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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Original Belle - Chapter 37. Strahan's Escape
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An Original Belle - Chapter 37. Strahan's Escape Post by :srinivasraju Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Payson Roe Date :May 2012 Read :2709

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An Original Belle - Chapter 37. Strahan's Escape


AFTER Blauvelt had left Mr. Vosburgh's breakfast-table in obedience to his own and Marian's wish to see Strahan at once, the young girl laughed outright--she would laugh easily to-day--and exclaimed:--

"Poor Mr. Merwyn! He is indeed doomed to inglorious inaction. Before he could even start on his search, Strahan found him. His part in this iron age will consist only in furnishing the sinews of war and dispensing canned delicacies in the hospitals. I do feel sorry for him, for last night he seemed to realize the fact himself. He looked like a ghost, back in the shadow that he sought when Captain Blauvelt's story grew tragic. I believe he suffered more in hearing about the shells than Mr. Blauvelt did in hearing and seeing them."

"It's a curious case," said her father, musingly. "He was and has been suffering deeply from some cause. I have not fully accepted your theory yet."

"Since even your sagacity can construct no other, I am satisfied that I am right. But I have done scoffing at Mr. Merwyn, and should feel as guilty in doing so as if I had shown contempt for physical deformity. I have become so convinced that he suffers terribly from consciousness of his weakness, that I now pity him from the depths of my heart. Just think of a young fellow of his intelligence listening to such a story as we heard last night and of the inevitable contrasts that he must have drawn!"

"Fancy also," said her father, smiling, "a forlorn lover seeing your cheeks aflame and your eyes suffused with tears of sympathy for young heroes, one of whom was reciting his epic. Strahan is soon to repeat his; then Lane will appear and surpass them all."

"Well," cried Marian, laughing, "you'll admit they form a trio to be proud of."

"Oh, yes, and will have to admit more, I suppose, before long. Girls never fall in love with trios."

"Nonsense, papa, they are all just like brothers to me." Then there was a rush of tears to her eyes, and she said, brokenly, "The war is not over yet, and perhaps not one of them will survive."

"Come, my dear," her father reassured her, gently, "you must imitate your soldier friends, and take each day as it comes. Remembering what they have already passed through, I predict that they all survive. The bravest men are the most apt to escape."

Marian's greeting of Strahan was so full of feeling, and so many tears suffused her dark blue eyes, that they inspired false hopes in his breast and unwarranted fears in that of Blauvelt. The heroic action and tragic experience of the young and boyish Strahan had touched the tenderest chords in her heart. Indeed, as she stood, holding his left hand in both her own, they might easily have been taken for brother and sister. His eyes were almost as blue as hers, and his brow, where it had not been exposed to the weather, as fair. She knew of his victory over himself. Almost at the same time with herself, he had cast behind him a weak, selfish, frivolous life, assuming a manhood which she understood better than others. Therefore, she had for him a tenderness, a gentleness of regard, which her other friends of sterner natures could not inspire. Indeed, so sisterly was her feeling that she could have put her arms about his neck and welcomed him with kisses, without one quickening throb of the pulse. But he did not know this then, and his heart bounded with baseless hopes.

Poor Blauvelt had never cherished many, and the old career with which he had tried to be content defined itself anew. He would fight out the war, and then give himself up to his art.

He could be induced to stay only long enough to finish his breakfast, and then said: "Strahan can tell me the rest of his story over the camp-fire before long. My mother has now the first claim, and I must take a morning train in order to reach home to-night."

"I also must go," exclaimed Mr. Vosburgh, looking at his watch, "and shall have to hear your story at second hand from Marian. Rest assured," he added, laughing, "it will lose nothing as she tells it this evening."

"And I order you, Captain Blauvelt, to make this house your headquarters when you are in town," said Marian, giving his hand a warm pressure in parting. Strahan accompanied his friend to the depot, then sought his family physician and had his wound dressed.

"I advise that you reach your country home soon," said the doctor; "your pulse is feverish."

The young officer laughed and thought he knew the reason better than his medical adviser, and was soon at the side of her whom he believed to be the exciting cause of his febrile symptoms.

"Oh," he exclaimed, throwing himself on a lounge, "isn't this infinitely better than a stifling Southern prison?" and he looked around the cool, shadowy drawing-room, and then at the smiling face of his fair hostess, as if there were nothing left to be desired.

"You have honestly earned this respite and home visit," she said, taking a low chair beside him, "and now I'm just as eager to hear your story as I was to listen to that of Captain Blauvelt, last night."

"No more eager?" he asked, looking wistfully into her face.

"That would not be fair," she replied, gently. "How can I distinguish between my friends, when each one surpasses even my ideal of manly action?"

"You will some day," he said, thoughtfully. "You cannot help doing so. It is the law of nature. I know I can never be the equal of Lane and Blauvelt."

"Arthur," she said, gravely, taking his hand, "let me be frank with you. It will be best for us both. I love you too dearly, I admire and respect you too greatly, to be untrue to your best interests even for a moment. What's more, I am absolutely sure that you only wish what is right and best for me. Look into my eyes. Do you not see that if your name was Arthur Vosburgh, I could scarcely feel differently? I do love you more than either Mr. Lane or Mr. Blauvelt. They are my friends in the truest and strongest sense of the word, but--let me tell you the truth--you have come to seem like a younger brother. We must be about the same age, but a woman is always older in her feelings than a man, I think. I don't say this to claim any superiority, but to explain why I feel as I do. Since I came to know--to understand you--indeed, I may say, since we both changed from what we were, my thoughts have followed you in a way that they would a brother but a year or two younger than myself,--that is, so far as I can judge, having had no brother. Don't you understand me?"

"Yes," he replied, laughing a little ruefully, "up to date."

"Very well," she added, with an answering laugh, "let it be then to date. I shall not tell you that I feel like a sister without being as frank as one. I have never loved any one in the way--Oh, well, you know. I don't believe these stern times are conducive to sentiment. Come, tell me your story."

"But you'll give me an equal chance with the others," he pleaded.

She now laughed outright. "How do I know what I shall do?" she asked. "I may come to you some day for sympathy and help. According to the novels, people are stricken down as if by one of your hateful shells and all broken up. I don't know, but I'm inclined to believe that while a girl can withhold her love from an unworthy object, she cannot deliberately give it here or there as she chooses. Now am I not talking to you like a sister?"

"Yes, too much so--"

"Oh, come, I have favored you more highly than any one."

"Do not misunderstand me," he said, earnestly, "I'm more grateful than I can tell you, but--"

"But tell me your story. There is one thing I can give you at once,--the closest attention."

"Very well. I only wish you were like one of the enemy's batteries, so I could take you by storm. I'd face all the guns that were at Gettysburg for the chance."

"Arthur, dear Arthur, I do know what you have faced from a simple sense of duty and patriotism. Blauvelt was a loyal, generous friend, and he has told us."

"You are wrong. 'The girl I left behind me' was the corps-de-reserve from which I drew my strength. I believe the same was true of Blauvelt, and a better, braver fellow never drew breath. He would make a better officer than I, for he is cooler and has more brains."

"Now see here, Major Strahan," cried Marian, in mock dignity, "as your superior officer, I am capable of judging of the merits of you both, and neither of you can change my estimate. You are insubordinate, and I shall put you under arrest if you don't tell me how you escaped at once. You have kept a woman's curiosity in check almost as long as your brave regiment held the enemy, and that's your greatest achievement thus far. Proceed. Captain Blauvelt has enabled me to keep an eye on you till you fell and the enemy charged over you. Now you know just where to begin."

"My prosaic story is soon told. Swords and pike-staffs! what a little martinet you are! Well, the enemy was almost on me. I could see their flushed, savage faces. Even in that moment I thought of you and whispered, 'Good-by,' and a prayer to God for your happiness flashed through my mind."

"Arthur, don't talk that way. I can't stand it;" and there was a rush of tears to her eyes.

"I'm beginning just where you told me to. The next second there was a sting in my right arm, then something knocked me over and I lost consciousness for a few moments. I am satisfied, also, that I was grazed by a bullet that tore my scabbard from my side. When I came to my senses, I crawled behind a rock so as not to be shot by our own men, and threw away my sword. I didn't want to surrender it, you know. Soon after a rebel jerked me to my feet.

"'Can you stand?' he asked.

"'I will try,' I answered.

"'Join that squad of prisoners, then, and travel right smart.'

"I staggered away, too dazed for many clear ideas, and with others was hurried about half a mile away to a place filled with the rebel wounded. Here a Union soldier, who happened to have some bandages with him, dressed my arm. The Confederate surgeons had more than they could do to look after their own men. Just before dark all the prisoners who were able to walk were led into a large field, and a strong guard was placed around us.

"Although my wound was painful, I obtained some sleep, and awoke the next morning with the glad consciousness that life with its chances was still mine. We had little enough to eat that day, and insufficient water to drink. This foretaste of the rebel commissariat was enough for me, and I resolved to escape if it were a possible thing."

"You wanted to see me a little, too, didn't you? Nevertheless, you shall have a good lunch before long."

"Such is my fate. First rebel iron and now irony. I began to play the role of feebleness and exhaustion, and it did not require much effort. Of course we were all on the qui vive to see what would happen next, and took an intense interest in the fight of the 3d, which Blauvelt has described. The scene of the battle was hidden from us, but we gathered, from the expression of our guards' faces and the confusion around us, that all had not gone to the enemy's mind, and so were hopeful. In the evening we were marched to the outskirts of Gettysburg and kept there till the afternoon of the 4th, when we started towards Virginia. I hung back and dragged myself along, and so was fortunately placed near the rear of the column, and we plodded away. I thanked Heaven that the night promised to be dark and stormy, and was as vigilant as an Indian, looking for my chance. It seemed long in coming, for at first the guards were very watchful. At one point I purposely stumbled and fell, hoping to crawl into the bushes, but a rebel was right on me and helped me up with his bayonet."

"O Arthur!"

"Yes, the risks were great, for we had been told that the first man who attempted to leave the line would be shot. I lagged behind as if I could not keep up, and so my vigilant guard got ahead of me, and I proposed to try it on with the next fellow. I did not dare look around, for my only chance was to give the impression that I fell from utter exhaustion. We were winding around a mountain-side and I saw some dark bushes just beyond me. I staggered towards them and fell just beside them, and lay as if I were dead.

"A minute passed, then another, and then there was no other sound than the tramp and splash in the muddy road. I edged still farther and farther from this, my head down the steep bank, and soon found myself completely hidden. The comrade next to me either would not tell if he understood my ruse, or else was so weary that he had not noticed me. If the guard saw me, he concluded that I was done for and not worth further bother.

"After the column had passed, I listened to hear if others were coming, then stumbled down the mountain, knowing that my best chance was to strike some stream and follow the current. It would take me into a valley where I would be apt to find houses. At last I became so weary that I lay down in a dense thicket and slept till morning. I awoke as hungry as a famished wolf, and saw nothing but a dense forest on every side. But the brook murmured that it would guide me, and I now made much better progress in the daylight. At last I reached a little clearing and a wood-chopper's cottage. The man was away, but his wife received me kindly and said I was welcome to such poor fare and shelter as they had. She gave me a glass of milk and some fried bacon and corn-bread, and I then learned all about the nectar and ambrosia of the gods. In the evening her husband came home and said that Lee had been whipped by the Yanks, and that he was retreating rapidly, whereon I drank to the health of my host nearly all the milk given that night by his lean little cow. He was a good-natured, loutish sort of fellow, and promised to guide me in a day or two to the west of the line of retreat. He seemed very tearful of falling in with the rebels, and I certainly had seen all I wished of them for the present, so I was as patient as he desired. At last he kept his word and guided me to a village about six miles away. I learned that Confederate cavalry had been there within twenty-four hours, and, tired as I was, I hired a conveyance and was driven to another village farther to the northwest, for I now had a morbid horror of being recaptured. After a night's rest in a small hamlet, I was taken in a light wagon to the nearest railway station, and came on directly, arriving here about six this morning. Finding our house closed, I made a descent on Merwyn. I telegraphed mother last evening that I should be home this afternoon."

"You should have telegraphed me, also," said Marian, reproachfully. "You would have saved me some very sad hours. I did not sleep much last night."

"Forgive me. I thoughtlessly wished to give you a surprise, and I could scarcely believe you cared so much."

"You will always believe it now, Arthur. Merciful Heaven! what risks you have had!"

"You have repaid me a thousand-fold. Friend, sister, or wife, you will always be to me my good genius."

"I wish the war was over," she said, sadly. "I have not heard from Captain Lane for weeks, and after the battle the first tidings from Blauvelt was that he was wounded and that you were wounded and missing. I can't tell you how oppressed I was with fear and foreboding."

"How about Lane?" Strahan asked, with interest.

She told him briefly the story she had heard and of the silence which had followed.

"He leads us all," was his response. "If he survives the war, he will win you, Marian."

"You suggest a terrible 'if' and there may be many others. I admit that he has kindled my imagination more than any man I ever saw, but you, Arthur, have touched my heart. I could not speak to him, had he returned, as I am now speaking to you. I have the odd feeling that you and I are too near of kin to be anything to each other except just what we are. You are so frank and true to me, that I can't endure the thought of misleading you, even unintentionally."

"Very well, I'll grow up some day, and as long as you remain free, I'll not give up hope."

"Foolish boy! Grow up, indeed! Who mounted his horse in that storm of shells and bullets in spite of friendly remonstrances, and said, 'The men must see us to-day'? What more could any man do? I'm just as proud of you as if my own brother had spoken the words;" and she took his hand caressingly, then exclaimed, "You are feverish."

A second later her hand was on his brow, and she sprung up and said, earnestly, "You should have attention at once."

"I fancy the doctor was right after all," said Strahan, rising also. "I'll take the one o'clock train and be at home in a couple of hours."

"I wish you would stay. You can't imagine what a devoted nurse I'll be."

"Please don't tempt me. It wouldn't be best. Mamma is counting the minutes before my return now, and it will please her if I come on an earlier train. Mountain air and rest will soon bring me around, and I can run down often. I think the fever proceeds simply from my wound, which hasn't had the best care. I don't feel seriously ill at all."

She ordered iced lemonade at once, lunch was hastened, and then she permitted him to depart, with the promise that he would write a line that very night.

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