-Pole needs to be talked to. The meats have been of his worst lately." Then with a glance at the paper, "Your uncle's books must be dusted; I quite forgot it; I will set Susan to work this morning."

"But," said Leila, "he does hate that, Aunt Ann. The last time she succeeded in setting together 'Don Juan' and 'St. Thomas à Kempis.'"

Ann laughed, and said with some of her old sense of humour, "It might do them both good-dust them yourself."

"I will," said Leila, liking the task.

"And when you ride this afternoon, see Mrs. Lamb. The cook tells me that she hears of that scamp, her son, as in the army-a nice kind of soldier." A half-dozen other errands were mentioned, and they parted, Ann adding, "There is no mail to-day."

They met again at lunch. "It is too bad, Leila, Billy was given the letters and forgot them and went a-fishing. There was a letter for you from Mark Rivers about your uncle. Does he think me a child? I read it."

"You read it, Aunt!" exclaimed Leila astonished at this infraction of their household law.

"Of course I read it. I knew it must be about James." Leila made no reply, but did not like it.

"Here it is, my dear. I fear James is in a more serious state than I was led to believe by their first letters. There is also a letter from John to you." She did not ask to see it, and Leila took both missives and presently went away to the stables. Even John, as was plain, was forgotten in her aunt's anxiety in regard to her husband.

Her many errands over, Leila riding slowly through the lonely wood-roads read the letters:

"My Dear Leila," wrote Rivers, "you had better let your aunt know that the Colonel's wound must have so shocked the brain, though there is no fracture, as to have left him in a mental state which gives me the utmost anxiety. You will sadly realize my meaning when y

ou see him. Be careful how you tell your aunt.

"Yours truly,

"MARK RIVERS."

Here indeed was trouble. Leila's eyes filled and tears fell on the paper. She rode on deep in thought, and at last securing the message of calamity in her belt opened John's letter.

"I write you, dear Leila, from my tent near Vicksburg, this 5th of July. The prisoners from Pemberton's army are passing as I write. Our men are giving them bread and tobacco, and there is no least sign of enmity or triumph. I am pretty well worn out, as the few engineers have been worked hard and the constant nearness of death in the trenches within five to one hundred feet of the Rebel lines was a situation to make a man think-not of course while in immediate danger, but afterwards. I had some narrow escapes-we all had. But, dear Leila, it has been a splendid thing to see how this man Grant, with the expressionless face, struck swiftly one army after another and returned to secure his prey.

"I cannot even now get a leave of absence, and I am beyond words anxious to hear about dear Uncle Jim. Just a line from him makes me think he was to be with General Meade and in that great battle we won. A telegram to the Engineers' Camp, Vicksburg, will relieve me.

"It is unlikely, if we go South, that I shall see you for many a day. All leaves are, I find, denied. War-intense war like this-seems to me to change men in wonderful ways. It makes some men bad or reckless or drunkards or hard and cruel; it makes others thoughtful, dutiful and religious. This is more often the case among the men than you may think it would be. Certainly it does age a fellow fast. I seem to have passed many years since I sat with you at West Point and you made me feel how young I was and how little I had seen of life. It was true, but now I have seen life at its worst and its best. I have had too the education of battle, the lessons read by thousands of deaths and all the many temptations of camp life. I believe, and I can say it to you, I am the better for it all, and think less and less of the man who was fool enough to do what with more humility he will surely do once more, if it please God that he come out of this terrible war alive.

"When you see me again, you will at least respect my years, for one lives fast here, and the months seem years and the family Bible a vain record, as I remember that the statement of births comes after the Apocrypha which leaves room for doubt."-

Leila smiled. "How like him," she murmured.

"I said months. There are (there were once last week) minutes when one felt an insolent contempt of death, although the bullets were singing by like our brave hornets. Is that courage? I used as a boy to wonder how I would feel in danger. Don't tell, but on going under fire I shiver, and then am at once in quiet possession of all my capacities, whatever they be worth. A man drops by my side-and I am surprised; then another-and I am sure I won't be hit. But I was three weeks ago in my leg! It made me furious, and I still limp a bit. It was only a nip-a spent bullet. I wanted to get at that anonymous rascal who did it.

"Do wire me, and write fully.

"Yours,

JOHN.

"P.S. I wonder where Tom McGregor is, and Pole's boy and Joe Grace, and those Greys who went diverse ways. As you never talk of yourself when you write those brief letters on notepaper the size of a postage stamp, you might at least tell me all about these good people in Westways."

She telegraphed him, "Uncle Jim slightly wounded, is coming home. Will write. Leila Grey."

About four in the afternoon of this July 14th Ann Penhallow kissed her husband as he came up the porch steps. He was leaning heavily on Mark Rivers's arm. He said, "It is quite a long time, Ann. How long is it?" Then he shook off Rivers, saying, "I am quite well," and going by his wife went through the open door, moving like one dazed. He stood still a moment looking about him, turned back and speaking to his wife said, "I understand now. At first it seemed strange to me and as if I had never been here before. Ever feel that way, Ann?"

"Oh, often, James." No signal of her anguish showed on the gallantly carried face of the little woman.

"Quiet, isn't it? When was it I was hit? It was-wasn't it in May? Rivers says it was July-I do not like contradiction." His appreciation of time and recognition of locality were alike disordered, as Rivers had observed with distress and a too constant desire to set him right. With better appreciation of his condition, Ann accepted his statement.

"Yes-yes, of course, dear-it is just so."

"I knew you would understand me. I should like to go to bed-I want

Josiah-no one else."

"Yes, dear," and this above all else made clear to the unhappy little lady how far was the sturdy soldier who had left her from the broken man in undress uniform who clung to the rail, as he went slowly up the stairway with his servant. In the hall he had seen Leila, but gave her no word, not even his habitual smile of recognition.

Ann stared after them a moment, motioned Rivers away with uplifted hand, and hastening into the library sat down and wept like a child. She had been unprepared for the change in his appearance and ways. More closely observant, Leila saw that the lines of decisiveness were gone, the humorous circles about the mouth and eyes, as it were, flattened out, and that the whole face, with the lips a little languidly parted, had become expressionless. It was many days before she could see the altered visage without emotion, or talk of him to her aunt with any of the amazing hopefulness with which the older woman dwelt on her husband's intervals of resemblance to his former self.

He would not ride or enter the stables, but his life was otherwise a childlike resumption of his ordinary habits, except that when annoyed by Ann's too obvious anxiety or excess of carefulness, he became irritable at times and even violent in language. He so plainly preferred Leila's company in his short walks as to make the wife jealous and vexed that she was not wanted during every minute of his altered life. He read no books as of old, but would have Leila read to him the war news until he fell asleep, when she quietly slipped away.

Mark Rivers resumed his duties for a time, unwilling to abandon these dear friends for whom McGregor, puzzled and perplexed, had no word of consolation, except the assurance that his condition did not grow worse.

At times Penhallow was dimly aware of his state; at others he resented any effort to control him and was so angry when the doctor proposed a consultation that the idea was too easily given up, for always in this as in everything his wife agreed with him and indulged him as women indulge a sick child. The village grieved for the Colonel who rode no more through Westways with a gay word of greeting for all he met. The iron-mills were busy. The great guns tested on the meadows now and then shook the panes in the western windows of Grey Pine. They no longer disturbed Ann Penhallow. The war went its thunderous way unheeded by her. Unendingly hopeful, the oppression of disaster seemed only to confirm and strengthen her finest qualities. Like the pine-tree winning vigour from its rock-clasped roots, she gathered such hardening strength of soul and body from his condition as the more happy years had never put at her command.

"No letters to-day, Miss Leila," said the post-mistress standing beside the younger woman's horse. "Just only them papers with their lists of killed and wounded."

"I must always be Leila, not Miss Leila," said the horsewoman.

"Well-well-I like that better. How's the Colonel?"

"Much the same-certainly no worse. It is wonderful how my aunt stands it."

"Don't you notice, Leila, how she has kind of softened? Me and Joe was talking of it yesterday. She always was good, but folks did use to say she was sort of hard and-positive. Now, she's kind of gentled-noticed that?"

"Yes, I have noticed it; but I must go. Give me the papers. You love a talk."

"There's no news of John?"

"None of late. He is with General Grant-but where we do not know."

"It's right pleasant to have Josiah back. Lord! but he's strong on war stories-ought to hear him. He was always good at stories."

"Yes, I suppose so. Good-bye."

James Penhallow sat on the back porch in the after luncheon hour to get with the freshness of October what sunshine the westerning sun was sifting through the red and gold of the maples beyond the garden walls. He was in the undress uniform of the artillery, and still wore the trefoil of the Second Corps. An effort by Ann to remove his soiled army garb and substitute his lay dress caused an outbreak of anger which left him speechless and feeble, and her in an agony of regretful penitence. Josiah, wiser than she, ventured to tell her what had happened once before when his badge of the glorious Second Corps had been missing. "After all, what does it matter?" she said to herself, and made no effort to repair the ragged bullet tear South Mountain left in his jacket, and in which he had at his worst times such childlike pride as in another and well-known general had once amused him.

He was just now in one of his best conditions and was clearly enjoying the pipe he used but rarely. Ann at his feet on the porch-step read aloud to him with indifference to all but the man she now and then looked up to with the loving tenderness his brief betterment fed with illusory hope.

"What's that, Ann?" he exclaimed; "Grant at Chattanooga! That's John's ideal General. Didn't he write about him at-where was it? Oh! Belmont."

"Yes, after Belmont, James."

"When does Mark Rivers go back?"

"To-morrow. He is always so out of spirits here that I am really relieved when he returns to the Sanitary Commission." He made no reply, and she continued her reading.

"Isn't that Leila with Rivers, Ann?"

"Yes. He likes to walk with her."

"So would any man." A faint smile-very rare of late-showed in her pleased upward look at the face-the changed face-she loved.

The pair of whom they spoke were lost to view in the forest.

"And you are glad to go?" said Leila to Rivers.

"Yes, I am. I can hardly say glad, but now that your uncle is, so to speak, lost to me and your aunt absorbed in her one task and the duties she has taken up again, our pleasant Dante lessons are set aside, and what is there left of the old intellectual life which is gone-gone?"

"But," said Leila gaily, "you have the church and my humble society. Why, you are really learning to walk, as you did not until of late."

Making no reply to her personal remark, he was silent for a moment, and then said with slow articulation and to her surprise, for he rarely spoke of himself, "Nine years ago I came here, a man broken in mind and body. This life and these dear friends have made me as strong as I can ever hope to be. But the rest-the rest. I know what power God has given me to bring souls to him. I can influence men-the lowly and-well, others, as few can. I cannot live in cities-I dare not risk the failure in health; and yet, I want-I want a larger field. I found it when your aunt's liberality sent me to the army. There in my poor way I can serve my country-and that is much to me." He was silent.

"But," she said, "is there not work enough here? and the war cannot last much longer. Don't think you must ever leave us."

"I shall-I must. There are limitations I cannot talk of even-above all to you. Your aunt knows this-and your uncle did-long ago."

"What limitations?" she asked rashly.

"You are the last person, Leila Grey, to whom I could speak of them. I have said too much, but"-and he paused-"I am tired-I will leave you to finish your walk." The great beautiful eyes turned on him for a moment. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed, and reproaching his brief human weakness left her abruptly, walking slowly away through the drifting red and gold of leaves rocking in air as they sauntered to earth, and was at last lost to view in the woodland.

Leila stood still, puzzled and sorrowful, as she watched the tall stooping form. "How old he looks," she murmured. "What did he mean? I must ask Aunt Ann." But she never did, feeling that what he had said was something like a cautiously hinted confession. In the early morning he was gone again to the field of war.

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