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   Chapter 26 No.26

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 26057

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Through the winter of 1863-4 at Grey Pine things remained unaltered, and McGregor concluded that there was no hope for happier change. Rare letters came from John Penhallow to his aunt, who sent no replies, and to Leila, who wrote impersonal letters, as did John. Once he wrote that his uncle might like to know, that after that pontoon business in the night at Chattanooga and General Farrar Smith's brilliant action, he, John Penhallow, was to be addressed as Captain. As the war went on, he was across the Rapidan with Grant in May.

At Grey Pine after breakfast the windows and both doors of the hall were open to let the western breezes enter. They lingered in the garden to stir the mothers of unborn flowers and swept through the hall, bearing as they passed some gentle intimation of the ending of a cold spring.

The mail had been given to the colonel, as he insisted it should be. With some appearance of interest he said, "From Mark, for you, Ann."

"None for me, Uncle?" asked Leila, as she went around the table. "Let me help you. How many there are." She captured her own share, and for a moment stood curious as she sorted the mail. "Army trash, Uncle! What a lot of paper is needed to carry on war! Here is one-I have seen him before-he is marked 'Respectfully referred.'"

The colonel released a smile, which stirred Ann like a pleasant memory, and fed one of the little hopes she was ever on the watch to find. "What is your letter, Ann?" he asked.

Looking up she replied, "It is only to acknowledge receipt of my draft. He is in Washington. I gather that he does not mean to come back until the war is over." "Over!" she thought; "Lee is not Pemberton, as Grant will learn." It was of more moment to her that Penhallow was easier to interest, and ate as he used to do.

"Is your letter from John, Leila?" he said. "I don't like concealments."

"But, I didn't conceal anything!"

"Don't contradict me!"

"No, sir."

Ann's face grew watchful, fearing one of the outbreaks which left him weak and querulous.

"Well," said the colonel, "read us John's letter. There is as much fuss about it as if it were a love-letter."

There is no way as yet discovered to victoriously suppress a blush, but time-a little fraction of time-is helpful, and there are ways of hiding what cannot be conquered. The letter fell on the floor, and being recovered was opened and read with a certain something in the voice which caused Ann critically to use her eyes.

"DEAR LEILA: I am just now with the Second Corps, but where you will know in a week; now I must not say.-"

"What's the date?" asked Penhallow.

"There is none."

"Look at the envelope."

"I tore it up, sir."

"Never throw away an envelope until you have read the letter." Ann looked pleased-that was James Penhallow, his old self. Leila read on.

"I am glad to be under canvas, and you know my faith in General Grant.

"Tell Aunt Ann I have had three servants in two weeks. These newly freed blacks are like mere children and quite useless, or else-well-one was brutal to my horse. I sometimes wish Josiah was twins and I had one of him.-"

"What's that?" asked Penhallow. "Twins-I don't understand."

"He wishes he had a servant like Josiah, Uncle."

"Well, let him go to John," said the Colonel, with something of his old positive manner.

"But you would miss him, James."

"I will not," he returned, and then-"What else is there?"

"Oh-nothing-except that he will write again soon, and that he met Mr.

Rivers in Washington. That is all-a very unsatisfactory letter."

For a day or two the colonel said no more of Josiah, and then asked if he had gone, and was so obviously annoyed that Ann gave way as usual and talked of her husband's wish to Josiah. The old life of Westways and Grey Pine was over, and Josiah was allowed by Ann to do so little for Penhallow that the black was not ill-pleased to leave home again for the army life and to be with the man whom as a lad he had trusted and who had helped him in a day of peril.

No one thought of any need for a pass. He was amply supplied with money and bade them good-bye. He put what he required in a knapsack, and leaving Westways for the second time and with a lighter heart, set off afoot to catch the train at Westways Crossing. The old slave was thus put upon a way which was to lead to renewed and unpleasant acquaintance with one of the minor characters of my story.

Tired of unaccustomed idleness Josiah grinned as he went across country thinking of the directions he had received from Leila of how he was to find John Penhallow.

"You know he is captain of engineers, Josiah. Now how are you going to find him? An army is as big as a great city, and in motion, too."

"Well, missy," said Josiah, "the way I'll find him is the way dog Caesar finds you in the woods." He would hear no more and left her.

Josiah knew many people in Washington, black and white, and after some disappointments went with a lot of remounts for cavalry to join the army in the Wilderness, where he served variously with the army teams. On an afternoon late in May, 1864, he strode on, passing by the long lines of marching men who filled the roadways on their way to the crossing of the North Anna River. He had been chaffed, misdirected, laughed at or civilly treated, as he questioned men about the engineers. He took it all with good-humour. About three, he came near to a house on the wayside, where a halt had been ordered to give the men a brief rest. The soldiers dust-grey and thirsty scattered over the clearing or lay in the shadow of the scrub oaks. Some thronged about a well or a wayside spring, or draining their canteens caught a brief joy from the lighted pipe so dear to the soldier. Josiah looked about him, and knew the log-cabins some distance away from the better house to have been the slave-quarters. Beyond them was a better built log-house. Apparently all were deserted-men, cattle and horses, were gone. He lay down a little way from the road and listened to the talk of the men seated in front of him. He heard a private say, "A halt is as bad as a march, the dust is a foot deep, and what between flies and mosquitoes, they're as bad as the Rebs."

"Ah!" said an old corporal, "just you wait a bit. These are only a skirmish line. July and Chickahominy mosquitoes will get you when your baccy's out."

"It's out now."

Josiah was eager to question some one and was aware of the value of tobacco as a social solvent. He said, "I've got some baccy, corporal."

The men in front of him turned. "For sale-how much?"

"No," said Josiah. "My pouch is full. Help yourselves."

This liberal contribution was warmly appreciated, and the private, who

was the son of a New York banker, interested in the black man, asked,

"What are you doing in this big circus?" It was the opening for which

Josiah waited.

"Looking for an engineer-captain."

The corporal said, "Well, like enough he'll be at the bridge of the North

Anna-but the engineers are here, there and anywhere. What is his name?"

"Thank you, sir. My master is Captain Penhallow."

"Well, good luck to you."

"Take another pipe load," returned Josiah, grateful for the unusual interest.

"Thank you," said the private, "with pleasure. Tobacco is as scarce as hen's teeth."

"That's so. Who's that officer on the big horse? He's a rider whoever he is."

"That's the ring-master of this show," laughed the private.

"Not General Grant!"

"Yes." Josiah considered him with interest.

There was of a sudden some disturbance about the larger of the more remote cabins; a soldier ran out followed by a screaming young woman. Her wild cries attracted attention to the man, who was at once caught and held while he vainly protested. The men about Josiah sat up or got on their feet. The young woman ran here and there among the groups of soldiers like one distracted. At last, near the larger house at the roadside she fell on her knees and rocked backwards and forwards sobbing. Josiah at a distance saw only that a soldier had been caught trying to escape notice as a young woman followed him out of the house. It was too well understood by the angry men who crowded around the captive.

The general said to his staff, "Wait here, gentlemen." He rode through the crowd of soldiers, saying, "Keep back, my men; keep away-all of you." Then he dismounted and walked to where the girl-she was hardly more-still knelt wailing and beating the air with uplifted hands. "Stand up, my good girl, and tell me what is wrong."

The voice was low and of a certain gentleness, rarely rising even in moments of peril. She stood up, "I can't-I can't-let me go-I want to die!"

The figure, still slight of build in those days, bent over her pitiful. "I am General Grant. Look up at me. There shall be justice done, but I must know."

She looked up a moment at the kind grave face, then with bent head and hands over her eyes she sobbed out what none but the general could hear. His voice grew even more distinctly soft as touching her shoulder he said, "Look at that man. Oh, bring him near-nearer. Now, be sure, is that the man? Look again! I must be certain."

With a quick motion she pushed his hand from her shoulder as she stood, and pointing to the brute held by two soldiers cried, "That's him-oh, my God! Take him away-kill him. Le' me go. Don't you keep me." She looked about like some hopelessly trapped, wild-eyed animal.

"You may go, of course," said the low-voiced man. "I will set a guard over your house."

"Don't want no Yankee guard-le' me go-I've got nothin' to guard-I want to die." She darted away and through the parting groups of men who were clear enough about what they knew had happened and what should be done.

The dark grey eyes of the General followed her flight for a pitying instant. Then he remounted, and said to the scared captive, "What have you got to say?"

"It's all a lie."

The general's face grew stern. He turned and asked for an officer of the Provost Guard. A captain rode up and saluted. "I have no time to lose in trying this scoundrel. We can't take along the only witness." He hesitated a moment. "Let your men tie him to a tree near the road. Let two of the guard watch him until the rear has gone by. Put a paper on his breast-make his crime clear, clear." He said a word or two more to the officer, and then "put on it, 'Left to the justice of General Lee.'"

"Is that all, sir?" said the amazed officer.

"No-put below, 'U.S. Grant.' The girl will tell her story. When the cavalry pass, leave him. Now, gentlemen, the men have had a rest, let us ride on."

Josiah a hundred feet away heard, "Fall in-fall in." The tired soldiers rose reluctant and the long line tramped away. Josiah interested sat still and saw them go by under the dust-laden air. The girl had gone past her home and into the woods. The guards curiously watched by the marching men passed near Josiah with their prisoner and busied themselves with looking among the hazel, scrub oak and sassafras for a large enough tree near to the road. As they went by, he saw the man.

"My God!" he exclaimed, "it's Peter Lamb." He moved away and lay down well hidden in the brush. It was a very simple mind which considered this meeting with the only being the black man hated. The unusual never appealed to him as it would have done to a more imaginative person. The coming thus on his enemy was only what he had angrily predicted when he had Peter in his power and had said to him that some day God would punish him. It had come true.

The men who had arrested Peter and were near enough to hear the brief sentence, understood it, and being eagerly questioned soon spread among the moving ranks the story of the crime and this unexampled punishment. It was plain to Josiah, but what was to follow he did not know, as he rose, lingered about, and following the Provost's party considered the wonderful fact of his fulfilled prediction. The coincidence of being himself present did not cause the surprise which what we call coincidences awaken in minds which crave explanations of the uncommon. It was just what was sure to happen somehow, some day, when God settled Josiah's personal account with a wicked man. He had, however, an urgent curiosity to see how it would end and a remainder of far-descended savagery in the wish to let his one enemy know that he was a witness of his punishment. Thinking thus, Josiah went through the wayside scrub to see how the guard would dispose of their prisoner.

The man who had sinned was presently tied to a tree facing the road. His hands were securely tied behind it, and his feet as rudely dealt with. He said no word as they pinned the label on his breast. Then the two guards sat down between Peter and the roadway. Men of the passing brigades asked them questions. They replied briefly and smoked with entire unconcern as to their prisoner, or speculated in regard to

what the Rebs would say or do to him. The mosquitoes tormented him, and once he shuddered when one of the guards guessed that perhaps the girl would come back and see him tied up. The story of Grant's unusual punishment was told over and over to men as the regiments went by. Now and then soldiers left the ranks to read the sentence of what must mean death. Some as they read were as silent as the doomed wretch; others laughed or cursed him for dishonouring the army in which this one crime was almost unknown. A sergeant tore the corps mark from his coat, and still he said no word. The long-drawn array went on and on; the evening shadows lengthened; miles of wagon trains rumbled by; whips cracked over mules; the cavalry guard bringing up the rear was lost in the dust left by tramping thousands; the setting sun shone through it ruddy; and last came the squadron net of the Provost-marshal gathering in the stragglers. Tired men were helped by a grip on the stirrup leather. The lazy loiterers were urged forward with language unquotable, the mildest being "darned coffee-coolers." At last, all had gone.

Josiah rose from his hiding place and listened as the clank of steel and the sound of hurried horsemen died away. No other noises broke the twilight stillness. He walked back to the roadside, and stood before the pinioned and now lonely man. "You're caught at last, Peter Lamb."

"Oh, Lord!" cried the captive. "It's Josiah. For God's sake, let me loose."

"Reckon I won't," said Josiah.

"I'm in agony-my arms-I shall die-and I am innocent. I did not do anything. Won't you help me?"

"No-the Rebs will come and hang you."

The man's cunning awoke. He said the one thing, made the one plea which, as he spoke, troubled Josiah's decision. "Is the Squire alive?"

"Why shouldn't he be alive?" asked Josiah, surprised.

"Oh, I saw in a paper that he was wounded at Gettysburg. Now, Josiah, if he was here-if he was to know you left me to die."

Josiah was uncertain what he would have done. His simple-minded view of things was disturbed, and his tendency to be forgiving kindly assisted to give potency to the appeal. He said, "I won't set you free, but I'll do this much," and he tore the paper from Peter's breast, saying, "You'll get off with some lie when the Rebs come." Then he turned and walked away, tearing up the death warrant and hearing the wild pleas of the painfully bound man.

The night had come, but save for the faintly heard complaint of some far-distant dog, there was nothing to break the quiet of the deserted land which lay between the two armies. Having torn to pieces and carefully scattered the bits of paper, Josiah, who while doing one thing could not think of another, began to reflect on what he had done. He had been too long in servitude not to respect authority. If any one knew-but no one could know. He himself had said that what had come upon Lamb was a judgment-the act of one who had said, "I will repay." It troubled a mind whose machinery was of childlike incapacity to deal with problems involving the moral aspects of conduct. Perhaps this had been a chance to give Lamb an opportunity to repent by setting him free; but there had already been interference with the judgment of God. More personally material events relieved the black from responsibility. His quick ear caught the sound of troopers, the sharp notes of steel clinking; he had no mind to be picked up by the enemy's horse, and dismissing all other considerations he took to the woods and walked rapidly away. Late in the evening he crossed the North Anna with a train of wagons, as driver of an unruly mule team, one of which had rewarded his driver in kind for brutal use of the whip and perverted English. The man groaning in the wagon informed Josiah concerning mules and their ways. After a day or two he was pleased to get back on his legs, for when bullets were not flying the army life was full of interest. A man who could cook well, shave an officer or shoe a horse, never lacked the friends of an hour; and too, his unfailing good-humour was always helpful. An officer of the line would have been easy to find, but the engineers were continually in motion and hard to locate. He got no news of John Penhallow until the 29th of May, when he came on General Wilson's cavalry division left on the north side of the Pamunkey River to cover the crossing of the trains. These troopers were rather particular about straggling negroes, and Josiah sharply questioned told the simple truth as he moved toward the bridge, answering the questions of a young officer. A horse tied to a sapling at the roadside for reasons unknown kicked the passing cavalry man's horse. The officer moved on swearing a very original mixture of the over-ripe English of armies. Swearing was a highly cultivated accomplishment in the cavalry; no infantry profanity approached it in originality. The officer occupied with his uneasy horse dropped Josiah as he rode on. A small, dark-skinned negro, rather neatly dressed, spoke to Josiah in the dialect of the Southern slave, which I shall not try to put on paper. He spoke reflectively and as if from long consideration of the subject, entering at once into the intimacies of a relation with the man of his own colour.

"That horse is the meanest I ever saw-I know him."

"He's near thoroughbred," said Josiah, "and been badly handled, I reckon. It's no good cussin' horses or mules-a good horseman don't ever do it-horses know."

"Well, the officer that rides that horse now is about the only man can ride him. That horse pretty nearly killed one of my general's staff. He sold him mighty sudden."

"Who's your General?" queries Josiah.

"Why, General Grant-I'm his headquarter man-they call me

Bill-everybody knows me."

He rose at once in Josiah's estimation. "Who owns that horse?" asked

Josiah. "I'd like well to handle his beast."

"He's an engineer-officer, name of Penhallow. He's down yonder somewhere about that pontoon bridge. I'm left here to hunt up a headquarter wagon."

"Penhallow!" exclaimed Josiah, delighted. "Why, I'm down here to be his servant."

"Well, let's go to the bridge. You'll get a chance to cross after the wagons get over. I've just found mine." They moved to one side and sat down. "That's Wilson's cavalry on guard. Worst dust I ever saw. Infantry dust's bad, but cavalry dust don't ever settle. The Ninth Corps's gone over. There come the wagons." With cracking of whip and imprecations the wagons went over the swaying pontoons. Bill left him, and Josiah waited to cross behind the wagons.

On the bridge midway, a young officer in the dark dress and black-striped pantaloons of the engineers moved beside the teams anxiously observing some loosened flooring. A wagon wheel gave way, and the wagon lurching over struck the officer, who fell into the muddy water of the Pamunkey. Always amused at an officer's mishap, cavalry men and drivers laughed. The young man struck out for the farther shore, and came on to a shelving slope of slimy mud, and was vainly struggling to get a footing when an officer ran down the bank and gave him a needed hand. Thus aided, Penhallow gained firm ground. With a look of disgust at his condition, as he faced the laughing troopers he said, with his somewhat formal way, "To whom am I indebted?"

"Roland Blake is my name. Isn't it Captain Penhallow of the engineers?"

"Yes, well disguised with Rebel mud. What a mess! But, by George! not worse than you when I first saw you."

"Where was it?" asked Blake.

"I can give a good guess. You were quite as lovely as Mr. Penhallow." It was a third officer who spoke. "By the bye," he added, "as Blake doesn't present me, I am Philip Francis."

"I can't even offer to shake hands," returned Penhallow, laughing, as he scraped the flakes of mud from his face. "I saw you both at the Bloody Angle. I think I could describe you."

"Don't," said Francis.

"Some people are modest," said Blake. "I think you will soon dry to dust in this sun. I have offered myself that consolation before. It's the only certainty in this land of the unexpected."

"The wagons are over; here comes the guard," said Francis. "It's our beastly business now. Call up the men, Roland."

"Provost duty, I suppose," said Penhallow. "I prefer my mud."

"Yes," growled Francis, "human scavengers-army police. I'm out of it this week, thank Heaven."

The last wagon came creaking over the bridge, the long line of cavalry trotted after them, the Provost Guard mounted to fall in at the rear and gather in the stragglers.

"Sorry I can't give you a mount," said Blake, as he turned to recross the bridge.

"Thank you, I have a horse on the other side." As he spoke a breeze stirred the dead atmosphere and shook down from the trees their gathered load of dust.

Francis said, "It's half of Virginia!"

Blake murmured, "Dust to dust-a queer reminder."

"Oh, shut up!" cried Francis.

The young engineer laughed and said to himself, "If Aunt Ann could see me. It's like being tarred and feathered. See you soon again, I hope, Mr. Blake. I am deep in your debt." They passed out of sight. No one remained but the bridge-guard.

The engineer sat down and devoted his entire energies to the difficult task of pulling off boots full of mud and water. Meanwhile as the provost-officers rode back over the pontoons Francis said, "I remember that man, Penhallow, at the Bloody Angle. He was the only man I saw who wasn't fight-crazy, he insisted on my going to the rear. You know I was bleeding like a stuck pig. It was between the two attacks. I said, 'Oh, go to H--!' He said, 'There is no need to go far.' I am sure he did not remember me. A rather cool hand-West Point, of course."

"What struck me," said Blake, "was that he did not swear."

"Then," said Francis, "he is the only man in the army who would have failed to damn those grinning troopers."

"Except Grant," said Blake.

"So they say.-It's hard to believe, but I suppose the Staff knows. Wonder if Lee swears. Two army commanders who don't swear? It's incredible!"

As Penhallow, left alone, tugged at a reluctant boot, he heard, "Good

Lord! Master John, that's my business."

He looked up to seize Josiah by the hand, exclaiming, "How did you get here?-I am glad to see you. Pull off this boot. How are they all?"

"The Colonel he sent me."

"Indeed! How is he? I've not heard for a month."

"He's bad, Master John, bad-kind of forgets things-and swears."

"That's strange for him."

"The doctors they can't seem to make it out. He hasn't put a leg over a horse, not since he was wounded." Evidently this was for Josiah the most serious evidence of change from former health.

"How is Aunt Ann?"

Tugging at the boots Josiah answered, "She's just a wonder-and Miss

Leila, she's just as pretty as a pansy."

Penhallow smiled; it left a large choice to the imagination.

"Pansy-pansy-why is she like a pansy, Josiah?"

"Well, Master John, it's because she's so many kinds of pretty. You see

I used to raise pansies. That boot's a tough one."

"Have you any letters for me?"

"No, sir. They said I wasn't as sure as the army-post. Got a note from Dr. McGregor in my sack. Hadn't I better get your horse over the bridge-I liked his looks, and I asked a man named Bill who owned that horse. He said you did, and that's how I found you. He said that horse was a bad one. He said he was called 'Hoodoo.' That's unlucky!"

"Yes, he's mine, Josiah. You would like to change his name?"

"Yes, sir, I would. This boot's the worst!"

Penhallow laughed. "That horse, Josiah, has every virtue a horse ought to have and every vice he ought not to have. He'll be as good as Aunt Ann one day, and as mean and bad as Peter Lamb the next day. Halloa there, guard! let my man cross over."

Hoodoo came quietly, and as Penhallow walked his horse, Josiah related the village news, and then more and more plainly the captain gathered some clear idea of his uncle's condition and of the influence the younger woman was exerting on a household over which hung the feeling of inexorable doom. As he read McGregor's letter he knew too well that were he with them he could be of no practical use.

The next few days John Penhallow was kept busy, and on June 2nd having to report with some sketch-maps he found the headquarters at Bethesda Church. The pews had been taken out and set under trees. The staff was scattered about at ease. General Grant, to John's amusement, was petting a stray kitten with one hand and writing despatches with the other. At last he began to talk with members of the Christian Commission about their work. Among them John was aware of Mark Rivers. A few minutes later he had his chance and took the clergyman away to the tents of the engineers for a long and disheartening talk of home. They met no more for many days, and soon he was too busy to think of asking the leave of absence he so much desired.

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