John Brent/Chapter XXIV

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For the last hour I had ridden close to Brent. I saw that it was almost up with him. He swayed in his saddle. His eye was glazed and dull. But he kept his look fixed on the little group of Laramie Barracks, and let his horse carry him.

I lifted up my heart in prayer that this noble life might not be quenched. He must not die now that he was enlarged and sanctified by truest love.

At last we struck open country. Bill Armstrong’s sorrel took a cradling lope; we rode through a camp of Sioux “tepees,” like so many great white foolscaps; we turned the angle of a great white wooden building, and halted. I sprang from Fulano, Brent quietly drooped down into my arms.

“Just in time,” said a cheerful, manly voice at my ear.

“I hope so,” said I. “Is it Captain Ruby?”

“Yes. We’ll take him into my bed. Dr. Pathie, here’s a patient for you.”

We carried Brent in. As we crossed the veranda, I saw Miss Clitheroe’s meeting with her father. He received her almost peevishly.

We laid the wounded man in Ruby’s hospital bed. Evidently a fine fellow, Ruby; and, what was to the point, fond of John Brent.

Dr. Pathie shook his head.

So surgeons are wont to do when they study sick men. It is a tacit recognition of the dark negative upon which they are to turn the glimmer of their positive, — a recognition of the mystery of being. They are to experiment upon life, and their chief facts are certain vaguish theories why some men die.

The surgeon shook his head. It was a movement of sympathy for the man, as a man. Then he proceeded to consider him as a machine, which it was a surgeon’s business to repair. Ruby and I stood by anxiously, while the skilled craftsman inspected. Was this insensible, but still breathing creature, only panting away the last puffs of his motive power? or was it capable mechanism still?

“Critical case,” said Dr. Pathie, at last. He had great, umbrageous eyebrows, and a gentle, peremptory manner, as of one who had done much merciful cruelty in his day. “Ugly wound. Never saw a worse furrow. Conical ball. He must have been almost at the muzzle of the pistol. He ought not to have stirred for a month. How he has borne such a journey with that arm, I cannot conceive. Strong character, eh? Passionate young fellow? Life means something to him. Well, Nature nominates such men to get into scrapes for other people; she gets them wounded, and drains them of their blood. Lying on their backs is good for them, and so is feeling weak. They take in more emotion than they can assimilate while they are wide awake. They would go frenzied with over-crowded brain, if they were not shut up into themselves sometimes, by sickness or sorrow. There’s not much to do for him. A very neat hand has been at his bandages. Now, if he is a man with a distinct and controlling purpose in his life, — if he has words to say, or deeds, or duties to do, and knows it, — he will hold by his life; if not, not. Keep him quiet. And do not let him see, or hear, or feel the presence of that beautiful young woman. She is not his sister, and she will have too much trouble herself to be a tranquil nurse for him here.”

I left him with his patient, and went out to care for our horses. Ruby, model host, had saved me all trouble.

“I have given Miss Clitheroe my sole guest-chamber,” he said. “She has a lady’s-maid in the brawny person of an Irish corporaless. What a transcendent being she is! I don’t wonder Brent loves her, as I divined he did from what Jake Shamberlain — shrewd fellow Jake — said when he consigned the father to me.”

“I must have a talk with the old gentleman. O, there he is with Armstrong.”

Armstrong was handing him the money-belt. His eyes gleamed as he clutched it.

“Walk off with me a step,” said Ruby, “before you speak to him.”

We strolled off through the Sioux encampment. The warriors, tall fellows with lithe forms, togaed in white blankets, were smoking in a circle. Only the great chiefs were in toggery of old uniforms, blossoming into brass buttons wherever a button could bourgeon. And only the great chiefs resembled frowzy scare-crows. The women, melancholy, as the abused women of barbarians always are, were slouching about at slave work. All greeted Ruby as s friend, with sonorous grunts.

Society, even of Sioux, dwelling under buffalo hide foolscaps, was humane after our journey. The barracks of Laramie, lonely outpost on a bleak plain, were fairly beautiful in their home-like homeliness. Man without a roof is mere chaos.

“Trouble in store, I fear,” said Captain Ruby, “for Mr. Clitheroe and all who care for him.”

“He ought to be at peace at last.”

“He is not. Dr. Pathie says he is a case of Drapetomania.”

“I have heard that outlandish word used to express the tendency — diseased of course — that negroes have to run away from their masters.”

“Mr. Clitheroe is wild to get away from his proper master, namely, himself.”

“A desperate malady! At his age almost fatal.”

“So Pathie says. When a man of Mr. Clitheroe’s age is not at peace within, he goes into war with his circumstances. He cannot conquer them, so he runs away. He has always before him a shadow of a dream of what he might have been, and that ghost drives him and chases him, until it wears him out.”

“Yes; but it is not only the forlorn and disappointed that this pitiable disease attacks. Very rich and prosperous suffer, become drapetomaniacs, sell houses and build new, change neighborhoods, travel furiously, never able to escape from that inevitable companion of a reproaching self.”

“Mr. Clitheroe is chafing to be gone. I start a train for the States to-morrow, — the last chance to travel with escort this season, — a small topographical party going back. He has been for the last few days in a passion of impatience, almost scolding me and your party, his daughter, and circumstances, lest you should not arrive in time for him to go.”

“To go where? What does he intend?”

“He is full of great schemes. I do not know, of course, anything of him except what I have picked up from his communicativeness; but you would suppose him a duke from his talk. He speaks of his old manor-house, — I should know it by sight now, — and says he intends to repurchase it and be a great man again. He is constantly inviting me to share his new splendors. Really, his pictures of life in England will quite spoil me for another winter of cooling my heels in this dismal place, with a scalp on my head and a hundred Sioux looking at it hungrily.”

“He must be deranged by his troubles. I am sure he has no basis for any hopes in England. Sizzum stripped him. He has alienated his friends at home. His daughter is his only friend and guardian, except ourselves.”

“He sprang up when he saw you coming, and was frantic with joy, — not for his daughter’s safety, but because he could start with the train to-morrow. I suppose she is a tested traveller by this time.”

“As thoroughly as any man on the plains.”

“She can go very comfortably in the train. Two or three soldiers’ wives go. Females, I believe; at least their toggery alleges the softer sex, whatever their looks and voices do.”

“The chance is clearly not to be lost. I do not like to part with my fascinating comrade. It was poetry to camp with such a woman. Travel will seem stale henceforth. I wish we could keep her, for Brent’s sake.”

“Poor fellow! Pathie looks very doubtful. You must tell me your story more fully after supper.”

I found Mr. Clitheroe in a panic to be moving. He thanked me in a grand manner for our services. But he seemed willing to avoid me. He could not forget the pang of his disenchantment from Mormonism. I belonged to the dramatis personæ of a period he would willingly banish. He regarded me with a suspicious look, as if he feared again that my coming would break up new illusions as baseless as the old. He was full of large, vague plans. England now; he must be back in England again. His daughter must be reinstated in her place. He treated her coldly enough; but still all his thought seemed to be ambition for her. The money Armstrong had given him, too, seemed to increase his confidence in the future. That was wealth for the moment. Other would come.

Miss Clitheroe had yielded to fatigue. I did not see her that night. In fact, after all the wearing anxiety of our trip, I was glad to lie down on a white buffalo-robe, with the Sybaritic luxury of a pair of clean sheets, and show my gratitude to Ruby by twelve hours’ solid sleep.

A drum-beat awaked me next morning. It was not reveille, it was not breakfast, it was not guard mounting. I sprang up, and looked from the window. How odd it seemed to peer from a window, after the unwindowed wilderness!

The four white-hooded wagons of the little homeward train were ready to start. The drum was calling in the escort. The fifty soldiers of Ruby’s garrison were grouped about, lending a hand to their luckier comrades, homeward bound. Ruby was taking leave of his brother officers. Armstrong stood a little apart with his horses. A busy scene, and busier when some vixenish pack-mule shook heels, and scattered the by-standers into that figure known to packers as the Blazing Star.

Aloof from the crowd, Mr. Clitheroe was striding up and down beside the wagons, with the eager, unobserving tramp of a man concerned with nothing but a morbid purpose of his own. He had bought of some discharged soldier a long military surtout, blue-gray, with a cape. Wearing this, he marched to and fro like a sentry. His thin, gray hair and long, bifid beard gave him a ghastly look; and then he trod his beat as if it were a doom, — as if he were a sentinel over his own last evasive hope.

“Drapetomania!” I thought, “and a hopeless case.”

A knock at my door, and the brawny corporaless summoned me to Miss Clitheroe.

“We are going,” she said. “Take me to him!”

Did she love him?

I braved Dr. Pathie’s displeasure, and led her to the bedside of the lover.

Brent was still in a stupor. We were alone.

She stood looking at him a moment. He was breathing, but unconscious; dead to the outer world and her presence. She stood looking at him, and seeming with her large, solemn eyes to review those scenes of terror and of relief since she had known him. Tears gathered in the brave, quiet eyes.

Suddenly she stooped and kissed his forehead. Then she passionately kissed his lips. She grew to him as if she would interfuse anew that ichor of love into his being.

She turned to me, all crimsoned, but self-possessed.

“I meant you should see me prove my love,” she said. “I am proud of myself for it, — proud of my heart that it can know and love this noblest and tenderest nature. Tell him so. Tell him it is not gratitude, but love. He will know that I could not stay. My life belongs to my father. Where he goes, I must go. What other friend has he than me? I go with my father, but here my heart remains. Tell him so. Please let me write to you. You will not forget your comrade. I owe more than life to you. Do let me keep myself in your memory. I dread my life before me. I will keep you informed of my father’s plans. And when this dearest one is well again, if he remembers me, tell him I love him, and that I parted from him — so.”

She bent again, and kissed him passionately, — then departed, and her tears were on his cheek.