|"Why It Could Not Be"|
|Harper's Weekly, June 25, 1864, page 406 (Short Story)|
"Blind! But is there no hope? He is so
young and handsome."
"Ugly men would miss their eyesight as much, I fancy."
"Oh, surely. But I am so sorry for him."
"Well, nurse him back to life again. He will live, with care; and, Rose -- "
"Remember the drops for this new-comer, and don't forget the poor fellow who suffered amputation yesterday, in your admiration for this patient."
"I shall forget no one, Doctor."
"You never do, Rose. I wish I could say the same of all the nurses. Your hands are full to-day."
"Not too full: I can manage."
Then there was no more conversation, and a brisk man's step sounded on the floor, and died away in the distance.
I, Roger Hall, lay very still and listened. Those were the first words I had heard or understood for -- how long? I could not tell. The last I remembered was the tumult of a battle-field, the rattle of musketry, the roar of cannon, a shell falling at my very feet with an awful crash and glare, then agony, then darkness and oblivion. Where was I? I tried to rise, but could not. I endeavored to stretch out my hands; the left lay powerless at my
side; the right I could lift. It fell upon a hard pillow and rough blankets. I guessed the truth now: I lay upon a hospital bed, sorely wounded.
And it was night -- surely night. God was merciful: it could not be that I was blind. Yet this was darkness deeper than any I had ever known before; and the words I had overheard? -- no, they were talking of some one else, not of me.
I called aloud. How faint my voice sounded! Its piping tones were like those of some old man.
"Is any one there?"
It was the voice of her whom the other had called Rose -- the sweetest, softest, purest voice I ever heard; and a hand touched my fevered brow with such a caress as my mother had been used to give her boy long years before.
"Is it night? Why do you have no light? Tell me, is it night?"
I heard something like a sob, and the voice answered,
"It will be night very soon."
"Try to sleep," said the voice again. "You will feel better by-and-by."
"Sleep!" I wailed, like some querulous infant. "No, you must answer me. What is this darkness? Is it real, or am I blind?"
The girl -- for girl she was by her voice -- knelt down beside me. She took my hand in hers. "Pray to God," she whispered. "Heaven comfort you! And think it was for your country, for -- "
But I burst into one despairing wail -- "Blind! blind! blind!" and her voice died away in sobs. Even in that intensest moment of my agony I felt thankful for her sympathy.
But I turned away from her, and lay silent and motionless for many hours, sleeping, they said; but I heard all that passed, though I did not care that they should know it. I heard that woman's soft step passing to and fro -- her softer voice soothing the querulous sufferers upon those pallets which I knew were all about me. At times I heard her quiet answers to the surgeons and doctors, and marveled how she kept such accurate remembrance of the thousand directions given her; and soon I fell to wondering who she was, and longing to have her speak to me again. Rose! -- it was such a sweet name. But I wondered why they all called her by it, it was so plain to me that she was a lady. It would have seemed more natural that they should say Miss Rose, or Miss -- whatever her name was. She could not be married; probably she was very young. What heroism there was in this devotion of her early spring-time to such cares! What an angel she was, to minister thus to poor suffering men who were strangers to her! And then came a new fancy. Perhaps she had a lover among those wounded men, or a brother. Why I clung to the fancy that it must be a brother, and repudiated the idea of a lover, Heaven only knows; but, thinking of her, I forgot my own misery.
By-and-by a surgeon came to look at my arm, wounded sorely above the elbow; and, as I hoped, Rose -- it was such a sweet name that I loved to call her by it in my own mind -- Rose was to bathe and bind it up again. She did it gently and deftly. Soon she asked,
"Do I pain you?"
"Your fingers are so soft that they would almost cure a wound, I think."
"I am glad," she said. "You do not know how pleased I am to hear such words. If I could not do a little for those who suffer I would grieve myself to death, I think; -- and at first I used to tremble so at the sight of blood or wounds."
"You tremble sometimes now," I said.
"How do you know?" she asked.
"I felt you. I have been told that the blind hear and feel better than others. I know you trembled when you told me why -- why it was so dark to me. You must think me very weak and cowardly to have given myself up to despair in such a childish way. I shall not do so again."
"Who could blame you?" she said. "Your loss is very great. I wonder at you for being so quiet now."
And the task was done, my arm rebandaged, and she was moving away.
"You will come back soon," I said. "It is such a relief to hear some one speaking to me out of the dark. Do not leave me long."
"I must do my duty to all," she said; "but I will come to you when I can, be sure of that."
She stopped on moment to put the hair back from my forehead and give me a draught of water; and then I lay alone for hours. Until then I had hardly felt; now I began to realize the fact that I had been grievously shaken and shattered. To turn myself required an effort almost impossible for me to make. A great organ seemed humming and droning in the distance. Soon I discovered that it was all fancy -- that the sounds were within my own head. The terrible consciousness of the beating of my own heart and the working of my own lungs was, I think, the worst of the whole to bear -- even when some horrible thing seemed to seize my wounded arm between red-hot teeth and bite it.
I had a bitter disappointment that evening; a coarse-handed, harsh-voiced woman brought me my supper instead of Rose. I could have cried for her, as a child does for its mother, but for shame. Yesterday (as it seemed) a strong man and a soldier, whom no one ever called a coward; to-day a baby, trembling and helpless and fearful! Should I ever be myself again?
Far on in the night -- for I had heard a surgeon tell the harsh-voiced nurse that it was two o'clock -- I had a glad surprise. I felt a hand on my forehead, and some one whispered,
"Are you asleep?"
"Nor like to be," I answered. "Thank you for coming again, Miss Rose."
"Shall I read to you? It is my time for rest, but I am not sleepy."
"Thank you -- and God bless you! You are very kind to me."
I had heard the Bible often before; but I never listened as I listened then. Blind and wounded, as I lay upon that hospital bed, the good words gave me comfort. If the sweet voice had aught to do with it, God gave that girl her voice, and I was right in loving it. At last I floated on that music into the caves of slumber, and dreamed that I was a blind beggar, and that an angel took me by the hand and led me upward to the gates of heaven.
I might write a great deal more than you would be willing to read of those hours -- of those long days lengthening into weeks -- during which strength slowly returned to me, and my wounds as slowly healed. I heard of battles -- of victories and defeats. Now and then the weak voices of the wounded would mingle in a faint hurrah, as "glorious news" was brought to them. At times tidings of the death of some well-known and much-loved officer filled the place with gloom. Some of my companions died, and were taken from among us; others recovered quickly. Often perfect strangers, able to limp about the hospital-tent, came to talk with me, pitying me in their honest hearts, and endeavoring to cheer me by the fact that others were worse off than I. The greatest consolation offered was a description of a poor fellow who had lost both legs and arms. I think he was invented for my comfort. I am sure I hope so. When I admitted I was better off than this man my comrades went away, rejoicing that I was "cheered up a bit."
Perhaps because my sufferings had been peculiar, all sympathized with me. All were very good and kind to me; but I valued Rose's kindness beyond all the rest. One word of hers, one touch of hers, made me happy. In my sad darkness I used to lie and listen for her step, and when I heard it a flood of golden radiance swept across my heart, and all was light there. A month from that first day when I lay upon the hospital bed, helpless and blind, I loved my sweet young nurse with all my soul.
I was getting well. With my arm in a sling, I could grope my way in the warm sunshine outside the hospital-tent, or sit in the cool shadow of the trees.
Convalescent soldiers came to my side to talk with me, and surgeons and officers who came to see their men. How I envied those who would return to their posts again! How I wondered what could be done with the long dark life lying before me! One thing alone could make it tolerable -- that I must have, or die.
A little longer, and I was better still, and a letter came to me -- Rose read it -- from my good old grandmother. She was coming to take me home with her, that I "might be her little pet Roger once again," she said; and Rose told me that the letter was blotted with tears.
"So I am to leave you," I said, and her answer, a mere "Yes," was uttered in a trembling voice. I interpreted it to suit myself, and a great joy began to nestle in my heart.
I loved Rose Peyton -- could it be that she loved me? -- for her name was Peyton. I asked her one day, and she gave me the surname with a reluctance at which I wondered.
Afterward, when I had called her by it, she had said, "I like my first name best," in a strange, shuddering voice; so she had been only Rose to me ever since.
That evening, when the letter was finished, she sat with me a long while, and I talked to her as I had not talked before. One fear aching in my heart peeped out then. I said to her; "Miss Rose, will you tell me one thing honestly, truthfully, with no hesitation on the score of hurting my feelings?"
"Yes," she answered, "if I can I will."
"Am I very much disfigured -- am I disgusting to look upon?"
She laughed a quiet little laugh, and simply said, "No."
"I have seen people whose eyes were injured as I suppose mine are, who have been frightful objects," I said. "Their bleared, sightless orbs rise before my fancy now very often. Tell me how mine look."
"They are very clear," she said -- "dark brown, as they must always have been; the eyelashes long and dark. Your eyes were not injured externally. I think the doctor spoke of a shock given to the nerves. A stranger would not think you blind."
"Then I do not revolt you? I have sometimes feared I did."
She made no answer. A rustle of her dress, a sense of loneliness; I put out my hand, and she was gone. Soon I heard her voice within the hospital.
Two days I waited, hearing her near me often, but never keeping her long. On the third I felt miserably lonely; on the fourth quite wretched: something seemed to have come between us, and, helpless as I was, I could not go to her and make her listen to me as I would once. On the fifth day I found my way to the tree where it was my wont to sit; and a soldier limping by on crutches, I called to him:
"Ask Miss Rose to come here. I am very faint and ill."
The man hobbled away. In a moment the patter of light, hasty feet, and she was there.
"You are ill?"
"Is it your wound? Shall I call Doctor B -- ?"
"Yes, it is a wound; but you only can help me. Why have you deserted me?"
"You are getting well; others have more need of their nurse."
"No, no one has such necessity. I am blind, you know. Rose, you must spare me a few moments; I want to talk to you." I felt for her hand and found it. She let it lie in mine. From that I gathered hope. "I must tell you something about myself," I said. "I am a wealthy man. Were I poor, helpless as I am, I could never tell you the rest. I never felt thankful for wealth before. I do now. It gives me the power to speak to you. Yet, Rose, though I am not a beggar, I am blind. No one knows better than I what a sacrifice I ask
you to make when I say, Will you be my wife? But I love you so. In my selfishness and need I speak; and if you can return a blind man's love, God knows no wife will be so treasured, so worshiped, in all the land. Rose, speak to me -- only one word. You tremble so; your hand is so cold; and I can not see your face. Will you be my
And there came a sob, a gasp, and the words, "It cannot be -- it can not be," in a sort of smothered wail.
Then I knew how I had deceived myself, how I had hoped for a different answer. Even now it seemed as though she loved me. There was no aversion in her voice, no cold denial, only a sort of despair. I drew closer to her.
"I love you so dearly, Rose," I said, "I can not let you go without one struggle. If you knew how I feel for you, how in my darkened life you are the only light, you would be merciful. Do you hate me, Rose? Am I so unsightly a thing that you shrink from me with loathing? Tell me so and I will say no more, though it is hard to bear. Is it because I am blind that it can not be?"
I heard the girl beside me sob. Faintly her voice fell on my ear,
"No, no, no; it is that which makes it so hard. You force the truth from me: to tend you, to lead you through the world, is all my heart asks. As you love me, I love you. But God has placed a barrier between us: I can never be your wife."
Suddenly, before she could know of my intention, I had caught her to my heart. I pressed kisses on her lips.
"If you love me there can be no barrier between us," I almost sobbed. "If, blind as I am, you still give me your heart, nothing shall part us."
It was but an instant; the next she was standing by herself, sobbing wildly. Something in the swift repulse of my embrace made me fear to touch her again.
"Oh! if you could see me," she moaned. "If you could see me you would never utter those words again. Your wife! Oh! Roger Hall, it can never be. God says nay to it."
What could she mean? What strange import was in those words? I drew closer. Very softly I took her hand. Great drops of agony bedewed it. It trembled like an aspen-leaf.
"Rose," I said, "my own dear Rose; I know not what to think. If there is scar or blemish or deformity upon you, it is not to a blind man. You are beautiful to me; and were my eyes opened, and looking on you I should see some woeful wreck of woman's beauty, I should only love you more -- on my soul I should! Little one, is that it?"
"My face is as God made it at first," she said. "It is not as you think. Were it so I would trust you. Oh, Roger Hall, don't ask me why, but go. Do you think I could speak thus were there any hope, any -- " She stopped suddenly, and burst into a wild flow of tears. "It is the hand of the Almighty," she said. "How should I know you did not guess at first, and I could not tell you afterward for shame."
"Are you married?"
"Rose Peyton, the obstacle is imaginary. You love me; I adore you; no man calls you his own. You shall be my wife -- you shall; I will know this fancy, and it shall vanish. Rose, nothing could make me love you less. I say nothing; I swear it before God."
"You know not what you say, and He will forgive you," she answered, solemnly. Then, with a sudden change in her voice, she came close to me of her own accord. She put one hand on my shoulder, her soft hair brushed my cheek.
"Roger Hall," she said, "I am suffering mortal agony. Should you force the truth from me just now I should die. You may learn it. I wonder you have not already from other lips. I can not speak it. A barrier built by the Almighty separates us forever on earth -- a barrier of shame and degradation. I want you to think of me always as you do now. Knowing the truth, you would not. I love you; I shall love you forever; and so I say farewell, farewell, farewell! It is part of God's chastisement. Farewell, Roger, may He be your friend; may He lead you and help you!"
Her arms closed about my neck. She kissed my brow, my darkened eyes, my wet cheeks over and over again; and then our lips met, and then I stood alone, grasping the empty air and sobbing -- "Rose, Rose, best beloved of my soul, no shame, no disgrace, no blot upon thy life or name could be a barrier between thy heart and mine."
I did not meet her again. The days passed, and I was taken home. No one wondered that I was sad and restless; my misfortune was all-sufficient to account for that, and I brooded at leisure over Rose's secret and my own.
She loved me, yet she had pronounced my doom.
A helpless thing enough, I lay upon my sofa or sat in my chair thinking of her and pining for her. My wounded arm gained no strength. Darkness was still around me. I had no hope of light. And thus months glided on, and Christmas time came, and my cousins and aunts and uncles were coming to my old grandmother's, and there came loving messages for Roger, and in my blindness a wealth of tenderness was poured upon me, and valued far less than it deserved to be. A word from Rose, a message, something she had worn that I could lay against my heart, would have outweighed all the rest.
On Christmas-eve I prayed for death. God gave a strange answer to my prayer. When I awoke in the morning sight had returned to me. I could see dimly, hazily, as through the thickest mist, yet it was sight.
How I thanked Him then! I was a man once more. I could seek Rose, I could look upon her. I could fathom her secret, put my foot upon it, and take her to my heart -- my wife. I swore to do so. No blemish of face or form or fame should keep her from my arms. To me she was beautiful and pure forever.
There was a jubilee at our homestead that day.
Roger was blind no longer. That weak and withered arm, over which tears would have been shed once, was forgotten. I forgot it myself. I laughed, I sung, I danced; every hour brought the light of life more brightly back. Doctors could not explain the miracle, though they spoke sapiently of the "optical nerves." My old grandmother called it "God's doing," and was the wisest of them all. I waited at home three days; then I bade them
good-by for a while, and went to find Rose.
It was a cold day when I reached the camp about the great hospital tent, miles from where it had been when I lay there. Those who had known me hailed me with congratulations. An old surgeon started as though he had seen a ghost. It was the one who had spoken to Rose of my blindness.
To him I talked. Of him I learned who were within the hospital -- who lived, and who had died. Then I asked, tremblingly, for Miss Peyton.
"Miss Peyton?" The doctor paused a moment, and then burst into a laugh. "You mean Rose," he said; "hard at work as ever. `Miss Peyton!' Ha! ha!"
Why did he laugh? I did not know -- I could not guess.
I went into the hospital tent, and walking among the beds spoke to those I knew, but all the while looked for Rose, and saw no one like her. The harsh-voiced woman was there, and a quadroon girl bending over a dying drummer boy; another stout old lady with a pair of creaking boots. I turned away sadly. Where was Rose? I would wait for her -- surely she would come soon.
I sat down near the drummer boy's pallet, and watched him sadly. He was dying fast. The quadroon girl wiped the death-damps from his brow, and I thought -- "Rose should be here; her voice would soothe his pain, her presence comfort him!" Then I looked at the dark face bent over the pillow. It was very kind and good; beautiful, too, with the beauty of that wronged and degraded race.
Perhaps Rose was not pretty! Her face might be scarred, her eyes dim! No matter; to me it would be beautiful! Why did she not come?
The quadroon girl had not once looked at me. Her liquid black eyes, full of tears, rested on the agonized face of the dying drummer. Suddenly a convulsion seized the boy. The slender arms were too weak for their task. I could use but one, but I was strong again. I went to the side of the rude cot:
"Let me help you," I said. "This is too much for you." And the dark eyes turned upon me suddenly, with a strange, frightened gleam. They dropped in an instant, and I forgot them; for in that moment we stood in the presence of death.
"He is gone!" I said. But the quadroon girl made no answer. I fancied the scene had turned her faint, for she leaned against a rude table within the tent, trembling in every limb, and looking at me.
Some water stood near. I filled a cup and handed it to her; she touched it with her lips, but did not speak. In a moment she sat down and bent her head upon her hands, and covered it with her kerchief.
I began to watch again for Rose. Soon I grew impatient. I turned to the quadroon girl. "Can you tell me where to find Miss Rose Peyton?" I asked.
When I spoke to her the girl arose. She pointed to the open ground beyond the tent, and beckoned me to follow her. I began to fancy she was
She went before; I kept close behind her, and it seemed strange to me that she should lead me past the tents, down to the spot where a bench stood beneath an old sycamore-tree. There she paused. Where was Rose? We two, the quadroon girl and I, were the only living things in sight.
Slowly a great horror was stealing over me. I dared not speak. The girl broke the silence:
"You have come to see Rose Peyton: look."
Oh, merciful Heavens! All of mortal agony man could bear and live fell on me in that moment. It was my love's own voice that uttered those words, the voice that had haunted me so long. The quadroon girl was Rose Peyton.
"I spoke the truth," she said. "God has placed an awful barrier between us. The petted slavechild of a white father must carry her black mother's shame and sorrow to the grave. Oh, Roger Hall, why did you come here to look upon me? Do you wonder now I could not tell you the truth, having a woman's heart within me, feeling as white women feel; for they did me the great wrong of separating me from my kind, and teaching me, until of their kindness grew an awful curse -- the soul of a white woman beneath this black-stained skin. There is no need to bid you forget me now; no need, thank Heaven! no need!"
How beautiful she was! Yet her beauty -- the sad beauty of her race -- lay between us like a curse. I heard her voice, loved so deeply and so long. I knew that within that breast a gentle woman's heart beat for me alone. But she was right.
Had I heard Rose Peyton's voice, and, turning, looked upon a woman deformed and scarred, but white, I should have opened my arms and cried, "Hide here; your soul is beautiful, and I love you." But I gazed on that exquisite quadroon, and her liquid eyes and glorious ebon hair. Her features, moulded after those of her proud planter father, were veiled by the dusk skin of her mother's race. The Rose I loved was not there for me; she lived no more. I grew faint as in the death agony. There was no scorn of her. I think I loved her still, for I love her now; but God had said it could not be.
Down upon the frosty earth, under the leafless sycamore, I knelt before her. I took her hand in mine, and kissed it.
"God bless you, Rose," I said. "I shall never marry any woman while I live."
She said nothing.
Then I arose and turned away. At the brow of the hill I looked back, and saw the wintry sky, the dead sycamore, and the quadroon girl standing under it like a statue.
So I see her in my dreams. So I shall always see her until I die.
And I would give my sight again, and live blind forever; I would give my other arm; I would give wealth, and strength, and all that men value, only not to know the secret Rose strove to hide from me -- only not to know that the only woman I ever loved was a quadroon.
|Harper's Weekly, June 25, 1864, page 406 (Short Story)|
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