McClure's Magazine/Volume 26/Number 1/The Substitute
ILLUSTRATED BY LOUIS LOEB
AT the Station the woman peered about her, wistfully, timidly. She was all alone, and the heavy veil she wore against the driving mist hardly seemed to shut her off from a world hostile by its very strangeness. It was all so different from her own conception of a military encampment. Within her mind she had pictured the ordered regularity of shining tents. Instead, her blue, brooding eyes peered across a scene of tumult and stark confusion. Men in the rag-tag and bobtail of fusty uniforms bawled out orders which no one seemed to heed. Distracted railroad officials toiled fruitlessly at a mass of unidentifiable freight, growing momentarily by the outpourings of fresh cars. A pair of glaring pine shacks rose from a wallow of mud in the foreground. Back of them a dingy huddle of tents barely held its own against the gale that swept across the Sound, while on the other side of the crowded tracks, the verdured, treeless Montauk hillocks undulated nakedly to the Atlantic.
A voice behind the woman yelled, importuning some distant source of information:
"Hey! Where 'll we put this thing?"
The woman turned, and shuddered back from a coarse, deal coffin, heavy with its dead. Her swift revulsion brought her roughly in contact with a man who had jumped aside to escape a truck, cursing the clumsiness of its handlers while still, as it were, in mid air. Fiercely he turned upon her, eyes that were red from sleeplessness and strain.
"What are you doing here?" he growled. "This is no place for women."
"I want to find the hospital," she answered in a sweet, deep-toned voice, with just a slight accent of German. "Could you tell me where——"
"Everywhere!" he interrupted, broadly sweeping a gesture with his thin, browned hand. "All hospital!"
"Ah-h-h," she breathed quiveringly. "All hospital."
"For miles and miles around," he said, with stern gravity.
Pushing aside her veil she looked abroad over that dismal scene. The man glanced into her face, and took from his unkempt head the wreckage of a hat. It was not a beautiful face; but never, the man thought, had he seen one more sweet and loving and sorrowful. She might have sat for a model of the Madonna at forty. Eternal motherhood yearned in her brooding gaze. For an instant she turned it upon him—and he understood.
"You are looking for your son?" he said.
"Yes," said the woman. "For my boy; my Karl." Her eyes widened. "Wunderbar! How have you known?"
He shook his head, musingly. "Never mind," said he. "But I am sorry I was rough with you at first."
She made a little gesture signifying that it mattered nothing, and passed to that which lay deepest in her heart.
"My Karl," she besought. "You will help me to find him?"
A hurrying express official—an executive of some importance who had contributed his own "personal supervision" to the increase of confusion—bumped into them, head over shoulder. The man caught at his sleeve. "Get me a sheet of paper and a pencil, will you?"
"Who d'you think you're talking to?" was the angry response. "Get out of my way."
The other whirled him around with a swing. "Do as you 're ordered," he snapped. "You 're not in your office now."
The express official muttered some apology about not having understood. "Paper's a scarce article just now," he said. "Here's a bit of pencil. I 'll try to find some." He stepped back and a bright, new shingle crackled under his heel.
"Never mind. Get off that shingle," said the other and picked it up.
Resting it on his knee he hastily scrawled upon its smooth side:
Dear Major Brown:
Please do what you can for the bearer. She needs it. And oblige,
Chase, Prov. Mar.
"Take that to Major Brown at the General Hospital," he said, handing it to the woman. She caught it to her bosom. Her face was radiant.
"You are so kind," she said simply. "Where shall I find him?"
"Wait a minute. Hey! You!"
In response to the peremptory hail a ramshackle turn-out came clattering up, the driver touching his cap as he drew rein. "Take her to the General Hospital. See that she reaches Major Brown's orderly. Understand? Don't charge her three prices, either. D' you hear?"
"All right, sir. She's as good as there."
"If he tries to stick you more than half a dollar, you let me know," added the man turning to her. "That's all right about the thanks. Hope you find your boy. Maybe I 'll run across you at the hospital to-morrow if you 're—Blast your eyes, you idiot! Did n't I tell you not to come back without having seen General Young?" And the man whirled, with furious words upon a stupid-looking underling who was stammering excuses.
Half-stunned with the savage swiftness of it all, the woman was driven away from her new-found friend. The shaky vehicle toiled up long hills, drawing aside now and again for the downward passage of rushing, thundering, six-mule teams making speed to the music of the drivers' shrill whistles of guidance; down into sloughs of mud where loud-cursing and loud-cursed privates of the engineer corps toiled to unbog stalled provision wagons; along the shores of a gloomy lake lined with the shivering sick who had crawled thither to sun themselves and been caught in the swift onslaught of the gale; and so, at last, up the long ascent to the great hospital. Here, for the first time, the driver was able to withdraw attention from his motive power.
"Friend o' Capt'in Chase's, be ye?" he asked.
"I do not know him," said the woman.
"Gentleman that put ye in my rig."
"Ah! He is a soldier, then?"
"No, ma'am. He's an officer. Provost Marshal o' this camp. He's a terror, he is! Don't think of nothin' but work an' makin' other folks work."
"He thought of a stranger's need," she said softly.
The driver looked at her with shrewd, Long Island surmise. "Searchin' fer a boy o' yours, I bet."
"Yes. You know it, too. As he did. How?"
With a somewhat sheepish grin, the driver replied: "Oh, I dunno. Just kinder guessed it from your looks. Wounded?"
"No. He is ill of typhoid fever. As soon as I got the news I started. That was four days ago. Four days ago," she repeated to herself, and shivered.
"I swanny! Must 'a' come quite some distance."
"From Montana," said the woman. "The distance is nothing, if only I come in time."
"Likely to have quite some difficulty, I should suppose. Reg'lar flummuxed up, them hospitals. General Hospital up here; First Division over yonder; Detention Hospital back a ways. Chuck the sick soldiers in wherever it comes handiest. No labels to 'em or nothin'."
"Labels?" queried the woman.
"Sure," said the driver cheerfully. "To tell who they are. Lots of 'em don't know, no more 'n a lump o' mud. Plumb looney. Or senseless."
The woman's calm features contracted with pain.
"Was he a private?" continued the loquacious Jehu.
"A private of the Sixth Cavalry. Perhaps some of his officers——"
"Oh, shucks! They would n't know. Don't nobody know about privates. They don't count. Pile 'em up any place. May not even have got up here from Cuby at all. Why, they 's officers been missin' here for more 'n a week and no trace of 'em. If they can't look out for officers, what chance d' you s'pose a private 's got?"
"Gott mich erbarme!" murmured the woman.
"Oh, say, ma'am," cried the Long Islander in quick contrition. "I did n't go for to pester your feelin's. Like as not you 'll find him, slick an' easy. Anyhow, Major Brown 'll git him if he's here. This is the Major's quarters. No, ma'am; I don't want no pay. I-I-I did n't go for to discourage you. I hope—I-I guess you 'll find your boy all right."
Ushered by an orderly in flannel pajamas—there was a shortage of clothing as of most else in the hospital—the woman was brought before a powerfully built, heavy-bearded man who was giving out rapid directions to half a dozen subordinates. He read the shingle, and his eyes, sore with want of rest and worry, twinkled.
"Swell stationery, Chase uses," he began. "Well, anything that can be done for a friend of his——"
"No; Major Brown," said the woman. "I must n't let you think that. He has been very kind; but I never saw him before."
"Oh, well; he's a friend of yours anyway, or he would n't have done this bit of wood-engraving. What is, the trouble?"
Standing before him she told her story. Few words there were to it, for she was mistress of contained emotions. Her only boy—the sudden contagion of patriotic fervor in their little village—his enlistment while still in college—the one or two glowing letters from the front—Cuba—the brief word that told her of the fever and—could the Major give her back her son? That was all. But each syllable throbbed with the mother's passion that compels every son of woman upon whom the spell is laid.
"Well, well, well!" said the Major when the brief, pregnant recital was over. "We must see what we can do. We must certainly see—Well, well! I don't wonder that Chase—It's a haystack search, ma'am, but we 'll find him if he's here. Where's that shingle?"
Picking it up from the packing-box which served as his desk, he scribbled on it:
Pass bearer, all lines. Brown.
"Now, the best thing you can do is to start right in and look through the tents. If you—I mean, when you find him, send me word. I 'll get quarters for you with the nurses, somehow—though the Lord knows where, for they 're sleeping in trunks now," he added to himself. "Wish I had some one to send with you but—wait a moment."
A young man, shabby and worn as were all in that weary camp, entered the tent and gave the Major good day. In return the Major furnished him with a name and some details. "Know anything about such a man?" he asked, in conclusion. The young man shook his head. "Not by that description," he said.
"This is one of our newspaper correspondents," the Major explained to the woman. "He knows more about the sick men than any of us, because he's making a daily list. You tell him about your boy."
The woman told. Hardened as was the newspaper man by his service in that tragic camp, he yet saw the face of the speaker, worn and loving and sorrowful, grow dim before his eyes as the narrative drew its swift close.
"No;" he said gently. "I'm afraid I have n't seen him. But let me go with you. I can guide you to the tents he's most likely to be in."
"That'll be first rate," said the Major heartily. "I was afraid you could n't spare the time——"
"I can't," said the other in a half whisper as the woman eagerly turned to go. "But I 'll do it. Did you ever see such—such a mesmeric face! When she said, 'He is all the child I shall ever have,' I felt as if—well, as if I were a little boy once more. And," he added, with apparent irrelevance, "she does n't look any more like my mother than you do."
"Nor mine," said the Surgeon-Major, "but she hit me the same way. Hypnotized old Hard-shell Chase, too," he chuckled.
Together, the woman and the correspondent began the long routine of the hospital tents. Upon face after face fell her questing gaze, only to turn away in infinite pity and infinite disappointment. Once after she had risen from moistening the forehead of a wan convalescent who had begged her for a word, she turned to her companion.
"How do they bear it! How do they bear it!" she half groaned.
"Who, these?" said he.
"The doctors. And you have to be among all this suffering day after day! My heart is like to burst out of me!" She pressed her hands to her breast and looked at him with something like terror.
All that day and far into the evening lasted the futile search. Continually her quest was interrupted by the appeals of those to whom the very sight of the woman was a blessing and an assuagement of suffering. And though her own errand tugged at her heart-strings, she turned a deaf ear to no appeal. Once the reporter thought she had found her lost one. That was when a tall, black-bearded man shot out a swift hand from his huddle of blankets and caught her wrist. The man's eyelids were pressed tight together and he was muttering rapidly.
"Is it your son?" cried the reporter.
"No," was the sorrowful reply. "My Karl is broad and fair, and only a boy. What does this man say?"
A convalescent who was acting as attendant hobbled up. "Don't be scared, mum," he said. "He's looney but he ain't 'armful. Too weak."
"I am not afraid," she said quietly. "Who is he?"
"Wisht we knew. Officer, I think. He can't tell nothin'. Only sputters out foolish figgers. Been that way for a week. Listen, now."
"Six-hundred-and-fifty," issued in a thin edge of speech from the fevered mouth. "Six-hundred-and-fifty. Six-hundred-fifty. Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. Six-hundred-and-fifty."
Bending above him the woman quieted the tossing head with a cool hand, and spoke softly in his ear. The wrinkled forehead relaxed a trifle. "Six-hundred-and-fifty," he repeated, and now there was a note of appeal in his voice.
"That is where she lives?" asked the woman in a matter-of-fact tone. "You want us to tell her to come?"
"Of course," he said petulantly. "Tell Agnes to come."
"We will send word to 650—what street?"
"Fourth Avenue, of course," came the ready answer.
"And the name?" she asked softly.
But the wearied brain would work no further. The man moaned, thrust his withered arms outward and was convulsed by a chill.
"Well, what do you think of that!" cried the attendant in dire amazement. "We 've been-tryin' to get somethin' out of him for a week. Nobody thought nothin' of them figgers."
"We must do the best we can," said the woman. "How can I get a telegram sent to Agnes, 650 Fourth Avenue, New York? It would be New York, I think."
"I'll attend to that," said the correspondent. "But how in Heaven's name did you know? It's like magic."
She flushed a little. "Something—I cannot explain—I knew. I knew there was some one who longed for him as my Karl is longing for me. Only, it was a wife, I think."
And she was right. Two days later a bride of a year was searching the camp over to thank on her knees the woman who had summoned her—just in time.
On the day after the woman's arrival, the correspondent, dismounting in front of medical headquarters, saw her coming from far down the line. Bravely she tried to smile a greeting to him. There was no need of question; the search had not ended. Together they finished the round of the remaining tents.
"He is not here—anywhere," said the woman, in still despair.
The correspondent cleared his throat and started to tell her something. It concerned the burial ground where lay the unknown dead. Among them, he knew, were two privates of cavalry; so much the surgeon had determined, but no more was known of them. With the best of intentions, the correspondent did n't get beyond the start. There he switched off to the last faint hope that her missing boy might be in a detachment to be brought over from the Detention Hospital that afternoon. It was a very faint hope, for all the convalescents of that lot were supposably listed. It was quite insufficient to justify his silence about the nameless graves. But he was a bit of a coward, that correspondent. I ought to know, for I was the man.
Something about medical supplies gone wrong called Captain Chase from his thousand and one other duties, to the General Hospital that afternoon. Outside of the latest erected tent he met Major Brown.
"Ought to be court-martialed for unloading that woman on you," said the Provost Marshal. "Could n't help it. She wanted her son and she had to have him, and I had to help. That's all there was to it."
"No diagram needed," returned the surgeon. "She had me going, from the first. And that newspaper chap has been playing messenger boy for her. Queer, ain't it? But she has n't found her young hopeful."
"Umph!" grunted the soldier. Then he swore mildly. "Reckon your mammy might have been lookin' for you that 'a-way, Major?" he quizzed casually. "With just about such a look around the eyes? Oh, well! Where is she?"
"Just went inside to look over this new batch."
Half way down the tent they came upon her. She was bending over an improvised box-cot that suggested grimly an original intent to be a coffin. Its occupant was delirious and muttering, his face half buried in the bunch of cloth that served for a pillow. Suddenly he whirled over and opened his dark eyes full upon the face bending above him. A wondering smile curved and hovered in the corners of his mouth. A sigh of intense longing, satisfied at last, burst from the fallen chest. The eyes, half-glazed, seemed to look through and beyond her; there was a great joy in their gaze.
"Mother!" he whispered.
The woman caught in her throat a little cry of dismay.
"Mother!" whispered the boy again—he was no more than a boy. "It's you! I knew you'd come."
The woman's breath struggled forth in gasps. Like the hands of one groping in darkness, her hands spread and fluttered. As the figure on the cot thrust out wasted arms toward her, the Major's grasp fell firmly on her wrist.
"Don't be alarmed," said his low-dropped voice behind her. "He is semi-delirious. You are the first woman he has seen. A common hallucination; that's all."
With a sob she straightened up.
"Mother! Mother!" The thin voice rose to a wail, poignant with terror and grief. "You 're not going to leave me!"
At the cry, all the imperative maternity of the woman rose within her. She dropped on her knees, took the burning head to her bosom and cradled it there, the bright tears falling on the boy's face.
"Don't cry," he said. "It's all right now. You won't go away again, will you?"
The tone was serene. But Major Brown, leaning to his fellow-officer whispered in his ear; "I 've seen 'em take the knife without a whimper. But this—with her own boy may-be dying in reach of her—well, it beats me!"
The sick man cradled his cheek on the woman's hand, and dozed. She moved painfully nearer, to ease herself a little, if it might be, from the strain. Captain Chase caught up one of the few and priceless chairs of the camp, tore the legs out, and thrust it under her for a support. Presently the patient's lips moved; he was muttering incoherently. The woman bent her head and spoke gently.
"Yes," he said. "I know. I'll go to sleep in a minute. I was thinking of the scrap. Oh, I must show you where they got me."
Feebly and proudly he clawed the shirt from his shoulder to show the bullet mark. "The Sixth was doing business that day."
"What Sixth? Not—not the Sixth Cavalry!" It had broken from her lips before she thought.
"Of course! You knew that," he said aggrievedly.
"Yes, yes, dear," she said patiently, and loosed her hand to smooth the hair back from his forehead.
"I 'll tell you how I got it. There was a fellow we called Dutchy in our troop. Big, white-headed chap from out West somewhere. What was his real name? My head's all wrong. Anyway, when we got in under the earthwork he was next to me. He was a queer mutt. Fussy as a girl about bugs and worms, and always scared blue that one of those big tarantula spiders would get in his shoe."
He stopped short, for the hand on his forehead was quivering like a creature stricken. Dutchy! And that dread of crawling things that had been born in her boy, the heritage of her own shuddering horror!
"Go on," she said hoarsely, and wavered.
"Look out! She's going to faint," said Captain Chase, sharply.
She motioned him back.
"Why, mother!" said the sick soldier. "What is it? You 're shaking."
"It is nothing," she said sweetly. "Go on—my boy."
"Keep your hand on my forehead. It feels so cold; it helps me to think. When we got to the trenches one of the biggest, hairiest tarantulas in all Cuba popped out of a hole right in front of Dutchy. He began to shiver all over. Just like you did, then. Don't you like spiders, mother?"
"He's piling it on," whispered Major Brown. "She can't stand much more. Well, it can't last much longer. He's almost gone. This is the last flicker."
"Yes, sir; I thought Dutchy was going to make a sneak from that bug," continued the boy. "Instead he pulled his gun and spattered the spider all over the place. Laugh! I laughed so I had to stand up to get the kinks out of me, and when I stood up some Spanish son-of-a-gun got me. After it was over Dutchy came back and gave me all his water and carried me half a mile on his back. Water was worth money, then, I tell you, too."
"And what became of—of—Dutchy after?"
"I don't know," said the boy gropingly. "I think he's here—somewhere. Mother!"
The leap of the woman's heart had all but lifted her to her feet. At the cry she relaxed.
"There, there," she murmured. "Be at peace."
"You—you—I thought you started to go, then."
"Don't be afraid, dear. Tell me why you think Dutchy is here."
"Well, while we were being taken off the ship I thought I heard him yelling to some one to take that bug away. 'Maybe it was my head, though. Most everybody was crazy and yelling, anyway."
Again the eyes closed.
"I 'll raise his head while you get away," whispered Major Brown. "Chase, be ready to lift her out."
As if warned, the boy's hand wavered up and closed on the fingers caressing his forehead. A sublime despair settled on the woman's face. Something like a spasm shook her and passed. She looked up at the men behind her, eagerly ready for her rescue, and with such an aspect as angels must bend from the heavens, she shook her head.
"Well, I am—never mind what!" said Major Brown. "Talk about sheer nerve!"
An hour later the boy died; died happily with eyes fixed in blessed ignorance on the mothering face to the last. She kissed the dead lips and murmured: "Pray God for me that I may see my son—if only as I saw you."
Then, utterly foredone she tried to get to her feet, lurched forward, and would have fallen but for the two officers. Between them they supported her toward the opening, as, racked and gasping, she staggered down the long, grassy aisle. Half way,a gaunt apparition rose in their path. It was the skeleton of a blonde, blue-eyed young giant, the emaciated face bristling palely with a scrub of beard.
"No, my friend," muttered the Captain, blocking off the obstructor. "Not any more imaginary sons for her to-day. Flesh and blood could n't stand it."
The woman took no heed. Her tear-blinded eyes saw nothing. The gaunt apparition leaped forward and clawed at her breast. From its bearded lips quavered a hoarse, harsh voice.
"Don't you know me? Oh, Mutterchen! Don't you know me? It's Karl."
There was a ringing cry, a great sob of joy, and the substitute mother had come to her own.