The Death of
John by Louisa May Alcott
This is not a tale, but a true history.—ED.
FROM "HOSPITAL SKETCHES."
HARDLY was I settled again, when the inevitable bowl
appeared, and its bearer delivered a message I had expected, yet
dreaded to receive:—
"John is going, ma'am, and wants to see you, if you can come."
"The moment this boy is asleep; tell him so, and let me know if I
am in danger of being too late."
My Ganymede departed, and while I quieted poor Shaw, I thought of
John. He came in a day or two after the others; and, one evening,
when I entered my "pathetic room," I found a lately emptied bed
occupied by a large, fair man, with a fine face, and the serenest
eyes I ever met. One of the earlier comers had often spoken of a
friend, who had remained behind, that those apparently worse wounded
than himself might reach a shelter first. It seemed a David and
Jonathan sort of friendship. The man fretted for his mate, and was
never tired of praising John,—his courage, sobriety, self-denial,
and unfailing kindliness of heart; always winding up with, "He's an
out an' out fine feller, ma'am; you see if he ain't."
I had some curiosity to behold this piece of excellence, and when
he came, watched him for a night or two, before I made friends with
him; for, to tell the truth, I was a little afraid of the stately
looking man, whose bed had to be lengthened to accommodate his
commanding stature; who seldom spoke, uttered no complaint, asked no
sympathy, but tranquilly observed what went on about him; and, as he
lay high upon his pillows, no picture of dying statesman or warrior
was ever fuller of real dignity than this Virginia blacksmith. A most
attractive face he had, framed in brown hair and beard, comely
featured and full of vigor, as yet unsubdued by pain; thoughtful and
often beautifully mild while watching the afflictions of others, as
if entirely forgetful of his own. His mouth was grave and firm, with
plenty of will and courage in its lines, but a smile could make it as
sweet as any woman's; and his eyes were child's eyes, looking one
fairly in the face with a clear, straightforward glance, which
promised well for such as placed their faith in him. He seemed to
cling to life, as if it were rich in duties and delights, and he had
learned the secret of content. The only time I saw his composure
disturbed was when my surgeon brought another to examine John, who
scrutinized their faces with an anxious look, asking of the
elder,—"Do you think I shall pull through, sir?" "I hope so, my
man." And, as the two passed on, John's eye still followed them, with
an intentness which would have won a clearer answer from them, had
they seen it. A momentary shadow flitted over his face; then came the
usual serenity, as if, in that brief eclipse, he had acknowledged the
existence of some hard possibility, and, asking nothing, yet hoping
all things, left the issue in God's hands, with that submission which
is true piety.
The next night, as I went my rounds with Dr. P., I happened to ask
which man in the room probably suffered most; and, to my great
surprise, he glanced at John:—
"Every breath he draws is like a stab; for the ball pierced the
left lung, broke a rib, and did no end of damage here and there; so
the poor lad can find neither forgetfulness nor ease, because he must
lie on his wounded back or suffocate. It will be a hard struggle and
a long one, for he possesses great vitality; but even his temperate
life can't save him; I wish it could."
"You don't mean he must die, Doctor?"
"Bless you, there's not the slightest hope for him; and you'd
better tell him so before long; women have a way of doing such things
comfortably, so I leave it to you. He won't last more than a day or
two, at furthest."
I could have sat down on the spot and cried heartily, if I had not
learned the wisdom of bottling up one's tears for leisure moments.
Such an end seemed very hard for such a man, when half a dozen
worn-out, worthless bodies round him were gathering up the remnants
of wasted lives, to linger on for years perhaps, burdens to others,
daily reproaches to themselves. The army needed men like
John,—earnest, brave, and faithful; fighting for liberty and justice
with both heart and hand, true soldiers of the Lord. I could not give
him up so soon, or think with any patience of so excellent a nature
robbed of its fulfilment, and blundered into eternity by the rashness
or stupidity of those at whose hands so many lives may be required. It
was an easy thing for Dr. P. to say, "Tell him he must die," but a
cruelly hard thing to do, and by no means as "comfortable" as he
politely suggested. I had not the heart to do it then, and privately
indulged the hope that some change for the better might take place, in
spite of gloomy prophecies, so, rendering my task unnecessary. A few
minutes later, as I came in again with fresh rollers, I saw John
sitting erect, with no one to support him, while the surgeon dressed
his back. I had never hitherto seen it done; for, having simpler
wounds to attend to, and knowing the fidelity of the attendant, I had
left John to him, thinking it might be more agreeable and safe; for
both strength and experience were needed in his case. I had forgotten
that the strong man might long for the gentler tendance of a woman's
hands, the sympathetic magnetism of a woman's presence, as well as the
feebler souls about him. The Doctor's words caused me to reproach
myself with neglect, not of any real duty perhaps, but of those little
cares and kindnesses that solace homesick spirits, and make the heavy
hours pass easier. John looked lonely and forsaken just then, as he
sat with bent head, hands folded on his knee, and no outward sign of
suffering, till, looking nearer, I saw great tears roll down and drop
upon the floor. It was a new sight there; for though I had seen many
suffer, some swore, some groaned, most endured silently, but none
wept. Yet it did not seem weak, only very touching, and straightway my
fear vanished, my heart opened wide and took him in, as, gathering the
bent head in my arms, as freely as if he had been a little child, I
said,—"Let me help you bear it, John."
Never, on any human countenance, have I seen so swift and beautiful
a look of gratitude, surprise, and comfort, as that which answered me
more eloquently than the whispered,—
"Thank you ma'am; this is right good! this is what I wanted!"
"Then why not ask for it before?"
"I didn't like to be a trouble; you seemed so busy, and I could
manage to get on alone."
"You shall not want it any more, John."
Nor did he; for now I understood the wistful look that sometimes
followed me, as I went out, after a brief pause beside his bed, or
merely a passing nod, while busied with those who seemed to need me
more than he, because more urgent in their demands; now I knew that
to him, as to so many, I was the poor substitute for mother, wife, or
sister, and in his eyes no stranger, but a friend who hitherto had
seemed neglectful; for, in his modesty, he had never guessed the
truth. This was changed now; and, through the tedious operation of
probing, bathing, and dressing his wounds, he leaned against me,
holding my hand fast, and, if pain wrung further tears from him, no
one saw them fall but me. When he was laid down again, I hovered
about him, in a remorseful state of mind that would not let me rest,
till I had bathed his face, brushed his "bonny brown hair," set all
things smooth about him, and laid a knot of heath and heliotrope on
his clean pillow. While doing this, he watched me with the satisfied
expression I so linked to see; and when I offered the little nosegay,
held it carefully in his great hand, smoothed a ruffled leaf or two,
surveyed and smelt it with an air of genuine delight, and lay
contentedly regarding the glimmer of the sunshine on the green.
Although the manliest man among my forty, he said, "Yes, ma'am," like
a little boy; received suggestions for his comfort with the quick
smile that brightened his whole face; and now and then, as I stood
tidying the table by his bed, I felt him softly touch my gown, as if
to assure himself that I was there. Anything more natural and frank I
never saw, and found this brave John as bashful as brave, yet full of
excellences and fine aspirations, which, having no power to express
themselves in words, seemed to have bloomed into his character and
made him what he was.
After that night, an hour of each evening that remained to him was
devoted to his ease or pleasure. He could not talk much, for breath
was precious, and he spoke in whispers; but from occasional
conversations, I gleaned scraps of private history which only added
to the affection and respect I felt for him. Once he asked me to
write a letter, and, as I settled pen and paper, I said, with an
irrepressible glimmer of feminine curiosity, "Shall it be addressed
to wife, or mother, John?"
"Neither, ma'am; I've got no wife, and will write to mother myself
when I get better. Did you think I was married because of this?" he
asked, touching a plain ring he wore, and often turned thoughtfully
on his finger when he lay alone.
"Partly that, but more from a settled sort of look you have,—a
look which young men seldom get until they marry."
"I don't know that; but I'm not so very young, ma'am; thirty in May
and have been what you might call settled this ten years; for
mother's a widow; I'm the oldest child she has, and it wouldn't do
for me to marry until Lizzie has a home of her own, and Laurie's
learned his trade; for we're not rich, and I must be father to the
children, and husband to the dear old woman, if I can."
"No doubt but you are both, John; yet how came you to go to war, if
you felt so? Wasn't enlisting as bad as marrying?"
"No, ma'am, not as I see it, for one is helping my neighbor, the
other pleasing myself. I went because I couldn't help it. I didn't
want the glory or the pay; I wanted the right thing done, and people
kept saying the men who were in earnest ought to flight. I was in
earnest, the Lord knows! but I held off as long as I could, not
knowing which was my duty; mother saw the case, gave me her ring to
keep me steady, and said 'Go;' so I went."
A short story and a simple one, but the man and the mother were
portrayed better than pages of fine writing could have done it.
"Do you ever regret that you came, when you lie here suffering so
"Never ma'am; I haven't helped a great deal, but I've shown I was
willing to give my life, and perhaps I've got to; but I don't blame
anybody, and if it was to do over again, I'd do it. I'm a little
sorry I wasn't wounded in front; it looks cowardly to be hit in the
back, but I obeyed orders, and it doesn't matter in the end, I know."
Poor John! it did not matter now, except that a shot in front might
have spared the long agony in store for him. He seemed to read the
thought that troubled me, as he spoke so hopefully when there was no
hope, for he suddenly added,—
"This is my first battle; do they think it's going to be my last?"
"I'm afraid they do, John."
It was the hardest question I had ever been called upon to answer;
doubly hard with those clear eyes fixed on mine, forcing a truthful
answer by their own truth. He seemed a little startled at first,
pondered over the fateful fact a moment, then shook his head, with a
glance at the broad chest and muscular limbs stretched out before
"I'm not afraid, but it's difficult to believe all at once. I'm so
strong it don't seem possible for such a little wound to kill me."
Merry Mercutio's dying words glanced through my memory as he
spoke:—"'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door,
but 'tis enough." And John would have said the same, could he have
seen the ominous black holes between his shoulders, he never had;
and, seeing the ghastly sights about him, could not believe his own
wound more fatal than these, for all the suffering it caused him.
"Shall I write to your mother, now?" I asked, thinking that these
sudden tidings might change all plans and purposes; but they did not;
for the man received the order of the Divine Commander to march, with
the same unquestioning obedience with which the soldier had received
that of the human one, doubtless remembering that the first led him to
life, and the last to death.
"No, ma'am; to Laurie just the same; he'll break it to her best,
and I'll add a line to her myself when you get done."
So I wrote the letter which he dictated, finding it better than any
I had sent; for, though here and there a little ungrammatical or
inelegant, each sentence came to me briefly worded, but most
expressive; full of excellent counsel to the boy, tenderly
"bequeathing mother and Lizzie" to his care, and bidding him good-by
in words the sadder for their simplicity. He added a few lines with
steady hand, and, as I sealed it, said, with a patient sort of sigh,
"I hope the answer will come in time for me to see it;" then, turning
away his face, laid the flowers against his lips, as if to hide some
quiver of emotion at the thought of such a sudden sundering of all the
These things had happened two days before; now John was dying, and
the letter had not come. I had been summoned to many death-beds in my
life, but to none that made my heart ache as it did then, since my
mother called me to watch the departure of a spirit akin to this in
its gentleness and patient strength. As I went in, John stretched out
"I knew you'd come! I guess I'm moving on, ma'am."
He was; and so rapidly that, even while he spoke, over his face I
saw the gray veil falling that no human hand can lift. I sat down by
him, wiped the drops from his forehead, stirred the air about him
with the slow wave of a fan, and waited to help him die. He stood in
sore need of help,—and I could do so little; for, as the doctor had
foretold, the strong body rebelled against death, and fought every
inch of the way, forcing him to draw each breath with a spasm, and
clench his hands with an imploring look, as if he asked, "How long
must I endure this, and be still?" For hours he suffered dumbly,
without a moment's respite, or a moment's murmuring; his limbs grew
cold, his face damp, his lips white, and, again and again, he tore
the covering off his breast, as if the lightest weight added to his
agony; yet through it all, his eyes never lost their perfect
serenity, and the man's soul seemed to sit therein, undaunted by the
ills that vexed his flesh.
One by one the men woke, and round the room appeared a circle of
pale faces and watchful eyes, full of awe and pity; for, though a
stranger, John was beloved by all. Each man there had wondered at his
patience, respected his piety, admired his fortitude, and now lamented
his hard death; for the influence of an upright nature had made itself
deeply felt, even in one little week. Presently, the Jonathan who so
loved this comely David came creeping from his bed for a last look and
word. The kind soul was full of trouble, as the choke in his voice,
the grasp of his hand betrayed; but there were no tears, and the
farewell of the friends was the more touching for its brevity.
"Old boy, how are you?" faltered the one.
"Most through, thank heaven!" whispered the other.
"Can I say or do anything for you anywheres?"
"Take my things home, and tell them that I did my best."
"I will! I will!"
"Good-by, John, good-by!"
They kissed each other, tenderly as women, and so parted; for poor
Ned could not stay to see his comrade die. For a little while, there
was no sound in the room but the drip of water from a stump or two,
and John's distressful gasps, as he slowly breathed his life away. I
thought him nearly gone, and had just laid down the fan, believing
its help to be no longer needed, when suddenly he rose up in his bed,
and cried out with a bitter cry that broke the silence, sharply
startling every one with its agonized appeal,—
"For God's sake, give me air!"
It was the only cry pain or death had wrung from him, the only boon
he had asked; and none of us could grant it, for all the airs that
blew were useless now. Dan flung up the window. The first red streak
of dawn was warming the gray east, a herald of the coming sun. John
saw it, and with the love of light which lingers in us to the end,
seemed to read in it a sign of hope of help, for, over his whole face
there broke that mysterious expression, brighter than any smile, which
often comes to eyes that look their last. He laid himself gently down;
and, stretching out his strong right arm, as if to grasp and bring the
blessed air to his lips in a fuller flow, lapsed into a merciful
unconsciousness, which assured us that for him suffering was forever
past. He died then; for, though the heavy breaths still tore their way
up for a little longer, they were but the waves of an ebbing tide that
beat unfelt against the wreck, which an immortal voyager had deserted
with a smile. He never spoke again, but to the end held my hand close,
so close that when he was asleep at last, I could not draw it away.
Dan helped me, warning me as he did so, that it was unsafe for dead
and living flesh to lie so long together; but though my hand was
strangely cold and stiff, and four white marks remained across its
back, even when warmth and color had returned elsewhere, I could not
but be glad that, through its touch, the presence of human sympathy,
perhaps, had lightened that hard hour.
When they had made him ready for the grave, John lay in state for
half an hour, a thing which seldom happened in that busy place; but a
universal sentiment of reverence and affection seemed to fill the
hearts of all who had known or heard of him; and when the rumor of
his death went through the house, always astir, many came to see him,
and I felt a tender sort of pride in my lost patient; for he looked a
most heroic figure, lying there stately and still as the statue of
some young knight asleep upon his tomb. The lovely expression which so
often beautifies dead faces soon replaced the marks of pain, and I
longed for those who loved him best to see him when half an hour's
acquaintance with Death had made them friends. As we stood looking at
him, the ward master handed me a letter, saying it had been forgotten
the night before. It was John's letter, come just an hour too late to
gladden the eyes that had longed and looked for it so eagerly; yet he
had it; for, after I had cut some brown locks for his mother, and
taken off the ring to send her, telling how well the talisman had done
its work, I kissed this good son for her sake, and laid the letter in
his hand, still folded as when I drew my own away, feeling that its
place was there, and making myself happy with the thought, even in his
solitary place in the "Government Lot," he would not be without some
token of the love which makes life beautiful and outlives death. Then
I left him, glad to have known so genuine a man, and carrying with me
an enduring memory of the brave Virginia blacksmith, as he lay
serenely waiting for the dawn of that long day which knows no night.