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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tin Soldier - BOOK THREE _ THE BUGLE CALLS - Chapter XXIV. THE SINGING WOMAN
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The Tin Soldier - BOOK THREE _ THE BUGLE CALLS - Chapter XXIV. THE SINGING WOMAN Post by :ikansewspel Category :Long Stories Author :Temple Bailey Date :April 2012 Read :1448

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The Tin Soldier - BOOK THREE _ THE BUGLE CALLS - Chapter XXIV. THE SINGING WOMAN

BOOK THREE THE BUGLE CALLS - CHAPTER XXIV. THE SINGING WOMAN

Somewhere in France, Drusilla had found the Captain. Or, rather, he had found her. He had come upon her one rainy afternoon, and had not recognized her in her muddy uniform, with a strap under her chin. Then all at once he had heard her voice, crooning a song to a badly wounded boy whose head lay in her lap.

The Captain had stopped in his tracks. "Drusilla--"

The light in her eyes gave him his welcome, but she waved him away.

The boy died in her arms. When she joined her lover, she was much moved. "It is not my work to look after the wounded; I carry blankets and things to refugees. But now and then--it happens. A shell burst in the street, and that poor lad--! He asked me to sing for him--you see, I have been singing for them as they go through, and he remembered--"

He was holding both of her hands in his. "Dear woman, dear woman--" There were people all about them, but there were no conventions in war times, and nobody cared if he held her hands.

Her face was dirty, her hair wind-blown. She was muddy and without a trace of the smartness for which she had been famous. She was simply a hard-worked woman in clothes of masculine cut, yet never had she seemed so beautiful to her lover. He bent and kissed her in the market-place. He was an undemonstrative Englishman, but there was that in her eyes which carried him away from self-consciousness.

"I saw McKenzie in Paris," he said. "He told me that you were here."

"We came over together. Did you get my letter?"

"I have had no letters. But now that I have you, nothing matters."

"Really? Somehow I don't feel that I deserve it."

"Deserve what?"

"All that you are giving me. But I have liked to think of it. It has been a prop to lean on--"

"Only that--?"

"A shield and a buckler, dearest, a cross held high--" Her breath came quickly.

* * * * * *

They sat side by side on the worn doorstep of a shattered building and talked.

"I am in a shack--a _baraque_,--they call it," Drusilla told him, "with three other women. We have fixed up one room a little better than the others, and whenever the men come through the town some of them drift in and are warmed by our fire, and I sing to them; they call me 'The Singing Woman.'"

She did not tell him how she had mothered the lads. She was not much older than some of them, but they had instinctively recognized the maternal quality of her interest in them. With all her beauty they had turned to her for that which was in a sense spiritual.

Hating the war, Drusilla yet loved the work she had to do. There was, of course, the horror of it, but there was, too, the stimulus of living in a world of realities. She wondered if she were the same girl who had burned her red candles and had served her little suppers, safe and sound and far away from the stress of fighting.

She wondered, too, if women over there were still thinking of their gowns, and men of their gold. Were they planning to go North in the summer and South in the winter? Were they still care-free and comfortable?

People over here were not comfortable, but how little they cared, and how splendid they were. She had seen since she came such incredibly heroic things--men as tender as women, women as brave as men--she had seen human nature at its biggest and best.

"I have never been religious," she told the Captain, earnestly; "our family is the kind which finds sufficient outlet in a cool intellectual conclusion that all's right with the world, and it doesn't make much difference what comes hereafter. You know the attitude? 'If there is future life, we shall be glad to explore, and if there isn't, we shall be content to sleep!'

"But since I have been over here, I have carried a little prayer-book, and I've read things to the men, and when I have come to that part 'Gladly to die--that we may rise again,' I have known that it is true, Captain--"

He laid his hand over hers. "May I have your prayer-book in exchange for mine?" He was very serious. With all his heart he loved her, and never more than at this moment when she had thrown aside all reserves and had let him see her soul.

She drew the little book from her pocket. It was bound in red leather, with a thin black cross on the cover. His own was in khaki.

"I want something else," he said, as he held the book in his hand.

"What?"

"This." He touched a lock of hair which lay against her cheek. "A bit of it--of you--"

A band of _poilus_--marching through the street, saw him cut it off. But they did not laugh. They had great respect for a thing like that--and it happened every day--when men went away from their women.

They separated with a promise of perhaps a reunion in Paris, if he could get leave and if she could be spared. Then she drove away through the mud in her little car, and he went back to his men.

Thus they were swept apart by that tide of war which threatened to submerge the world.

Drusilla, arriving late at her _baraque_, made tea, and sat by an infinitesimal stove.

She found herself alone, for the other women were away on various errands. She uncovered all the glory of her lovely hair, and in her little mirror surveyed pensively the ragged lock over her left ear.

A man like that, oh, a man like that. What more could a woman ask--than love like that?

Yet even in the midst of her thought of him, came the feeling that she was not predestined for happiness. She must go on riding over rough roads on her errands of mercy. Nothing must interfere with that, not love or matters of personal preference--nothing.

She was very tired. But there was no time for rest. A half dozen kilted Highlanders hailed her through the open door and asked for a song. She gave them "Wee Hoose Amang the Heather--" standing on the step. It was still raining, and they took with them a picture of a girl with glorious uncovered hair, and that cut tell-tale lock against her cheek.

Drusilla watching them go, wondered if she would ever see them again, with their pert caps, the bare knees of them--the strong swing of their bodies.

She stretched her arms above her head. "Oh, oh, I'm tired--"

She went in and poured another cup of tea. She left the door open. Indeed it always stood open that the room might shine its welcome.

Snatching forty winks, she waked to find a woman standing over her--a tall woman in a blue cloak and bonnet, who held in her hand a dripping umbrella.

She felt that she still dreamed. "It can't be Hilda Merritt?"

"Yes, it is." Hilda set the umbrella in the wood box. "I knew you were here."

"Who told you?"

"Dr. McKenzie."

"Oh, you are with him, then?"

"He won't have me. That's why I came to you."

"To me?"

"Yes. I want you to tell him not to--turn me away."

Drusilla showed her bewilderment. "But, surely nothing that I could say would have more weight with him than your own arguments."

"You are his kind. He'd listen. Things that you say count with him."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Well, I've offended him. And he won't forgive me. Not even for the sake of the work. And I'm a good nurse, Miss Gray. But he's as hard as nails. And--and he sent me away."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Drusilla said gently. Hilda was a dark figure of tragedy, as she sat there statuesquely in her blue cloak.

"You could make him see how foolish it is to refuse to have a good worker; men may die whom I could save. He thinks that--those things don't mean anything to me, that I am arguing from a personal standpoint. He wouldn't think that of you."

"I'll do what I can, of course," Drusilla said slowly. She was not sure that she wanted to get into it, but she was sorry for Hilda.

"Won't you have a cup of tea," she said impulsively, "and take off your cloak? I am afraid I haven't seemed a bit hospitable. I was so surprised."

Hilda gave a little laugh. "I'm not used to such courtesies--so I didn't miss it. But I should like the tea, and something to eat with it. I left Dr. McKenzie's hospital early this morning, and I haven't eaten since--I didn't want anything to eat--"

She watched Drusilla curiously as she set forth the food. "It must seem strange to you to live in a room like this."

"I like it."

"But you have always had such an easy life, Miss Gray."

Drusilla smiled. "It may have looked easy to you. But I give you my word that keeping up with the social game is harder than this."

"You say that," Hilda told her crisply, "not because it's true, but because it sounds true. Do you mean to tell me that you like to be muddy and dirty and live in a place like this?"

"Yes, I like it." Something flamed in the back Of Drusilla's eyes. "I like it because it means something, and the other didn't."

"Well, I don't like it," Hilda stated. "But nursing is all I am fit for. I came over with a lot of other nurses, and they tell me at the hospital I am the best of the lot--and in war times you can't afford to miss the experience. But then I am used to a hard life, and you are not."

"Neither are the men in the trenches used to it. That's the standard I apply to myself--for every hard thing I am doing, it is ten times harder for them. I wish all the people at home could see how wonderful they are."

"That's Jean McKenzie's word--wonderful. Everything was wonderful, and now she has married Derry Drake."

"Yes, she has married Derry," Drusilla stood staring into the little round stove.

She roused herself presently. "I call them Babes in the Wood. They seem so young, and yet Derry isn't really young--it is only that there's such a radiant air about him."

Hilda's bitterness broke forth. "Why shouldn't he be radiant? Life has given him everything. It has given her everything; in a way it has given you everything. I am the one who goes without--it looks as if I should always go without the things I want."

"Don't think that," Drusilla said in her pleasant fashion. "Nobody is set apart--and some day you will see it. Did you know that Derry may be over now at any time, and that Jean is to stay with the General?"

"Yes," Hilda moved restlessly. There came to her a vision of the big house, of the shadowed room, of the room beyond, and of herself in a tiara, with ermine on her cloak.

What a dream it had been, and she had waked to this!

She rose. "If Dr. McKenzie doesn't take me back he may be sorry. Will you write to him?"

"I shall see him Saturday--in Paris. I have promised to dine with him. Captain Hewes is coming, too, if he can."

Hilda, going away in the rain, dwelt moodily on Drusilla's opportunities. If only she, too, might dine in Paris with men like Dr. McKenzie and Captain Hewes. There were indeed, men who might ask her to dine with them, but not as Drusilla had been asked, as an equal and as a friend.

The way was long, the road was muddy. There was not much to look towards at the end. It was not that she minded the dreadfulness of sights and sounds--she had been too much in hospitals for that. But she hated the ugliness, the roughness, the grinding toil.

Yet had she been with Dr. McKenzie, she would have toiled gladly for him. There would have been the sight of his crinkled copper head, the sound of his voice, his teasing laugh to sustain her. And now it was Drusilla who would see him, who would sit with him at the table, who would tempt his teasing laugh.

Well--if he didn't take her back, he would be sorry. There had been a patient in the hospital who in his delirium had whispered things. When he had come to himself, she had told him calmly, "You are a spy." He had not whitened, but had measured her with a glance. "Help me, and you shall see the Emperor. There will be nothing too good for you."

Drusilla, after Hilda's departure, sat by her little stove and thought it over. She divined something which did not appear on the surface. She was glad that she had promised to plead Hilda's cause. The woman's face haunted her.

And now the other workers who shared Drusilla's shack returned, bringing news of many wounded and on the way. Then came the darkness of the night, the long line of ambulances, the ghastly procession that trailed behind.

And all through the night Drusilla sang to men who rested for a moment on their weary way, out of the shadows came eager voices asking for this song and that--then they would pass on, and she would throw herself down for a little sleep, to rouse again and lift her voice, while the other women poured the coffee.

She was hoarse in the morning, and white with fatigue, but when one of the women said, "You can't keep this up, Drusilla, you can't stand it," she smiled. "They stand it is the trenches, and some of them are so tired."

She was as fresh as paint, however, on Saturday, when she met Dr. McKenzie in Paris. "I have had two hot baths, and all my clothes are starched and ironed and fluted by an adorable Frenchwoman who opened her house for me," she announced as she sat down with him at a corner table. "I never wore fluted things before, but you can't imagine how civilizing it is after you've been letting yourself down."

The Doctor was tired, and he looked it. "No one has starched and fluted me."

"Poor man. I'm glad you ran away from it all for a minute with me. Captain Hewes thought he might be able to come. But I haven't heard from him, have you?"

"No. But he may blow in at any moment. It seems queer, doesn't it, Drusilla, that you and I should be over here with all the rest of them left behind."

She hesitated, then brought it out without prelude. "Hilda came to see me."

"To see you? Why?"

"She is broken-hearted because you won't let her work with you."

"I told her I could not. And she hasn't any heart to break."

"I wonder if you'd mind," Drusilla ventured, "telling me what's the matter."

"A rather squalid story," but he told it. "She wanted to marry the General."

"Poor thing."

He glanced at her in surprise. "Then you defend her?"

"Oh, no--no. But think of having to marry to get the--the fleshpots, and to miss all of the real meanings. I talked to Hilda for a long time, and somehow before she left she made me feel sorry. She wants so much that she will never have. And she will grow hard and bitter because life isn't giving her all that she demands."

"Did she ask you to plead her cause?"

"Yes," frankly. "She feels that you ought to give her another chance."

He ran his fingers through his crinkled hair. "I don't want her. I'm afraid of her."

"Afraid?"

"She sees the worst that is in me, and brings it to the surface. And when I protest, she laughs and insists that I don't know myself. That I am a sort of Dr. Jekyll, with the Mr. Hyde part of me asleep--"

"And you let her scare you like that?"

He nodded. "Every man has a weak spot, and mine is wanting the world to think well of me."

"Think well of yourself. What would Jean say if she heard you talking like this?"

"Jean?" she was startled by the breaking up of his face into deep lines of trouble. "Do you know what she is doing, Drusilla? She is staying in that great old house playing daughter to the General."

"Marion says the General's affection for her is touching--he doesn't want her out of his sight."

"And because he doesn't want her out of his sight, she must stay a prisoner. I say that he hasn't done anything to deserve such devotion, Drusilla. He hasn't done anything to deserve it."

"You are jealous."

"No. It isn't that. Though I'll confess that something pulls at my heart when I think of it--. But I want her to be happy."

"I think she is happy. Life is giving her the hard things--but you and I would not be without the--hard things; we have reached out our hands for them, because the world needs us. Are you going to deny your daughter that?"

"Oh, I suppose not. But I hate it. Women ought to be happy--care-free, not shut up in sick rooms or running around in the rain."

"Oh, you men, how little you know what makes a woman happy." She stopped, and half rose from her chair. "Captain Hewes is coming."

"I don't know that I am glad, Drusilla," the Doctor turned to survey the beaming officer, "for now you won't have eyes or ears for me."

But she was glad.

While the Captain held her hand in his as if he would never let her go, she told him about being fluted and starched. "I don't look as dishevelled as I did the other day."

"You looked beautiful the other day," he assured her with fervor, "but this is better, because you are rested and some of the sadness has gone out of your eyes."

Dr. McKenzie watched them enviously, "I realize," he reminded them, "that I am the fifth wheel, or any other superfluous thing, but you can't get rid of me. I am homesick--somebody's got to cheer me up."

"We don't want to get rid of you," Drusilla told him, smiling.

But he knew that her loveliness was all for the Captain. She was lighted up by the presence of her betrothed, made exquisite, softer, more womanly. Love had come slowly to Drusilla, but it had come at last.

When the Doctor left them, he was in a daze of loneliness. He wanted Jean, he wanted sympathy, understanding, good-comradeship.

For just one little moment temptation assailed him. There was of course, Hilda. She would bring with her the atmosphere of familiar things which he craved. There would be the easy give and take of speech which was such a relief after his professional manner, there would be his own teasing sense of how much she wanted, and of how little he had to give. There would be, too, the stimulus to his vanity.

A broken-hearted Hilda, Drusilla had said. There was something provocative in the situation--elements of drama. Why not?

He thought about it that night when once more back at his work he and his head nurse discussed a case of shell shock--a pitiful case of fear, loss of memory, complete prostration.

The nurse was a plain little thing, very competent, very quiet. She was, perhaps, no more competent than Hilda in the mechanics of her profession, but she had qualities which Hilda lacked. She was not very young, and there were younger nurses under her. Yet in spite of her plainness and quietness, she wielded an influence which was remarkable. The whole hospital force was feeling the effect of that influence. It was as if every nurse had in some rather high and special way dedicated herself--as nuns might to the conventual life, or sisters of charity to the service of the poor. There was indeed a heroic aspect to it, a spiritual aspect, and this plain little woman was setting the pace.

And Hilda, coming in, would spoil it all. Oh, he knew how she would spoil it. With her mocking laugh, her warped judgments, her skeptical point of view.

No, he did not want Hilda. The best in him did not want her, and please God, he was giving his best to this cause. However he might fail in other things, he would not fail in his high duty towards the men who came out of battle shattered and broken, holding up their hands to him for help.

"I am going to let Miss Shelby have the case," the plain little nurse was saying, "when he begins to come back. She will give him what he needs. She is so strong and young, so sure of the eternal rightness of things--and she's got to make him sure."

The Doctor nodded. "Some of us are not sure--"

She agreed gravely. "But we are learning to be sure, aren't we, over here? Don't you feel that all the things you have ever done are little compared to this? That men and women are better and bigger than you have believed?"

"If anyone could make me feel it," he said, "it would be you."

When she had gone, he wrote letters.

He wrote to Jean--he wrote every day to Jean.

He wrote to Hilda.

"You are splendidly fitted for just the thing that you are doing. Men come and go and you care for their wounds. But we have to care here for more than men's bodies, we care for their minds and souls--we piece them together, as it were. And we need women who believe that God's in his Heaven. And you don't believe it, Hilda. I fancy that you see in every man his particular devil, and like to lure it out for him to look at--"

He stopped there. He could see her reading what he had written. She would laugh a little, and write back:

"Are you any better than I? If I am too black to herd with the white sheep, what of you; aren't you tarred with the same brush--?"

He tore up the letter and sent a brief note. Why explain what he was feeling to Hilda? She was of those who would never know nor understand.

And he felt the need tonight of understanding--of sympathy.

And so he wrote to Emily.

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