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"I hope so, general,” I said. "How many men will you leave me ?"
"Your own hundred devils," he said. By that he meant the cavalry squadron that I commanded.
"Very well, sir. Then until we meet."
"In the capital," he said, and rode away.
That was how I became a South American dictator. I ruled one sleepy town and a hundred of tired cavalrymen, with whom I was to hold it against the enemy, until such a time as my general might call upon me to render my account. But there was no fighting. We paraded in the morning, and in the afternoons my soldiery slept and gambled while I attended to affairs of state. It was hugely enjoyable, and what with one thing and another, I did not think very much. At least, not about my home, and the girl to whom I was so eternally pledged. Yes, my friend, if you like, I forgot her. There was no one else. The palms gently swaying beside the breaking combers on the beach, the soft nights coming after so long and hard a campaign with their breath of rest and peace, these were seduction enough. I was victorious and happy, especially after the news came back to us that our general was indeed drinking his wine in the plaza of the capital city as he had promised, and that we had thus conquered. But the new government was not yet proclaimed. The troops of the old one were still in the field, and there was a little more work to be done. Thus I remained a local emperor, and I will say that never did an emperor have more docile subjects than mine, in that little town of peace and plenty.
And then one evening I stepped out of my house into the broad square. A rifle cracked behind a corner, and I was standing, looking stupidly at the blood running from my left shoulder. The bullet had just grazed me. In South America, my friend, that means but one thing. I ran back into the courtyard, found my bugler, and ordered the assembly. The men fell in beneath the cathedral, as the dusk was coming on. Most of them knew by that time; the rumor had flown through the town that a battle had been lost and that our provisional government had fallen. The capital was a hundred miles away, and our general was there fighting for his life. We rode out at a trot.
That was a ride! Through the warm night air, and the rank odors of a tropical lowland, up the winding road onto the ridge behind the town, where it lay spread out on our right hand with the lights glowing like these down here, then still on into the hills quiet under the stars. The hoofs clattered and clattered eternally. Somewhere, at about midnight, a man came out of a cabin and shouted to us. Then we halted in the early morning for an hour or two, and after that went on again. The sun rose, and was burning hot, but we galloped forward. I do not remember very well what I was thinking during that mad day. We had little water, and the dust and heat were stifling, but worse than that, the wretched sense of defeat hung over us. Defeat, after all our effort; defeat, in the very instant of success! We went on, and still on...
The evening was again falling when we came out on the hills above the capital. You must know that just where the road turns down to the main city-gate, there stands an old Cistercian monastery. It was by the building that we drew rein. The men were exhausted, and we had to pause before going into battle. We dismounted, and in doing so I pulled my shoulder, so that the scratch I had received began to bleed again, but I did not notice for the moment. I looked.
Ah, that was an evening! Behind us the sun was sinking into the western hills and spreading down over the slopes and the town roofs and the great broad purple sea beyond a light more glorious than anything you have ever dreamed-far, far more beautiful than this we saw just now. A splash of gold lay on the massive old stone gate, and the long shadows ran out before us, beckoning us on, while the sound of the rifles came up in sudden faint rattling waves, mingled with the far-away cheering of men. It was the last moment of all our hopes, the great coming of a defeat that we knew we could not avert, and to me, with that soul of mine, it seemed infinitely sad. And then the bells of the monastery suddenly pealed out above our heads, and from the cathedral and the churches of the town peal upon peal came back in answer, until that marvellous soft garment of sound lay over all the evening and the battle and our own broken hopes.
"My son, you are wounded." A friar was standing beside me.
"It is nothing," I said hastily. "We are only resting here a moment. It is no matter." But I saw how it was bleeding, and it was then that I foolishly tried to staunch it with my lips.
"Let me do it." He had brought a bandage and he tied up the place. "My son," he said again, "you are very young, and a foreigner. What brings you into this fighting?"
And then, if you will believe me, there in the face of failure, I thought for the first time of just what had brought me into it. The girl I had forgotten; but I would not admit that to myself; all my nonsense of eternal love and eternal honor and the rest of it came back to me. I was still a boy, and still tremendously serious with life.
"Father, I came, I think, to prove myself. This is the result. It has not seemed to have been of much use.' "To prove yourself, my son?"
"Yes. Worthy of a certain love. You will not understand." He smiled very wisely indeed. "And now?" he asked. "Now I shall go down there and do what I can to help my broken cause away. I shall probably be killed."
"My son, I think that you are very foolish. You came for a mere nothing, a fancy out of vain story books. But you have found life indeed. Any man who can go down to his death with that light-heartedness has found the sum of life, I think."
And then I looked at him a little stupidly. Was this why I had really forgotten the girl and my heroics about her?
"Do you hear the bells, then?" he said. "There is the Church Eternal speaking. What are little things like defeats and broken love-vows and all of that to her? She lives-and so, I think, have you learned to live, and smile with her at such trifles."
I looked at him, and-do you understand why?—I suddenly laughed, laughed aloud, in the sheer joy of the discovery. My soul, my weak, sentimental little soul, was dead, and I had seen into the truth of things. What did I care for victory or defeat? The moment was the thing! And I gathered up my men, and we swept down into the battle like a whirlwind. And all the magnificent beauty of the evening laughed with me as we went, and the church bells pealed.....
The girl? That was quite simple. Of course I went back as soon as I could; there was no longer any reason for staying away.
The solemn houses, the quiet gardens, the sweetly fragrant honeysuckle and jessamine and box-all were the same, all were as beautiful as they had been before, and as slightly faded. As luck would have it, I met her carriage at the turning of the street, before I had even reached my own home. She saw me, and she called to her coachman to stop, just as she had stopped her rowers. in the barge. “And you are in Charleston again, then?" I asked her, forestalling what she might have said. But that was unnecessary. She was perfectly composed.
“And you, are you back for good this time?"
"Yes. I had always planned to return, you know." "Had you then, Tom? Sometimes I wondered.”
What was I to say to her? How was I to conduct myself toward her? Frankly I hadn't the least idea. But she gave me the hint by the very calmness with which she asked the next question.
"And you aren't married yet, Tom, are you?"
She was perfectly matter-of-fact. And then when I looked into her eyes and she laughed, I saw the answer. She, too, had got rid of her soul. It was an immense relief to me.
But my mother was harder. She had suffered. It was only when I came back that I knew how much I had meant to her, and how heavily the discipline that she had inflicted upon me had punished herself.
"Thomas," she said, "I have missed you, but I think that it was worth the cost. Have you given up your foolish notions, my boy?"
"Do you mean about my eternal love? Of course; that was very childish of me. Such things do not exist at all." "So that will be all right."
She was relieved.
An idea suddenly struck me. "Mother, do you know, I am afraid you have been a great fool."
"Because I would have found that out anyway without your having suffered for it."
"Yes, my boy, but you would have found it out then after it was too late.”
"Oh," I responded, "if that is what you mean, why, I intend to marry Miss Chesley anyway!"........
Indeed, we were very happy together. And it was here in this same town, fifteen years ago, that she died. That is why it has always seemed so beautiful to me to sit here and look out over the roofs and drink my wine, and perhaps to talk to young fellows like you now and then to remind me of what I have been. If she had lived, we would have had a very pleasant life with each other. But as it is, there is nothing to mope about. The world is still wonderful and there are still those moments that come to us, thank God!, in which we live through all of the marvellous and of the beautiful that we have known. Laugh with the world, as I do, my friend, and you will find that it is the better way.....