She could not tell whether she ran rapidly or not; but her progress seemed slow, fearfully slow. Presently the firing stopped. Three of the Indians, tomahawk in hand, broke from the trees and recklessly started up the hill after her. They would try to capture her. Heedless of a possible rifle fire from the fort as they came within range, they leaped on her trail.
That was McCullough's opportunity. With a prayer in his heart that God might speed the bullet, he took careful aim. The first half-naked painted demon was nearing the girl with every bound. Two more steps and she would be in his grasp. She heard his feet on the ground; his yell rang in her ear. In spite of herself she started aside and looked around.
McCullough had his opening at last. A rifle shot rang out. She heard the scream of the bullet past her head. The savage threw up his hands, groaned horribly, and pitched forward with a bullet in his breast. Encouraged, she ran a few steps farther. Her foot caught in a forked piece of timber. The other pursuing Indians were near her now. The wood was filled with the enemy holding their fire and watching the mad chase.
"Let no one else fire," called McCullough. "You might hit her. Leave them to me."
These two savages, warned by the fate of the first, were wise enough to keep directly behind the fleeing girl. But, as her foot caught, she plunged sideways to extricate herself, leaving the shoe with its glittering silver buckle in the obstruction. That one second was enough for McCullough again. Once more the unerring rifle cracked and the second Indian fell.
Elizabeth, recovering her wits, ran sideways now. The third Indian, attracted by the shining buckle, stooped for a moment to pick it up. McCullough fired a third rifle, which some one put into his hand. The bullet shattered the Indian's arm. With a cry of pain and rage, his other hand dropped down toward the lost slipper, and this time a bullet from a fourth rifle found his heart.
The woods were ringed with fire now, but the girl was saved. When he saw that she had arrived at the fort gate, McCullough ran from the block-house and reached the entrance in time to catch her in his arms. Her poor little Philadelphia finery was red with blood from the wound in her neck, and her sweet young face was covered with the same gory embroidery.
She dropped the powder at the feet of the colonel and fainted in McCullough's arms, his own face scarcely less white than hers. One agonizing glance he gave to assure himself that her wounds were but slight ones, and he had to leave her to the women, for he was called to the walls.
While some of the women revived the girl, others, by Colonel Sheppard's directions, broke open the precious keg of powder and served it to the men. Those who could do so, took their places, rifle in hand, on the stockade; for the Indians and rangers now came out into the open. Carrying a great log, the Indians dashed recklessly at the fort, endeavoring to batter in the gate, while they kept down the fire of the defenders by the rapidity of their own discharge. They reached the gate and hammered on it with their ram; but the gallant little band within the walls, with their women helpers behind them, poured such a fire upon them that after heavy loss they retreated out of range, disheartened by their failure.
The next morning brought Colonel Swearingen and his militia levies, and at his approach the besiegers gave over the attempt and withdrew. The post was saved with the women and children. Elizabeth and McCullough were the heroes of the occasion.
"How could you do it?" asked Hugh of the girl, as they wandered together by the river that evening.
"I did it for you, dear," she answered.
"No, not only for me, but for the women and children; you thought of them?"
"Oh, yes; but I thought more of you than of the others, all the time. I knew you'd save me, Hugh. I was sure you would not let them take me. 'Twas your rifle – "
"Nay, dearest, 'twas your shoe." He took it fondly from his coat and kissed it. "This little shoe that turned you aside and gave me an opening. God forbid I should ever have to do such shooting again, dearest."
"Amen, Hugh, and yet He guided the bullets, I think."
"Yes, truly. And I never dreamed that you were such a heroine, Elizabeth. Where did you learn it? Not in Philadelphia, I am sure."
"No, Hugh, there is but one school in which they teach those things."
"And that is the school of – "
"Love," she whispered, hiding her head in his breast.
"Oh, a strange hand writes for our dear son – O stricken mother's soul!
All swims before her eyes – flashes with black – she catches the main words only;
Sentences broken – 'gun-shot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital;
At present low, but will soon be better.'"
Among the most devoted of my parishioners was a certain Mrs. Allen, – devoted to the Church, of course, that is; although, if I may judge from her actions, I think she held me personally in high esteem as well. When I became acquainted with her she was a widow with one son. Other children, girls, had been born to her I learned afterward, but she had lost them in their early childhood; and, after the death of her husband, who had been a major in the marine corps of the United States navy, her life had been entirely devoted to this son, in whom her heart was so wrapped up that she fairly worshipped him.
She was a gentle, quiet, retiring little woman, sad-faced and inclined to melancholy when George, her son, was not with her. He was a hearty, healthy lad, abounding in strength and spirits, full of fun and mischief, but never vicious, and he certainly adored her with a genuine enthusiasm. His mother seemed actually to bask in the sunshine of his presence, and when they were together she was a different woman.
When I first knew them the boy had just been given an appointment at Annapolis; and though he graduated at the head of his class and should naturally have gone into the line of the navy, he had followed the family tradition by electing to serve in the marine corps, as his father and grandfather before him had done. He had risen to the grade of first lieutenant, and was one of the officers of the little band of United States marines who formed the Legation guard in Pekin during the terrible summer of 1900. I well remember the fearful anxiety and yet the superhuman resolution with which Mrs. Allen confronted those days of silence and suspense.
Sadly enough, among the first messages which got through from the besieged ministers was one announcing the death of her son. I was with her, of course, immediately upon the receipt of the news. Her grief was as silent as it was terrible. She made no complaint. The blow just struck her down. Her heart was affected in some way, and Dr. Taylor informed me, and I, in turn, told her that her days were numbered. I felt that it was best that she should know it. Now that her son had been taken, the desire to live left her, and she was almost happy in the thought that a short time – a month or two at most, the doctor said – would unite them again.
A few days after the receipt of the first bad news, freedom of communication having been restored meanwhile, the report of George's death was contradicted. Some one had blundered in the first message, and things were in such a state we could never find out who. He had been desperately wounded, they said, but would recover.
His mother brightened under this encouraging news. There was a faint rally and some improvement in her condition, but nothing of a permanent character. She realized the situation fully, but she summoned all her resolution and determination to her assistance and told me that she could not die until she had seen her son again. Dr. Taylor thought that probably she might survive under the inspiration of her devotion until the boy, about whom we continued to receive favorable reports, should come home again.
So she lingered through the summer, struggling, anxious, hopeful, determined. I happened to be with her on the eventful day when she received his first letter. The joy with which she took it from me and tore it open with her white, feeble, trembling hands was almost painful to witness. I felt as if I were intruding upon a meeting; but her blank look of astonishment changing to regret, and then to bitter disappointment, even anguish, as she mastered its contents was surprising.
"I have lost my boy," she said, with trembling lips, after a while, as she handed me the letter.
"What?" I cried.
"Oh, no; he is getting better and is coming back. I do not mean that; but – but – he is going to be married. Read it yourself."
Why, it was a letter to make any woman's heart proud, I thought, and I said so. There were sober words of thanksgiving to God that his life had been spared; a modest expression of satisfaction in the promotion to a captaincy, which had come to him for his splendid courage during the siege, notably when he led the attack on the sand-bag fort on the wall, where he was wounded; and lots of love for his mother. That was not all, though. He had been a demonstrative boy always, I suppose; he had lavished affectionate endearments upon her, and she had been first in his heart; but now – ah, there was the rub.
I realized, as I reflected on the situation, that I was only a man, and that no man had ever fathomed the subtle depths of a woman's – a mother's – heart. It was as she had said; he was going to be married. I must admit that nine-tenths of the letter was filled with descriptions of the young woman to whom he had plighted his troth. He sang her praises with the blindness of youth and the ardor of manhood.
They had met for the first time during the siege. She had been a belated traveller who had been caught in the Boxer uprising, and had been forced to take shelter in the Legation. She had shown herself to be a heroine, of course. Everybody was heroic in those days. We all expected they would be, and they were. After George had been wounded she had nursed him back to life and won her way into his heart in the process. It was all quite natural, certainly, and very romantic. She was coming back with him. They were to be married by one of the missionaries in the Legation, where the romance had begun, as soon as he was able to stand it, and he hoped soon to present to his mother a new daughter, who was "the best, the sweetest, the noblest little woman in the world, and whom I love and adore with all my heart," and so on until the end of the letter.
I thought myself that he might have spared her a little of that; and, as I watched Mrs. Allen's face and tried to talk to comfort her, I began to have a dim realization of what a shock it was. That boy had been everything to her, as I said, and she to him. She had always been first in his affection and he in hers. Alone in the world, the two had grown up together. Now that his life was spared, she confronted the fact that she was called upon to share him with another woman.
Oh, the bitterness of jealousy in old age! It was there. Oh, the hopeless feeling that comes over a mother when she realizes that, in a certain sense, she is supplanted! I saw it in the white face, the pressed lips, the trembling hands of the stricken woman leaning back in the chair before me. It matters not that it is the usual course of life; that did not make it easier for her. Other mothers had to bear such things, we both knew, but now it seemed different.
Well, I comforted her as best I could, said all things possible before I left her, but to little purpose, I fear. The next day she was dead. The second shock had been too much for her. I was with her when she passed away. When I came into the room I noticed that the table by her bed was covered with a pile of common red-backed blank books, which I had never seen before.
"Sonny Boy!" – that's what she called him; in spite of the fact that he was a great big fellow, and as manly as a soldier should be, he was always in her heart what he had been as a child – "Sonny Boy's diary," she whispered to me; "I want you to take them – keep them until he comes home and then give them to him. And I want you to read them, too, so that you may know – and – and – sympathize."
Sympathize with whom? I wondered. With George or with her? Ah, I soon found out. I thought she had gone after the prayers had been said, she lay on the bed so still and quiet. But she opened her eyes presently and whispered brokenly in the silence, —
"Tell him – I love him better than – than – any one in the whole world – will – ever – love him – Sonny – Boy."
After that her eyes remained open until I closed them.
I took the books home, and the evening of the day of the funeral I sat down to read them. It was late at night, or rather early in the morning, when I finished them, and then I did something for which my conscience has troubled me ever since.
I wish that I could tell you all that was in those little worn blank books. Every word of them had been written by her own hand. She began with his birth, the first entry being made as soon as she was able to hold a pen. She chronicled religiously every event that bore even the remotest relation to the boy. You could see how he grew into her life, how he became a part of it, and, finally, as the years passed by, all of it. There was nothing that he did or said which was not noted. His most trivial actions, his most unimportant words, were all faithfully set down and commented upon. In those books was the history of the development of a human being, – nay, the development of a great passion as well.
As he grew older, and his mother lost successively his father and the two little girls, it was easy to see how the boy became more and more to her. The entries were longer and more connected, – more coherent, I should say. There were whole pages filled with her speculations concerning him. She set down the ambitions she had cherished for his work, the hopes born in her heart for his future, her dreams of his achievements that were to be; she quoted freely from his letters when he was away at school. She inserted photographs of him in all stages of development. She wrote out the prayers she made for his welfare.
The entries abounded with expressions of her ever-growing, absorbing love for him. Yes, and when he had his boyish flirtations and had evidently written to her about charming girls he had met, the jealousy of a mother's heart spoke in her comments. It was quite evident to me as I read on, absorbed in it all, that she would never be able to bear the idea of any one coming between her and that lad. How she rejoiced in his successes and love for her! There were troubles, too, – illnesses, scrapes; but her love never wavered, and things always seemed to come right in the end.
I could see that the keeping of that diary had become a passion with her. She confessed herself to it as a devotee might to some spiritual adviser. She poured out her heart on those pages which no living eye but mine had ever seen, I verily believe. She was absolutely true; entirely frank. The book was a self-revelation, all unconscious. I could see the ennobling effect of that great passion. She grew greater as I read on and on. A soul was laid bare in the written pages. I seemed to be treading on hallowed ground as I tenderly turned the faded leaves. No one could ever have spoken aloud as she wrote. It's not in nature to do so. It was her secret heart, her most sacred feelings, her inmost soul that lived and vibrated in the silent letters. I seemed to be looking upon things not meant for mortal eyes.
And through it all there was a note of depreciation. Was she, could she, be worthy of him? Oh, the sweetness of the humility of a mother!
But I cannot linger to tell all the story, all I read, all I divined. At last came the entries of the present year. When he had gone away she had sworn she would be brave. He was a soldier, he must do his duty and uphold the honored name of his father; but, oh, the anxiety of it all! I could see that it had almost killed her; yet she had kept up under the dreadful strain until the news of his death came.
I am not ashamed to say that I put the book down and cried like a baby when I read what she had written. Broken-hearted sentences, bits of prayer, words of Scripture, "Oh, Absalom, my son, my son!" Tears on the pages. The leaves were alive with her words. As I said, they spoke as no human voice could have spoken. They told a tale which humanity could not have revealed. And her heart was broken.
Then came the entry on the day when I had told her she was doomed. The subdued joy with which she heard the news, with which she looked forward to the prospect of a speedy meeting, was quite evident. One phrase struck me on that page:
"The work of years is over; I lay down the pen," she had written. "Sonny Boy" – she never failed to use that title; she clung to it the more tenaciously as he grew older; it seemed very sweet to me – "is gone and I am going, thank God! In death as in life we will be together. 'The book may close over' and be opened no more. He cannot return to me, but I shall go to him. I shall write no more. I have left directions that this story of a life – or two lives, his and mine – shall be burned when I am gone to meet Sonny Boy."
But on the next page the entries began again. She had taken up her wonted life-long task once more when she found that he was living. Curiously enough, while there was joy in the pages now, I seemed to read in them more of regret – in spite of herself. The doom written against her could not be revoked. Yet the conditions were changed. She had to look forward to a long parting instead of an eternal meeting, and it hurt her. Yet she must live until he came back. I saw it was her will power alone that kept her up. She must see him again before she went out into the dark, or the light rather, to wait for him.
So, in a hand that grew more feeble from day to day, she jotted down her hopes and longings for her son. How much the trembling letters told of her growing weakness! how different were the characters from the bold, flowing, graceful writing of the beginning!
Finally I came to the entry – the last – on the day she had received the news of his approaching marriage. Oh, the anguish that ran through the written words! They seemed to gasp out her grief from the page; sometimes I could scarcely decipher them. I turned back to the entry following the report of his death, and I declare it was no more heart-broken. Another woman had come between them. With unconscious cruelty, in that fatal letter George had told her over and over again how much he loved the woman he was about to marry. She could not get away from it. Innocently enough, he had given her to understand that he loved the girl more than all the world. Thoughtlessly he plunged this dagger into his gentle mother's heart.
I didn't blame him for his feelings. He could not help them; and, as I said, it was human nature anyway. The experience is common to every mother in greater or less degree. She had to expect it, or she ought to have done so. Still, I did wish he had not been quite so enthusiastic; not that it would have made much difference, for it was the fact that killed. His mother had intuition enough, she loved him enough to divine the truth through any reticence.
"I can't bear it," I read, "to know that I have no longer the first place, that another woman is nearer to him than I. To feel that the first of his love is given to a stranger! The best of his heart is hers! Who is she? What right had she to come between us? What has she done for him compared to me? Ever since he was first put in my arms, ever since I heard him cry the first time after the awful pain and anguish of deliverance, he has been mine! Mine! Mine! And she has taken him! Oh, God, pity me! I cannot give him up and live! He must not bring her here. I shall never like her! I hate her! I do not believe she is – Oh, how wicked I am! And he will be so happy while I suffer! I'm glad he will be happy – but it kills me. Thank God! it will not be for long. I don't want to see her. Pity me, my Saviour! You had a mother! I am an old, lonely, dying woman. Mercy, mercy! I don't want to see him – either – that I should write it – my son! with a light in his eyes and love in his voice for another woman. I shall die now. Perhaps I may find comfort then. But I shall never forget. He wrote about her on seven pages of his letter, and one was enough for me. Oh, Sonny Boy, to lose you, to – your little old mother is breaking her heart! Be assured of one thing, my son, I love you and I have loved you better than any one in the whole world will ever love you" – these were the words she had whispered to me on her death-bed – "no matter how much joy you may have, how much happiness, no matter where you may go, whom you may meet, what they may say, no one in this world will ever love you as I have. No one will ever think of you as your mother."
That was all. And I'm afraid it was true.
"There is none
In all this cold and hollow world, no fount
Of deep, strong, deathless love, save that within
A mother's heart."
I sat there in the gray of the morning with the open book in my hand. She had told me to give the volumes to George when he returned, and I could not – if I desired to do so – disregard her wish; yet to lay before him the sorrow, the regret, the sadness of that last entry: to leave with him that final thought of his mother, to cloud his wedded life with a suspicion which I knew he could never dispel, that his joy had been her death, his marriage had broken her heart – I could not do it! Still, to withhold from that boy the last words of his mother – it did not seem right!
What did I do? you ask. Well, with a horribly guilty feeling, I cut the last leaf containing those terribly piteous words out of the diary. I did it carefully so that he would never know that anything had been taken away. I felt like a thief all the time, somehow.
I did not destroy the leaf. I could not do so. I put it away carefully with my other treasures, and when George came home with his sweet, beautiful young wife, – and I thanked God he had her to help him bear his unfeigned sorrow at the loss of his mother, – I gave him the diary without the missing leaf; and her last message to him, as I delivered it, was one simply of love and blessing. And I almost felt as if his mother thanked me for it. I hope so.
I take out that missing leaf sometimes when I am alone in my study, and read it over and wonder whether, after all, I did right or not.