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   Chapter 28 No.28

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 17615

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Late on Christmas morning of this year 1864, Penhallow with no duty on his hands saw with satisfaction the peacemaking efforts of the winter weather. A thin drizzle of cold rain froze as it fell on the snow; the engineers' lines were quiet. There was no infantry drill and the raw recruits had rest from the never satisfied sergeants, while unmanageable accumulations of gifts from distant homes were being distributed to well-pleased men. Penhallow, lazily at ease, planned to spend Christmas day with Tom McGregor or Roland Blake. The orders of a too energetic Colonel of his own Corps summarily disposed of his anticipated leisure. The tired and disgusted Captain dismounted at evening, and limping gave his horse to Josiah.

"What you done to Hoodoo, Master John? He's lame-and you too."

Without answering John Penhallow turned to greet Tom McGregor. "Happy

Christmas, Tom."

"You don't look very happy, John, nor that poor beast of yours. But I am glad to have caught you at last." The faraway thunder of the siege mortars was heard as he spoke. "Nice Christmas carol that! Have you been to-day in the graveyards you call trenches?"

"No, I was not on duty. I meant to ride over to your hospital to have a home-talk and exchange grumbles, but just as I mounted Colonel Swift stopped with a smartly dressed aide-de-camp. I saluted. He said, 'I was looking for an engineer off duty. Have the kindness to ride with me.'"

"By George! Tom, he was so polite that I felt sure we were on some unpleasant errand. I was as civil, and said, 'With pleasure.' A nice Christmas celebration! Well, I have been in the saddle all day. It rained and froze to sleet on the snow, and the horses slipped and slid most unpleasantly. About noon we passed our pickets. I was half frozen. When we got a bit further, the old colonel pulled up on a hillside and began to ask me questions, how far was that bridge, and could I see their pickets, and where did that cross-road go to. The aide was apparently ornamental and did not do anything but guess. I answered with sublime confidence, as my mind got thawed a little and the colonel made notes."

"I know," laughed Tom. "Must never admit in the army that you don't know. You can always write 'respectfully referred' on a document. When General Grant visits our hospital and asks questions ten to the minute, I fire back replies after quick consultation with my imagination. It works. He assured the surgeon-in-charge that I was a remarkably well-informed officer. So was he!"

"Come in," said Penhallow. "I am cold and cross. I expect a brevet at least-nothing less; but if Comstock or Duane reads the colonel's notes, I may get something else."

"Have you had a fall, John? You are pretty dirty, and that horse with the queer name is dead lame. How did you come to grief?"

"I had an adventure."

"Really! What was it?"

"Tell you another time-it was a queer one. Here's Mr. Rivers." He was followed by a contraband black with a basket.

"Happy Christmas, boys. I bring you a Christmas turkey and a plum-pudding from your aunt, John."

He was made heartily welcome and was in unusually good spirits, as Josiah took possession of these unexpected rations and John got into dry clothes.

They fell to familiar talk of Westways. "I fear," said Rivers, "that the colonel is worse. I am always sure of that when Mrs. Penhallow writes of him as cheerful."

"My father," said Tom, "tells me he has days of excessive unnatural gaiety, and then is irritable and cannot remember even the events of yesterday."

"Can you account for it, Tom?" asked John.

"No, but he ought to take dad's advice and see Professor Askew. It makes him furious. Oh! if we were all at home again, Mr. Rivers-and out of this row. You are limping, John-what's wrong? Let me see that leg."

"No, you don't," cried John merrily. "You promised to get even with me after our famous battle-I don't trust you. I bruised my knee-that's all."

"Well, I can wait."

They talked of home, of the village and its people, and at their meal of the way they proposed to conduct the spring campaign. Many bloodless battles were thus fought over mess-tables and around camp-fires.

"For my part," said John, "I want to get done with this mole business and do anything in the open-Oh, here comes Blake! You know our clergyman from home, the Rev. Mr. Rivers? No! Well, then I make you the Christmas gift of a pleasant acquaintance. Sit down, there is some turkey left and plum-pudding."

"Glad to see you, McGregor," said Blake. "I know Mr. Rivers by sight-oh, and well, too-he was back of the line in that horrid mix-up at the Bloody Angle-he was with the stretcher-bearers."

"Where," said McGregor, "he had no business to be."

Rivers laughed as he rarely did. "It may seem strange to you all, but I am never so happy"-he came near to saying so little unhappy-"as when I am among the dying and the wounded, even if the firing is heavy."

Blake looked at the large-featured face and the eyes that, as old McGregor said, were so kindly and so like mysterious jewels as they seemed to radiate the light that came from within. His moment of critical doubt passed, and he felt the strange attractiveness which Rivers had for men and the influential trust he surely won.

"I prefer," remarked McGregor, "to operate when bullets are not flying."

"But you do not think of them then," returned Rivers, "I am sure you do not."

"No, I do not, but they seem to be too attentive at times. I lost a little finger-tip back of Round Top. We had thirteen surgeons killed or wounded that day. The Rebs left eighty surgeons with their wounded. We sent them home after we got up enough help from the cities."

"It was not done always," said Penhallow. "More's the pity."

"We had Grant at the hospital yesterday," said the doctor. "He comes often."

"Did you notice his face?" queried Rivers.

"The face? Not particularly-why?"

"He has two deep lines between the eyes, and crossing them two lateral furrows on the forehead. In Sicily they call it the 'cross of misfortune.'"

"Then it has yet to come," said Blake.

"Late or early," said Rivers, "they assure you it will come. Some men find their calamities when young, some when they are old, which is better."

"Let us be thankful that we have no choice," said Blake.

"May God spare you now and always," said Rivers. The habitual melancholy he dreaded took possession of his face as he rose, adding, "Come, Tom, we must go."

"And I," said Blake.

"Happy Christmas to you all-and a happier New Year than 1864." They left

John to the letters Josiah placed on the table.

The night was now clear and the stars brilliant, as Penhallow saw Blake mount his horse and Rivers and McGregor walk away to find the hospital ambulance. "There at least is peace," said John, as he watched the Pleiades and the North Star, symbol of unfailing duty. "Well, it is as good as a sermon, and as it belongs there on eternal guard so do I belong here for my little day; but I trust the spring will bring us peace, for-oh, my God!-I want it-and Westways." He went in to his hut and stirred the fire into roaring companionship.

Meanwhile Rivers, walking with McGregor, said, "Did the figure of that doomed wretch haunt you as we talked to John?"

"It did indeed! I had never before been ordered to certify to a death like that, and I hated it even before I bent down and knew who it was."

"How far was he accountable, Tom?"

"Don't ask me riddles like that, Mr. Rivers. It is a subject I have often thought about. It turns up in many forms-most terribly in the cases of the sins of the fathers being loaded on the sons. How far is a man accountable who inherits a family tendency to insanity? Should he marry? If he falls in love, what ought he to do or not do? It is a pretty grim proposition, Mr. Rivers."

"He should not marry," replied the clergyman, and both moved on in silent thought.

"Oh, here is our ambulance," said Tom. They got in, Rivers reflecting how war, parent of good and evil, had made of this rough country-bred lad a dutiful, thoughtful man.

Presently McGregor said, "When we were talking of our unpleasant duties, I meant to tell you that one of them is to tattoo a D-for deserter-on the breast of some poor homesick fellow. After that his head is shaved; then the men laugh as he is drummed out of the lines-and it's disgusting."

"I agree with you," said Rivers.

John lighted a fresh pipe and sat down by the fire to get some Christmas pleasure from the home letter in Leila's large and clear script. His aunt had ceased to write to him, and had left to her niece this task, insisting that it should be punctually fulfilled. This time the letter was brief.

"Of course, my dear

John, you know that I am under orders to write to you once a week."-"Is that explanatory?" thought the reader.-The letter dealt with the town and mills, the sad condition of Colonel Penhallow, his aunt's messages and her advice to John in regard to health. The horses came in for the largest share of a page. And why did he not write more about himself? She did not suppose that even winter war consisted only in drawing maps and waiting for Grant to flank Lee out of Petersburg and Richmond. "War," wrote the young woman, "must be rather a dull business. Have you no adventures? Tom McGregor wrote his father that you had a thrilling experience in the trenches lately. The doctor spoke of it to Aunt Ann, who was surprised I had never mentioned it. Don't dry up into an old regular like the inspecting major of ordnance at the mills.

"Expectantly yours,

"LEILA GREY.

"A Happy Christmas, Jack."

"Oh, Great Scott!" laughed John. He read it again. Not a word of herself, nor any of her rides, or of the incessant reading she liked to discuss with him. Some dim suspicion of the why of this impersonal letter gently flattered the winged hopefulness of love. "Well, I think I shall punish you, Miss Grey, for sending me a Christmas letter like that." Oh, the dear old playmate, the tease, the eyes full of tenderness when the child's shaft of satire hurt! He laughed gaily as he went through the historically famous test of courage in snuffing the flaring candle wicks with his fingers. The little cabin was warm, the night silent, not a sound came from the lines a mile away to disturb the peaceful memories of home within the thirty thousand pickets needed to guard our far-spread army. Men on both sides spoke this Christmas night, for they were often near and exchanged greetings as they called out, "Halloa, Johnny Reb, Merry Christmas!"

"Same to you, Yank," and during that sacred night there was the truce of

God and overhead the silence of the solemn stars.

As the young Captain became altogether comfortable, his thoughts wandered far afield-always at last to Josiah's pansy, the many-masked Leila, and behind her pretty feminine disguises the serious-minded woman for whom, as he smilingly consulted his fancy, he found no flower emblem to suit him. The letter he read once more represented many Leilas. Could he answer all of them and abide too by the silence he meant to preserve until the war was over? The imp of mischief was at his side. There was no kind of personal word of herself in the letter, except that he was ordered to talk of John Penhallow and his adventures. He wrote far into the Christmas night:

"DEAR LEILA: To hear is to obey. I am to write of myself-of adventures. Nearness to death in the trenches is an every-second-day adventure enough-no one talks of it. Tom was ill-advised to report of me at home. I used to dream of the romance of war when I was a boy. There is very little romance in it, and much dirt, awful horrors of the dead and wounded, of battles lost or won, and waste beyond conception. After a big fight or wearying march one could collect material for a rummage-sale such as would rout Aunt Ann's ideal of an amusing auction of useless things.

"My love to one and all, and above all to the dear Colonel who is never long out of my mind.

"Yours truly,

"JOHN PENHALLOW."

"I put on this separate sheet for you alone the adventure you ask for. It is the only one worth telling, and came to me this Christmas morning. It was strange enough.

"An old Colonel caught me as I was about to visit Tom McGregor at the hospital. I was disgusted, but he wanted an engineer. He got me, alas! We rode far to our left over icy snow-crust. To cut my tale short, after we passed our outlying pickets and I had answered a dozen questions, he said, 'Can you see their pickets?' I said, 'No, they are half a mile away on the far side of a creek in the woods. That road leads to a bridge; they may be behind the creek.'

"'Do you think it fordable?'

"'I do not know.' Like a fool, I said, 'I will ride down the road and get a nearer look.' He would be much obliged. I rode Hoodoo down an icy hill with a sharp lookout for their pickets. As I rode, I slipped my revolver out and let it hang at my wrist. I rode on cautiously. About a quarter of a mile from the creek I made up my mind that I had gone far enough. The creek was frozen, as I might have known, and the colonel too. As I checked Hoodoo a shot rang out from a clump of pines on my right and a horseman leaped into the road some twenty yards in front of me. I fired and missed him. He turned and rode pretty fast toward the bridge, turning to fire as he went. I like a fool rode after him. We exchanged shot after shot. He was on the farther end of the bridge when he pulled up his horse and stopped short. He held up a hand; I felt for my sword, having emptied my revolver. It was rather ridiculous. By George! the man was laughing. We were not fifty feet apart when I reined up Hoodoo. We had each fired six shots in vain-I had counted his.

"He called out, 'A rather pretty duel, sir. Don't ride over the bridge.' A picket shot from the left singing over my head rather emphasized his warning. 'It would not be fair-you would ride right into my pickets.' It was an unusual bit of chivalry.

"I called out, 'Thank you, I hope I have not hit you. May I ask your name?'

"'I am at your service. I am'-here Captain John wrote merrily-'Scheherazade who says-

"Being now sleepy, the Caliph will hear the amazing sequel to-morrow night or later.

"There you have my adventure all but the end. If I do not hear more of

Miss Grey's personal adventures she will never-never, hear the name.

"JOHN PENHALLOW."

He laughed outright as he closed and directed the envelope. I suppose, he wrote in his diary, that as there are several Leilas, there are also several John Penhallows, and I am just now the mischievous lad who was so much younger than Miss Grey. Would she laugh over the lesson of his letter or be angry, or cry a little and feel ill-treated, or-and even that was possible-say it was of no moment who the man was. He felt the gaiety which in some men who have not the mere brute courage of the bull-dog is apt to follow for many hours the escape from a great danger. The boylike mischief of his letter was in part due to some return of the cheerful mood which possessed him after the morning's risks. He went out to question the night of the weather. As he looked over the snow and then up at the mighty clock-work of the stars, he responded slowly to the awe this silentness of immeasurable forces was apt to produce; a perfect engine at the mills in noiseless motion always had upon him the same effect. As he moved, his knee reminded him of the morning's escape. When he rode away from the bridge, with attentions from the enemy's pickets following and came near the waiting colonel, his horse came down and like his rider suffered for the fall on frozen ground.

There was just then for a time less work than usual for the engineers, and he had begun to feel troubled by the fact that two weeks had gone by since Leila wrote, without a home letter. Then it came and was brief:

"DEAR JOHN: I have truly no better and no worse news to send about dear Uncle Jim and this saddened home. To be quite frank with you, your letter made me realize what is hardly felt as here in our home we become used to war news. I thought less of your mischievous attempt to torment my curiosity than of your personal danger, and yet I know too well what are the constant risks in your engineer duties, for I have found among Uncle Jim's books accounts of the siege of Sevastopol. As to your naughty ending, I do not care who the man was-why should I? I doubt if you really know.

"I am,

Your seriously indifferent

LEILA GREY.

"P.S. I am ashamed to admit that I reopened my letter to tell you I fibbed large. Please not to tease me any more."

He replied at once:

"DEAR LEILA: I am off to the front as usual. The man was Henry Grey. An amazing encounter! I had never seen him, as you may know. I did not wait to reply to him because the Rebel pickets were not so considerate as their colonel. I recalled Uncle Jim's casual mention of Henry Grey as a rather light-minded, quixotic man. I am glad he is, but imagine what a tragedy failed to materialize because two men were awkward with the pistol. But what a strange meeting too! It is not the only case. A captain I know took his own brother prisoner last month; the Rebel would not shake hands with him. Do not tell Aunt Ann-or rather, do what seems best to you. I trust you, of course. The encounter made me want to know your uncle in some far-off happier day.

"In haste, Yours,

"JOHN PENHALLOW."

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