With an effort Lady Mabel stifled her contagious terror, and, advancing further into the gloomy repository, inspected it on all sides. There was little room left on the walls for more memorials of mortality. Having in silence sated her curiosity and her sense of the horrible, feeling all the while a strange reluctance to break the deathlike stillness of the place by uttering a word, she at length rejoined Mrs. Shortridge. After taking another look into this apartment of death, her eye rested on the inscription over the arch. L’Isle translated it:
Our bones, which here are resting
Are expecting yours.
“God forbid that mine should find so gloomy a resting place,” exclaimed Mrs. Shortridge, with a shudder.
“It is a weakness,” said Lady Mabel; “yet we must shrink from this promiscuous mingling of our ashes, and are even choice in the selection of our last resting place. We hope even in death to rejoin our kindred dust in the ancestral vault, or at least to repose under some sunny spot, in the churchyard hallowed to us in life. Is not this your feeling?” she said, appealing to L’Isle.
L’Isle looked grave. “It is a natural feeling clinging to our mortal nature, and doubtless has its use. But I must not indulge it. The soldier is even less at liberty than other men to choose his own grave. The fosse of a beleaguered fortress, a shallow trench in a well-fought field, the ravine of a disputed mountain pass, the strand of some river to be crossed in the face of the enemy—all these have furnished, and will furnish graves for those who fall, and have the luck to find burial; the wolf and the vulture provide for the rest. We have a wide graveyard,” he added, more cheerfully, “stretching from hence to the Pyrenees, and, perchance, beyond them. It embraces many a lovely and romantic spot, only the choice of our last resting place is not left to ourselves.”
Lady Mabel shuddered at this gloomy picture, and his foreboding tone. She knew how many of her countrymen had fallen, and must fall, in this bloody war. Yet, somehow or other, she had always thought of L’Isle as one who was to live, and not to die prematurely, cut off in youth, health, the pride of manhood, his hopes, powers, aspirations, just in their bloom. She looked at him with deep, painful interest, as if to read his fortune in his face. What special safeguard protected him? The next moment her conscience pricked her, when her father’s image rose before her, grown gray in service, and seamed with scars, yet no safer by all his dangers past than the last recruit, and she walked slowly forth from the Franciscan church with sadder and more solemn impressions of the reality and imminence of death than could be generated by all that vast array of grinning skulls.