Crowned with Glory and Honor by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
Mists blew about the mountains across the river, and over West Point hung a raw fog. Some of the officers who stood with bared heads by the heap of earth and the hole in the ground shivered a little. The young Chaplain read, solemnly, the solemn and grand words of the service, and the evenness of his voice was unnatural enough to show deep feeling. He remembered how, a year before, he had seen the hero of this scene playing football on just such a day, tumbling about and shouting, his hair wild and matted and his face filled with fresh color. Such a mere boy he was, concerned over the question as to where he could hide his contraband dress boots, excited by an invitation to dine out Saturday night. The dear young chap! There were tears in the Chaplain's eyes as he thought of little courtesies to himself, of little generosities to other cadets, of a manly and honest heart shown everywhere that character may show in the guarded life of the nation's schoolboys.
The sympathetic, ringing voice stopped, and he watched the quick, dreadful, necessary work of the men at the grave, and then his sad eyes wandered pitifully over the rows of boyish faces where the cadets stood. Just such a child as those, thought the Chaplain--himself but a few years older--no history; no life, as we know life; no love, and what was life without--you may see that the Chaplain was young; the poor boy was taken from these quiet ways and sent direct on the fire-lit stage of history, and in the turn, behold! he was a hero. The white-robed Chaplain thrilled and his dark eyes flashed. He seemed to see that day; he would give half his life to have seen it--this boy had given all of his. The boy was wounded early, and as the bullets poured death down the hill he crept up it, on hands and knees, leading his men. The strong life in him lasted till he reached the top, and then the last of it pulled him to his feet and he stood and waved and cheered--and fell. But he went up San Juan Hill. After all, he lived. He missed fifty years, perhaps, but he had Santiago. The flag wrapped him, he was the honored dead of the nation. God keep him! The Chaplain turned with a swing and raised his prayer-book to read the committal. The long black box--the boy was very tall--was being lowered gently, tenderly. Suddenly the heroic vision of Santiago vanished and he seemed to see again the rumpled head and the alert, eager, rosy face of the boy playing football--the head that lay there! An iron grip caught his throat, and if a sound had come it would have been a sob. Poor little boy! Poor little hero! To exchange all life's sweetness for that fiery glory! Not to have known the meaning of living--of loving--of being loved!
The beautiful, tender voice rang out again so that each one heard it to the farthest limit of the great crowd--"We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; looking for the general resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come."
* * * * *
An hour later the boy's mother sat in her room at the hotel and opened a tin box of letters, found with his traps, and given her with the rest. She had planned it for this time and had left the box unopened. To-morrow she must take up life and try to carry it, with the boy gone, but to-day she must and would be what is called morbid. She looked over the bend in the river to the white-dotted cemetery--she could tell where lay the new mound, flower-covered, above his yellow head. She looked away quickly and bent over the box in her lap and turned the key. Her own handwriting met her eyes first; all her letters for six months back were there, scattered loosely about the box. She gathered them up, slipping them through her fingers to be sure of the writing. Letter after letter, all hers.
"They were his love-letters," she said to herself. "He never had any others, dear little boy--my dear little boy!"
Underneath were more letters, a package first; quite a lot of them, thirty, fifty--it was hard to guess--held together by a rubber strap. The strap broke as she drew out the first envelope and they fell all about her, some on the floor, but she did not notice it, for the address was in a feminine writing that had a vague familiarity. She stopped a moment, with the envelope in one hand and the fingers of the other hand on the folded paper inside. It felt like a dishonorable thing to do--like prying into the boy's secrets, forcing his confidence; and she had never done that. Yet some one must know whether these papers of his should be burned or kept, and who was there but herself? She drew out the letter. It began "My dearest." The boy's mother stopped short and drew a trembling breath, with a sharp, jealous pain. She had not known. Then she lifted her head and saw the dots of white on the green earth across the bay and her heart grew soft for that other woman to whom he had been "dearest" too, who must suffer this sorrow of losing him too. But she could not read her letters, she must send them, take them to her, and tell her that his mother had held them sacred. She turned to the signature.
"And so you must believe, darling, that I am and always will be--always, always, with love and kisses, your own dear, little 'Good Queen Bess.'"
It was not the sort of an ending to a letter she would have expected from the girl he loved, for the boy, though most undemonstrative, had been intense and taken his affections seriously always. But one can never tell, and the girl was probably quite young. But who was she? The signature gave no clew; the date was two years before, and from New York--sufficiently vague! She would have to read until she found the thread, and as she read the wonder grew that so flimsy a personality could have held her boy. One letter, two, three, six, and yet no sign to identify the writer. She wrote first from New York on the point of starting for a long stay abroad, and the other letters were all from different places on the other side. Once in awhile a familiar name cropped up, but never to give any clew. There were plenty of people whom she called by their Christian names, but that helped nothing. And often she referred to their engagement--to their marriage to come. It was hard for the boy's mother, who believed she had had his confidence. But there was one letter from Vienna that made her lighter-hearted as to that.
"My dear sweet darling," it began, "I haven't written you very often from here, but then I don't believe you know the difference, for you never scold at all, even if I'm ever so long in writing. And as for you, you rascal, you write less and less, and shorter and shorter. If I didn't know for certain--but then, of course, you love me? Don't you, you dearest boy? Of course you do, and who wouldn't? Now don't think I'm really so conceited as that, for I only mean it in joke, but in earnest, I might think it if I let myself, for they make such a fuss over me here--you never saw anything like it! The Prince von H---- told Mamma yesterday I was the prettiest girl who had been here in ten years--what do you think of that, sir? The officers are as thick as bees wherever I go, and I ride with them and dance with them and am having just the loveliest time! You don't mind that, do you, darling, even if we are engaged? Oh, about telling your mother--no, sir, you just cannot! You've begged me all along to do that, but you might as well stop, for I won't. You write more about that than anything else, it seems to me, and I'll believe soon you are more in love with your mother than with me. So take care! Remember, you promised that night at the hop at West Point--what centuries ago it seems, and it was a year and a half!--that you would not tell a living soul, not even your mother, until I said so. You see, it might get out and--oh, what's the use of fussing? It might spoil all my good time, and though I'm just as devoted as ever, and as much in love, you big, handsome thing--yes, just exactly!--still, I want to have a good time. Why shouldn't I? As the Prince would say, I'm pretty enough--but that's nonsense, of course."
The letter was signed like all the others "Good Queen Bess," a foolish enough name for a girl to call herself, the boy's mother thought, a touch contemptuously. She sat several minutes with that letter in her hand.
"I'll believe soon that you are more in love with your mother than you are with me"--that soothed the sore spot in her heart wonderfully. Wasn't it so, perhaps. It seemed to her that the boy had fallen into this affair suddenly, impulsively, without realizing its meaning, and that his loyalty had held him fast, after the glamour was gone. And perhaps the girl, too. For the boy had much besides himself, and there were girls who might think of that.
The next letter went far to confirm this theory.
"Of course I don't want to break our engagement," the girl wrote. "What makes you ask such a question? I fully expect to marry you some day, of course, when I have had my little 'fling,' and I should just go crazy if I thought you didn't love me as much as always. You would if you saw me, for they all say I'm prettier than ever. You don't want to break the engagement, do you? Please, please, don't say so, for I couldn't bear it."
And in the next few lines she mentioned herself by name. It was a well-known name to the boy's mother, that of the daughter of a cousin with whom she had never been over-intimate. She had had notes from the girl a few times, once or twice from abroad, which accounted for the familiarity of the writing. So she gathered the letters together, the last one dated only a month before, and put them one side to send back.
"She will soon get over it," she said, and sighed as she turned to the papers still left in the bottom of the box. There were only a few, a thin packet of six or eight, and one lying separate. She slipped the rubber band from the packet and looked hard at the irregular, strong writing, woman's or man's, it was hard to say which. Then she spread out the envelopes and took them in order by the postmarks. The first was a little note, thanking him for a book, a few lines of clever nothing signed by a woman's name which she had never heard.
* * * * *
"My dear Mr. ----," it ran. "Indeed you did get ahead of 'all the others' in sending me 'The Gentleman from Indiana,' So far ahead that the next man in the procession is not even in sight yet. I hate to tell you that, but honesty demands it. I have taken just one sidewise peep at 'The Gentleman'--and like his looks immensely--but to-morrow night I am going to pretend I have a headache and stay home from the concert where the family are going, and turn cannibal and devour him. I hope nothing will interrupt me. Unless--I wonder if you are conceited enough to imagine what is one of the very few things I would like to have interrupt me? After that bit of boldness I think I must stop writing to you. I mean it just the same. And thanking you a thousand times again, I am,
There were four or five more of this sort, sometimes only a day or two, sometimes a month apart; always with some definite reason for the writing, flowers or books to thank him for, a walk to arrange, an invitation to dinner. Charming, bright, friendly notes, with the happy atmosphere of a perfect understanding between them, of mutual interests and common enthusiasms.
"She was very different from the other," the boy's mother sighed, as she took up an unread letter--there were but two more. There was no harm in reading such letters as these, she thought with relief, and noticed as she drew the paper from the envelope that the postmark was two months later.
"You want me to write once that I love you"--that is the way it began.
The woman who read dropped it suddenly as if it had burned her. Was it possible? Her light-hearted boy, whose short life she had been so sure had held nothing but a boy's, almost a child's, joys and sorrows! The other affair was surprise enough, and a sad surprise, yet after all it had not touched him deeply, she felt certain of that; but this was another question. She knew instinctively that if love had grown from such a solid foundation as this sweet and happy and reasonable friendship with this girl, whose warm heart and deep soul shone through her clear and simple words, it would be a different love from anything that other poor, flimsy child could inspire. "L'amitie, c'est l'amour sans ailes." But sometimes when men and women have let the quiet, safe god Friendship fold his arms gently around them, he spreads suddenly a pair of sinning wings and carries them off--to heaven--wherever he wills it, and only then they see that he is not Friendship, but Love.
She picked up the letter again and read on:
"You want me to write once that I love you, so that you may read it with your eyes, if you may not hear it with your ears. Is that it--is that what you want, dear? Which question is a foolish sort of way for me to waste several drops of ink, considering that your letter is open before me. And your picture just back of it, your brown eyes looking over the edge so eagerly, so actually alive that it seems very foolish to be making signs to you on paper at all. How much simpler just to say half a word and then--then! Only we two can fill up that dash, but we can fill it full, can't we? However, I'm not doing what you want, and--will you not tell yourself, if I tell you something? To do what you want is just the one thing on earth I like most to do. I think you have magnetized me into a jelly-fish, for at times I seem to have no will at all. I believe if you asked me to do the Chinese kotow, and bend to the earth before you, I'd secretly be dying to do it. But I wouldn't, you know, I promise you that. I give you credit for liking a live woman, with a will of her own, better than a jelly-fish. And anyway I wouldn't--if you liked me for it or not--so you see it's no use urging me. And still I haven't done what you want--what was it now? Oh, to tell you that--but the words frighten me, they are so big. That I--I--I--love you. Is it that? I haven't said it yet, remember. I'm only asking a question. Do you know I have an objection to sitting here in cold blood and writing that down in cold ink? If it were only a little dark now, and your shoulder--and I could hide my head--you can't get off for a minute? Ah, I am scribbling along light-heartedly, when all the time the sword of Damocles is hanging over us both, when my next letter may have to be good-by for always. If that fate comes you will find me steady to stand by you, to help you. I will say those three little words, so little and so big, to you once again, and then I will live them by giving up what is dearest to me--that's you, dear--that your 'conduct' may not be 'unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.' You must keep your word. If the worst comes, will you always remember that as an American woman's patriotism. There could be none truer. I could send you marching off to Cuba--and how about that, is it war surely?--with a light heart, knowing that you were giving yourself for a holy cause and going to honor and fame, though perhaps, dear, to a soldier's death. And I would pray for you and remember your splendid strength, and think always of seeing you march home again, and then only your mother could be more proud than I. That would be easy, in comparison. Write me about the war--but, of course, you would not be sent.
"Now here is the very end of my letter, and I haven't yet said it--what you wanted. But here it Is, bend your head, from away up there, and listen. Now--do you hear--I love you. Good-by, good-by, I love you."
The papers rustled softly in the silent room, and the boy's mother, as she put the letter back, kissed it, and it was as if ghostly lips touched hers, for the boy had kissed those words, she knew.
The next was only a note, written just before his sailing to Cuba.
"A fair voyage and a short one, a good fight and a quick one," the note said. "It is my country as well as yours you are going to fight for, and I give you with all my heart. All of it will be with you and all my thoughts, too, every minute of every day, so you need never wonder if I'm thinking of you. And soon the Spaniards will be beaten and you'll be coming home again 'crowned with glory and honor,' and the bands will play fighting music, and the flag will be flying over you, for you, and in all proud America there will be no prouder soul than I--unless it is your mother. Good-by, good-by--God be with you, my very dearest."
He had come home "crowned with glory and honor." And the bands had played martial music for him. But his horse stood riderless by his grave, and the empty cavalry boots hung, top down, from the saddle.
Loose in the bottom of the box lay a folded sheet of paper, and, hidden under it, an envelope, the face side down. When the boy's mother opened the paper, it was his own crabbed, uneven writing that met her eye.
"They say there will be a fight to-morrow," he wrote, "and we're likely to be in it. If I come out right, you will not see this, and I hope I shall, for the world is sweet with you in it. But if I'm hit, then this will go to you. I'm leaving a line for my mother and will enclose this and ask her to send it to you. You must find her and be good to her, if that happens. I want you to know that if I die, my last thought will have been of you, and if I have the chance to do anything worth while, it will be for your sake. I could die happy if I might do even a small thing that would make you proud of me."
The sorrowful woman drew a long, shivering breath as she thought of the magnificent courage of that painful passing up San Juan Hill, wounded, crawling on, with a pluck that the shades of death could not dim. Would she be proud of him?
The line for herself he had never written. There was only the empty envelope lying alone in the box. She turned it in her hand and saw it was addressed to the girl to whom he had been engaged. Slowly it dawned on her that to every appearance this envelope belonged to the letter she had just read, his letter of the night before the battle. She recoiled at the thought--those last sacred words of his, to go to that empty-souled girl! All that she would find in them would be a little fuel for her vanity, while the other--she put her fingers on the irregular, back writing, and felt as if a strong young hand held hers again. She would understand, that other; she had thought of his mother in the stress of her own strongest feeling; she had loved him for himself, not for vanity. This letter was hers, the mother knew it. And yet the envelope, with the other address, had lain just under it, and she had been his promised wife. She could not face her boy in heaven if this last earthly wish of his should go wrong through her. How could she read the boy's mind now? What was right to do?
The twilight fell over Crow Nest, and over the river and the heaped-up mountains that lie about West Point, and in the quiet room the boy's mother sat perplexed, uncertain, his letter in her hands; yet with a vague sense of coming comfort in her heart as she thought of the girl who would surely "find her and be good to her," But across the water, on the hillside, the boy lay quiet.