“’Tain’t much. Short hoss soon curried. Allus ben in hospitals. Had high ole jinks with a wound on my haid. Piece o’ shell, they sez, cut me yere,” and he pointed to a scar across his forehead. “That’s what they tole me. Lor’! I couldn’t mek much out o’ the gibberish I firs’ year, en they sez I talked gibberish too. But I soon got the hang o’ the talk in the hospital. Well, ez I wuz sayin’, I’ve allus been in hospitals firs’ one, then anuther. I got well, en the sojers call me Yankee Blank en set me waitin’ on sick uns en the wounded. That’s what I’m a-doin’ now.”
“You were in Southern hospitals?”
“I reckon. They called the place Richman.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Kaze I wuz bro’t yere. They said I was ’changed.”
“Exchanged, wasn’t it?”
“Reckon it was. Anyhow I wuz bro’t yere with a lot o’ sick fellers. I wuzn’t sick. For a long time the doctors kep’ a-pesterin’ me with questions, but they lemme ’lone now. I ’spected you wuz a new doctor, en at it agin.”
“Don’t you remember the village of Alton?”
The man shook his head.
“Don’t you—” and Martine’s voice grew husky—“don’t you remember Helen Kemble?”
“Never yeared on her. I only reckerlect people I’ve seen in hospitals. Women come foolin’ roun’ some days, but Lor’! I kin beat any on ’em teekin’ keer o’ the patients; en wen they dies, I kin lay ’em out. You ast the wardmaster ef I kant lay out a stiff with the best o’ ’em.”
“That will do. You can go to sleep now.”
“All right, Doc. I call everybody doc who asts sech a lot o’ questions.” He shuffled to his cot and was soon asleep.
“How can I?”
Martine sank into his chair again. Although the conversation had been carried on in low tones, it was the voice of Nichol that he had heard. Closer inspection of the slightly disfigured face proved that, apart from the scar on the forehead, it was the countenance of Nichol. A possible solution of the mystery was beginning to force itself in Hobart’s reluctant mind. When Nichol had fallen in the Wilderness, the shock of his injury had rendered him senseless and caused him to appear dead to the hasty scrutiny of Sam and Jim Wetherby. They were terribly excited and had no time for close examination. Nichol might have revived, have been gathered up with the Confederate wounded, and sent to Richmond. There was dire and tremendous confusion at that period, when within the space of two or three days tens of thousands were either killed or disabled. In a Southern hospital Nichol might have recovered physical health while, from injury to the brain, suffering complete eclipse of memory. In this case he would have to begin life anew, like a child, and so would pick up the vernacular and bearing of the enlisted men with whom he would chiefly associate.