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   Chapter 30 No.30

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 17888

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


As the trains went northward crowded with more or less damaged officers and men, John Penhallow in his faded engineer uniform showed signs of renewed vitality. He chatted in his old companionable way with the other home-bound volunteers, and as they went through Baltimore related to McGregor with some merriment his bloodless duel with Mrs. Penhallow's Rebel brother Henry. The doctor watched him with the most friendly satisfaction and with such pride as a florist may have in his prospering flowers. The colour of health was returning to the pale face and there was evidently relief from excessive pain. He heard, too, as they chatted, of John's regrets that his simple engineer dress was not as neat as he would have desired and of whether his aunt would dislike it. Wearing the station of Westways Crossing, John fell into a laughing account of his first arrival and of the meeting with Leila. The home-tonic was of use and he was glad with gay gladness that the war was over.

As the train stopped, he said as he got out, "There is no carriage-you telegraphed, McGregor?"

"Yes, I did, but the service is, I fancy, snowed under just now with messages. I will walk on and have them send for you."

"No," said John, "I am quite able to walk. Come along."

"Are you really able?"

"Yes-we'll take it easy."

"There isn't much left of you to carry what remains."

"My legs are all right, Tom." He led the way through the woods until they came out on the avenue. "Think of it, Tom,-it is close to nine years since first I left Grey Pine for the Point."

In the afternoon of this sunny day late in April the Colonel sat on the porch with his wife. Below them on the step Rivers was reading aloud the detailed account of Lincoln's death. Leila coming out of the house was first to see the tall thin figure in dark undress uniform. She was thankful for an unwatched moment of ability to gain entire self-command. It was needed. She helped herself by her cry of joyous recognition.

"Aunt Ann! Aunt Ann!" she cried, "there is Dr. McGregor and-and John and

Josiah." The aunt cast a look of anxiety at the expressionless face of

James Penhallow, as he rose to his feet, saying, "Why wasn't I told?"

"We did not know, sir," said Rivers, dropping the paper as he went down the steps to meet the new-comer.

Then the wasted figure with the left arm in a sling was in Ann

Penhallow's embrace.

"My God!" he said, "but it's good to be at home." As he spoke he turned to the Colonel who had risen.

"Got hit, John? It runs in the family. Once had a Sioux arrow through my arm. Glad to see you. Want to be fed up a bit. Lord! but you're lean." He said no more, but sat down again without appearance of interest.

Rivers made John welcome with a pleasant word, and Leila coming forward took his hand, saying quietly, "We hardly looked for you to-day, but it is none too soon." Then she turned to McGregor, "We have much to thank you for. You will stay to dine?"

John, still too sensitive, was troubled as he realized his uncle's condition, and felt that there was something in Leila's manner which was unlike that of the far-remembered Leila of other days. She had urged McGregor to stay and dine, and then added, "But, of course, that pleasure must wait-you will want to see your father. He is so proud of you-as we all are."

"That is a pleasant welcome, Miss Leila; and, dear Mrs. Penhallow, I do not want a carriage, I prefer to walk. I will see you, John, and that lame arm to-morrow. Good-bye, Colonel."

The master of Grey Pine said, "Nice young man! Ann ought to kill the fatted calf. Tell John not to be late for dinner."

"It is all right, James," said Mrs. Ann, "all right."

Rivers watched with pain the vacant face of the Colonel. This mental failure constantly recalled the days of anguish when with despair he had seen all who were dear to him one after another die mentally before their merciful exit from life.

"John must be tired," he said. Leila, who noted on the young soldier's face the effect of sudden realization of his useless state said, "Your room is ready, John."

"Yes," said John, "I should like to rest before dinner."

With a word as to the fatigue of his journey, Leila followed him into the well-remembered hall.

"Good heavens, Leila. It seems an age since I was here. Send up Josiah.

I am like a baby and need him to help me."

She looked after him pitifully as he went up the stairs. "Surely," she thought, "we have paid dearly our debt to the country."

He came down at six o'clock, still in his undress uniform, but thinking that his aunt would not like it. In a day or two he would have the civilian clothes he had ordered in Philadelphia. He need have had no such anxiety; she was indifferent to all but her husband, who sat at table speechless, while Leila and John too consciously manufactured talk of the home and the mills-and the ending of the war. After the meal Ann began her patient efforts to interest the Colonel with a game of cards and then of backgammon. It seemed only to make him irritable, and he said at last, "I think I must go to bed."

"Certainly, dear." She went with him upstairs, saying, "Good-night, children."

"She will not return, John. This is what goes on day after day."

"It is very sad-I did not fully comprehend his condition."

"He is often far worse, and complains of his head or is resolutely-I should say obstinately-bent on some folly, such as walking to the mills and advising them. Aunt Ann never contradicts him-what he wants, she wants. Not the most reasonable opposition is of any use."

"Does he never ride, Leila?"

"Never, and is vexed when Dr. McGregor calls to see him and advises a consultation. Once we had a distressing outbreak."

"And yet," said John, "there should have been other advice long ago.

Somehow there must be."

"Mr. Rivers has urged it and made him angry; as for Aunt Ann, she sees only the bright side of his case and humours him as she would a sick child."

"She is greatly changed, Leila. I hardly know how to state it. She has a look of-well, of something spiritual in her face."

"Yes, that is true. Are you in pain, John?" she added.

"Yes-not in great pain, but enough. For two weeks I did suffer horribly."

"John! Oh, my poor Jack! We never knew-is it so bad?"

"Yes, imagine a toothache in your elbow with a variety of torments in the whole arm."

"I can't imagine. I never had a toothache-in fact, I hardly know the sensation of serious pain."

"Well, I broke down under it, Leila. I became depressed and quite foolishly hopeless. Some day I will tell you what helped me out of a morass of melancholy."

"Tell me now."

"No, I must go to bed. I am getting better and will get off with a stiff elbow, so Tom says. At first they talked of amputation. That was awful. Good-night!"

It was none too soon. She was still unsure of herself, and although no word of tender approach had disturbed her as he talked, and she was glad of that, the tense look of pain, the reserve of his hospital confession of suffering nearly broke down her guarded attitude. As he passed out of view at the turn of the stairs, she murmured, "Oh, if only Uncle Jim were well."

Josiah came at the call of the bell. She detained him. She asked, "How was the Captain wounded? No one wrote of how it happened."

"Well, missy, he would ride a horse called Hoodoo-it was just the bad luck of that brute done it." Josiah's account was graphic and clear enough. John Penhallow's character lost nothing as interpreted by Josiah.

"It was a dangerous errand, I suppose."

"Yes, Miss Leila. You see, when they know about a man that he somehow don't mind bullets and will go straight to where he's sent, they're very apt to get him killed. At the first shot he ought to have tumbled off and played possum till it was dark."

"But then," said Leila, "he would have been too late with General Parke's message."

"Of course, Master John couldn't sham dead like I would.-I don't despise bullets like he does. Once before he had orders to go somewhere, and couldn't get across a river. He was as mad as a wet hen."

"A wet hen-delightful! Did he do it?"

"Guess you don't know him! When Master John wants anything, well, he's a terrible wanter-always was that way even when he was a boy-when he wants anything, he gets it."

"Indeed! does he? I think he is waiting for you, Josiah."

The black's conclusive summary hardened the young woman's heart. She sat a while smiling, then took up a book and failed to become interested.

As John became familiar with the altered life of a household once happy and in pleasant relation to the outer world, he felt as Leila had done the depressing influence of a home in which the caprices of an invalid life were constantly to be considered. Meanwhile his own spare figure gained flesh, and on one sunny morning-he lon

g remembered it-he was rather suddenly free from pain, and with only the stiff elbow was, as McGregor described it, "discharged cured."

For some time he had been feeling that in bodily vigour and sense of being his normal self he had been rapidly gaining ground. The relief from the thraldom of pain brought a sudden uplift of spirits and a feeling of having been born anew into an inheritance of renewed strength and of senses sharpened beyond what he had ever known. A certain activity of happiness like a bodily springtime comes with such a convalescence. Ceasing to feel the despotism of self-attention, he began to recover his natural good sense and to watch with more care his uncle's state, his aunt's want of consideration for any one but James Penhallow, and the effect upon Leila of this abnormal existence. He began to understand that to surely win this sad girl-heart there must be a patient siege, and above all something done for the master of Grey Pine. He recognized with love's impatience the beauty of this young life amid the difficulties of the Colonel's moods and Ann Penhallow's ill-concealed jealousy. A great passion may be a very selfish thing, or in the nobler natures rise so high on the wings of love that it casts like the singing lark no shadow on the earth. He could wait and respect with patient affection the sense of duty which perhaps-ah! that perhaps-made love a thing which must wait-yes, and wait too with helpful service where she too had nobly served.

When the day came for his first venture on a horse and he rode through the young leafage of June, no enterprise seemed impossible. How could he be of use to her and these dear people to whom he owed so much? War had been costly, but it had taught him that devotion to the duty of the hour which is one of the best lessons of that terrible schoolmaster. There was, as he saw every day, no overruling common sense in the household of Grey Pine, and no apparent possibility of reasonable control. Just now it was worse than ever, and he meant to talk it over with the two McGregors. With Josiah riding behind him, he left a message here and there in the village, laughing and jesting, with a word of sympathy where the war had left its cruel memories. He had been in the little town very often since his return, but never before when free from pain or with the pleasant consciousness that he had it in his power to be to these friends of his childhood what the Colonel had been. He talked to Joe Grace, left a message for Pole's son, and then rode on to his appointment.

He sat down with father and son in the unchanged surroundings of the untidy office; even the flies were busy as before on the old man's tempting bald head.

"Well, John," said the doctor, "what's up now? The Squire won't see me at all." Tom sat still and listened.

"There are two things to consider, and I want your advice; but, first, I want to say that there is no head to that family. I wonder how Leila stands it. I mean that your advice shall be taken about a consultation with Prof. Askew."

"You want my advice? Do you, indeed! Mrs. Penhallow will ask the

Colonel's opinion, he will swear, and the matter is at an end."

"I mean to have that consultation," said John. Tom laughed and nodded approval.

"It's no use, John, none," said the older man.

"We shall see about that. Do you approve?-that is my question."

"If that's the form of advice you want, why, of course-yes-but count me out."

"Count me in, John," said the younger surgeon. "I know what Askew will say and what should have been done long ago."

"An operation?" asked his father.

"Yes, sir, an operation."

"Too late!"

"Well," said John, "he gets no worse; a week or two will make no difference, I presume."

"None," said Dr. McGregor.

"It may," said Tom.

"Well, it may have to wait. Just now there is a very serious question. Aunt Ann made last night the wild suggestion that the Colonel might be amused if we had one of those rummage-sales with which she used to delight the village. Uncle Jim at once declared it to be the thing he would like best. Aunt Ann said we must see about it at once. Her satisfaction in finding an amusement which the Colonel fancied was really childlike. Leila said nothing, nor did I. In fact, the proposal came about when I happened unluckily to say what a fine chance Uncle Sam had for a rummage-sale after a forced march or a fight. I recall having said much the same thing long ago in a letter to Leila."

"Then there's nothing to be done just now, John," remarked Tom McGregor, "but I cannot conceive of anything more likely to affect badly a disordered brain."

The older man was silent until John asked, "Is it worth while to talk to

Aunt Ann about it-advise against it?"

"Quite useless, John. I advise you and Leila quietly to assist your aunt, and like as not the Colonel may forget all about it in a day or two."

"No, Doctor. To-day he had Billy up with him in the attic bringing down whatever he can find, useful or useless."

With little satisfaction from this talk, John rode homeward. Sitting in the saddle at the post-office door, he called for the mail. Mrs. Crocker, of undiminished bulk and rosiness, came out.

"How's your arm, Captain? I bet it's more use than mine. The rheumatism have took to permanent boarding in my right shoulder-and no glory like you got to show for it."

"I could do without the glory."

"No, you couldn't. If I was a man, I'd be glad to swap; you've got to make believe a bit, but the town's proud of you. I guess some one will soon have to look after them Penhallow mills." Mrs. Crocker put a detaining hand on his bridle reins.

"Yes, yes," said John absently, glancing well pleased over a kind letter of inquiry from General Parke. "Well, what else, Mrs. Crocker?"

"The Colonel quite give me a shock this morning. He's not been here-no, not once-since he came home. Well, he walked in quite spry and told me there was to be a rummage-sale in a week, and I was to put up a notice and tell everybody. Why, Mr. John, he was that natural. He went away laughing because I offered to sell my old man-twenty-five cents a pound. I did notice he don't walk right."

"Yes, I have noticed that; but this notion of a rummage-sale has seemed to make him better. Now, suppose you let my reins go."

"Oh, Mr. John, don't be in such a hurry. It's surely a responsible place, this post-office; I don't ever get time for a quiet talk."

"Well, Mrs. Crocker, now is your chance."

"That's real good of you. I was wanting to ask if you ever heard anything of Peter Lamb. He wrote to his mother he was in the army, and then that was the end of it. She keeps on writing once a week, and the letters come back stamped 'not found.' I guess he's wandering somewhere."

"Like enough. I went to see her last week, but I could not give her any comfort. She couldn't have a worse thing happen than for Peter to come home."

"Well, Captain John, when you come to have babies of your own, you'll find mothers are a curious kind of animal."

"Mothers!" laughed John. "I hope there won't be more than one. Now, I really must go."

"Oh, just one more real bit of news. Lawyer Swallow's wife was here yesterday with another man to settle up her husband's business."

"Is he dead?"

"They say so, but you can't believe everything you hear. Now, don't hurry. What most killed Swallow was just this: He hated Pole like poison, and when he got a five hundred dollar mortgage-grip on Pole's pasture meadow, he kept that butcher-man real uneasy. When you were all away, Swallow began to squeeze-what those lawyers call 'foreclose.' It's just some lawyer word for robbery."

"It's pretty bad, Mrs. Crocker, but two people are waiting for you and this isn't exactly Government business."

"Got to hear the end, Captain."

"I suppose so-what next?" Dixy wondered why the spur touched him even lightly.

"Pole, he told Mrs. Penhallow all about it, and she wasn't as glad to help her meat-man as she was to bother Swallow, so she took over the mortgage. When the Squire first came home from Washington and wasn't like he was later, she told him, of course. Now everybody knows Pole's ways, and so the Squire he says to me-he was awful amused-'Mrs. Crocker, I asked Mrs. Penhallow how Pole was going to pay her.' She said she did put that at Pole, and he said it wouldn't take long to eat up that debt at Grey Pine. He wouldn't have dared to speak like that to your aunt if she hadn't got to be so meek-like, what with war and bother." By this time Dixy was with reason displeased and so restless that Mrs. Crocker let the reins drop, but as John Penhallow rode away she cried, "The price of meats at Grey Pine has been going up ever since, until Miss Leila-" The rest was lost to the Captain. He rode away laughing as he reflected on what share of Pole's debt he was to devour.

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