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   Chapter 29 No.29

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 22035

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When late in March Grant about to move left the engineer brigade at City Point, the need to corduroy the rain-soaked roads called some of the corps to the front, and among them John Penhallow. As usual when unoccupied they were set free to volunteer for staff duty. It thus chanced that Penhallow found himself for a time an extra aide to General John Parke.

The guarded outer lines of the defences of Petersburg included forests with here and there open spaces and clumps of trees. More than a half mile away from the enemy, on rising ground, amid bushes and trees, lay the army corps of General Parke. It was far into the night. The men were comfortably asleep, for on this second of April, the air was no longer chilly and there were no tents up. In the mid-centre of the corps-line behind the ridge a huge fire marked the headquarters. As the great logs blazed high, they cast radiating shadows of tree trunks, which were and were not as the fire rose or fell. Horses tied to the trees moved uneasily when from far and near came the clamour of guns. Now and then a man sat up in the darkness and listened, but this was some new recruit. For the most of the sleepers the roar of guns was less disturbing than the surly mosquitoes and the sonorous trumpeting of a noisy neighbour. Aides dismounted near the one small tent in the wood shadows, and coming out mounted horses as tired as the riders and rode away into the night. Here and there apart black servants and orderlies slept the deep sleep of irresponsibility and among them Josiah. Beside the deserted fire John Penhallow sat smoking. A hand fell on his shoulder.

"Halloa, Blake!" he said, "where did you come from?"

"I am on Wright's staff. I am waiting for a note I am to carry. There will be no sleep for me to-night. We shall attack at dawn-a square frontal attack through slashes, chevaux-de-frises and parapets; but the men are keen for it, and we shall win."

"I think so-the game is nearly played out."

"I am sorry for them, Penhallow."

"And I. I was thinking when you came of the pleasant West Point friends who may be in those woods yonder, and of the coming agony of that wonderful crumbling host of brave men, and of my uncle's friend, Robert Lee. I shall be a happy man when I can take their hands again."

"How many will be left?" said Blake.

"God knows-we shall, I hope, live to be proud of them."

"My friend Francis sees always the humorous side of war-I cannot."

"It does have-oh, very rarely-its humorous side," returned Penhallow, "but not often for me. His mocking way of seeing things is doubly unpleasant because no man in the army is more in earnest. This orchestra of snoring men would amuse him."

As Blake sat down, he said, "I wonder if they are talking the language of that land-that nightly bourne from which we bring back so little. Listen to them!"

"That's so like you, Blake. I was reflecting too when you came on the good luck I had at the North Anna when you pulled me out. Mark Rivers once said that I was good at making acquaintances, but slow at making friendships."

"Thank you," said Blake, understanding him readily. "I am somewhat like you."

The solemnity of the night and of the fate-laden hours had opened for a minute the minds of two men as reserved and reticent as are most well-bred Americans, who as a rule lack the strange out-spoken frankness of our English kin.

"Oh! here is my summons," said Blake. "Good luck to you, Penhallow. I have about the closing of this war a kind of fear I have never had before."

"That is natural enough," returned Penhallow, "and I fancy it is not uncommon. Let us part with a more pleasant thought. You will come and shoot with me at Grey Pine in the fall? Bye-bye."

Blake rode away. His friend deep in thought and unable to sleep watched the dying fire. The night hours ran on. Obedient to habit he wound his watch. "Not asleep," said a pleasant voice. He rose to face the slight figure and gently smiling face of General Parke.

"What time is it, Penhallow?"

"Four o'clock, sir."

"I have sent back Captain Blake with a word to General Wright, but he will have too long a ride. I want you to carry this same request. By taking the short cut in front of our lines, you can get there in a third of the time. You will keep this side of our pickets to where our line turns, then go through them and down the slope a bit. For a short distance you will be near the clump of trees on the right. If it is picketed-there are no pickets nearer-you will have to ride hard. Once past the angle of their line you are safe. Am I clear?"

"Certainly, sir. There is some marshy ground-I climbed a tree and looked it over yesterday-it won't stop the men, but may slow a horse."

"I see. Here is my note."

Penhallow tucked it in his belt and roused Josiah. "See to the girth," he said. "Is Hoodoo in good order?"

"Yes, sir. Where you going, Master John?"

"A little errand. Make haste."

"I know those little errands," said the black. "The good Lord care for him," he murmured, as the man he loved best was lost in the darkness.

He was aware of the great danger of his errand and was at once in that state of intensity of attention which sharpens every sense. He rode for the fourth of a mile between the long lines of infantry now astir here and there, and then an officer saw him through their picket-line. "Good luck to you!" he said. "I think the Rebs have no outlying pickets, but the woods are full of them."

Penhallow rode down a slight incline, and remembering that the marsh lower down might be difficult turned aside and came on a deep gully. The night was still dark, but a faint glow to eastward made haste desirable. The gully, as he rode beside it, flattened out, but at once he felt that his horse was in trouble on marshy ground. He dismounted and led him, but always the better footing lay nearer to the clump of trees. He made up his mind to ride for it. While on foot he had been as yet hardly visible. A shot from the salient group of trees decided him. He mounted and touched Hoodoo with the spur. The horse bounded forwards too quickly to sink in the boggy ground. Then a dozen shots told the rider he had been seen. Something like the feeling of a blow from a stick was felt as his left arm fell with gripped reins, and the right arm also dropped. Hoodoo pitched forward, rose with a gallant effort, and sinking down rolled to left upon the rider's leg.

The horse lay still. Penhallow's first sensation was astonishment; then he began to make efforts to get free. His arms were of no use. He tried to stir his horse with the spur of the free foot. It had no effect. Something must be wrong with him. He had himself a feeling of weakness he could not comprehend, aware that he had no wound of the trunk. His useless arms made all effort vain, and the left foot under the weight of the horse began to feel numb. The position struck him as past help until our people charged. He thought of Francis's axiom that there was nothing so entirely tragic as to be without some marginalia of humour. The lad smiled at his use of the word. His own situation appealed to him as ridiculous-a man with a horse on him waiting for an army to lift it off.

The left elbow began to recover from the early insensibility of shock and to be painful. Then in the dim light, as he lifted his head, he was aware of a Rebel soldier in front covering him with a revolver. Penhallow cried out with promptness, "I surrender-and I am shot through both arms."

The soldier said, "You are not worth taking-guess you'll keep till we lick the Yanks," and walking around the helpless officer he appropriated his revolver.

"Can you get my horse up?" said John.

"Horse up! I want your boots."

"Well, pull them off-I can't."

"Oh, don't you bother, I'll get them." With this he knelt down and began on the boot which belonged to the leg projecting beneath the horse. "Darn it! They're just my size." As he tugged at it, Hoodoo dying and convulsed struck out with his fore legs and caught the unlucky soldier full in the belly. The man gave a wild cry and staggering back fell.

Penhallow craned over the horse's body and broke into laughter. It hurt his arm, but he gasped with fierce joy, "Francis would call him a freebooter." Then he fell back and quite helpless listened. Unable to turn his head, he heard behind him the wild rush of men. Leaping over horse and man they went by. He got a look to right and left. They tore through the slashes, dropping fast and facing a furious fusillade were lost to sight in the underbrush. "By George! they've won," he exclaimed and fell back. "They must have carried the parapet." He waited. In about a half hour a party of men in grey went by. An officer in blue cried out, "Up the hill, you beggars!" More of the grey men followed-a battle-grimed mob of hundreds.

"Halloa!" called Penhallow. "Get this horse up. Put your hand in my pocket and you will find fifty dollars." They stopped short and a half dozen men lifted the dead animal. "Thank you, set me on my feet," said Penhallow. "Empty my pockets-I can't use my arms." They did it well, and taking also his watch went on their way well pleased.

John stood still, the blood tingling in his numb foot. "Halloa!" he cried, as the stretcher-bearers and surgeons came near. A headquarters surgeon said, "We thought you were killed. Can you walk?"

"No-hit in both arms-why the deuce can't I walk?"

"Shock, I suppose."

A half hour later he was in a hospital tent and a grim old army surgeon handling his arms. "Right arm flesh-wound-left elbow smashed. You will likely have to lose the arm."

"No, I won't," said Penhallow, "I'd as leave die."

"Don't talk nonsense. They all say that. See you again."

"You will get ten dollars," said John to a hospital orderly, "if you will find Captain Blake of General Wright's staff."

"I'll do it, sir."

Presently his arms having been dressed, he was made comfortable with morphia. At dusk next morning his friend Blake sat down beside his cot. "Are you badly hurt?" he said. A certain tenderness in the voice was like a revelation of some qualities unknown before.

"I do not know. For about the first time in my life I am suffering pain-I mean constant pain, with a devilish variety in it too. The same ball, I believe, went through some muscle in the right arm and smashed my left elbow. It's a queer experience. The surgeon-in-charge informed me that I would probably lose the arm. The younger surgeon says the ball will become what he calls encysted. They probed and couldn't find it. Isn't that Josiah I hear?"

"Yes, I will bring him in."

In a moment they came back. "My God! Master John, I been looking for you all night and this morning I found Hoodoo dead. Didn't I say he'd bring you bad luck. Oh, my!-are you hurt bad?"

"Less noise there," said an assistant surgeon, "or get out of this."

"He'll be quiet," said Blake, "and you wi

ll have the decency to be less rough." The indignant doctor walked away.

"Poor Hoodoo-he did his best," murmured John. "Get me out of this,

Blake. It's a hell of suffering. Take me to Tom McGregor at City Point."

"I will, but now I must go. General Parke hopes you are doing well. You will be mentioned in his despatches."

"That is of no moment-get me to McGregor. Hang the flies-I can't fight them."

John never forgot the ambulance and the rough railway ride to City Point, nor his pleasure when at rest in the officers' pavilion he waited for his old playmate. As I write I see, as he saw, the long familiar ward, the neat cots, the busy orderlies. He waited with the impatience of increasing pain. "Well, Tom," he said, with an effort to appear gay, "here's your chance at last to get even."

McGregor made brief reply as he uncovered the wounded joint. Then he said gravely, "A little ether-I will get out the ball."

"No ether, Tom, I can stand it. Now get to work."

"I shall hurt you horribly."

"No ether," he repeated. "Go on, Tom."

McGregor sat beside him with a finger on the bounding pulse and understood its meaning and the tale it told. "It will not be long, John," and then with attention so concentrated as not even to note the one stir of the tortured body or to hear the long-drawn groan of pain, he rose to his feet. "All right, John-it's only a slug-lucky it was not a musket ball." He laid a tender hand on the sweating brow, shot a dose of morphia into the right arm, and added, "You will get well with a stiff joint. Now go to sleep. The right arm is sound, a flesh-wound."

"Thanks," said John, "we are even now, Tom. Captain Blake telegraphed your father, Tom-but write, please."

"To whom, John?"

"To Leila-but do not alarm them."

"I will write. In a week or two you must go home. That is the medicine you need most. You will still have some pain, but you will not lose the arm."

"Thank you-but what of the army? I am a bit confused as to time. Parke attacked on the second of April, I think. What day is this?"

"Oh, they got out of Petersburg that night-out of Richmond too. Lee is done for-a day or two will end it."

"Thank God," murmured John, "but I am so sorry for Lee."

"Can't say I am."

"Oh, that blessed morphia!"

"Well, go to sleep-I will see you again shortly. I have other fellows to look after. In a few minutes you will be easy. Draw the fly-nets, orderly."

Of all that followed John Penhallow in later years remembered most distinctly the half hour of astonishing relief from pain. As his senses one by one went off guard, he seemed to himself to be watching with increase of ease the departure of some material tormentor. In after years he recalled with far less readiness the days of varied torment which required more and more morphia. Why I know not, the remembrance of pain as time goes by is far less permanent than that of relief or of an hour of radiant happiness. Long days of suffering followed as the tortured nerves recorded their far-spread effects in the waste of the body and that failure of emotional control which even the most courageous feel when long under the tyranny of continuous pain. McGregor watched him with anxiety and such help as was possible. On the tenth of April John awakened after a night of assisted sleep to find himself nearly free from pain. Tom came early into the ward.

"Good news, John," he said. "Lee has surrendered. You look better. Your resignation will be accepted, and I have a leave of absence. Economy is the rule. We are sending the wounded north in ship-loads. Home! Home! old fellow, in a week."

The man on the cot looked up. "You have a letter, I see," and as he spoke broke into childlike tears, for so did long suffering deal with the most self-controlled in those terrible years, which we do well to forgive, and to remember with pride not for ourselves alone. The child-man on the bed murmured, "Home was too much for me."

The surgeon who loved him well said, "Read your letter-you are not the only man in this ward whom pain has made a baby. Home will complete your cure-home!"

"Thank you, Tom." He turned to the letter and using the one half-useful hand opened it with difficulty. What he first felt was disappointment at the brevity of the letter. He was what Blake called home-hungry. With acute perception, being himself a homeless man, Blake made his diagnosis of that form of heart-ache which too often adds a perilously depressing agency to the more material disasters of war. Pain, fever, the inevitable ward odours, the easier neighbour in the next bed who was of a mind to be social, the flies-those Virginia flies more wily than Lee's troopers-and even trifling annoyances made Penhallow irritable. He became a burden to hospital stewards and over-worked orderlies, and now the first look at Leila's letter disturbed him, and as he read he became indignant:

"DEAR JOHN: Mr. Blake's telegram telling us of your wound caused us some anxiety, which was made less by Dr. McGregor's somewhat hastily written letter. Aunt Ann thought it was excusable in so busy a man. Poor Uncle Jim on hearing it said, 'Yes, yes-why didn't John write-can't be much the matter.' This shows you his sad failure. He has not mentioned it since.

"It is a relief to us to know that you were not dangerously hurt. It seems as if this sad war and its consequences were near to end. Let us hear soon. Aunt Ann promises to write to you at once.

"Yours truly,

"LEILA GREY."

He threw the letter down, and forgetting that he had asked Blake and the doctor not to alarm his people, was overcome by the coldness of Leila's letter. He lay still, and with eyes quite too full felt that life had for him little of that which once made it sweet with what all men hold most dear. He would have been relieved if he could have seen Leila when alone she read and read again McGregor's letter, and read with fear between the lines of carefully guarded words what he would not say and for days much feared to say. She sat down and wrote to John a letter of such tender anxiety as was she felt a confession she was of no mind to make. He was in no danger. Had he been, she would have written even more frankly. But her trouble about her uncle was fed from day to day by what her aunt could not or would not see, and it was a nearer calamity and more and more distressing. Then she sat thinking what was John like now. She saw the slight figure, so young and still so thoughtful, as she had smiled in her larger experience of men when they had sat and played years ago with violets on the hillside of West Point. No, she was unprepared to commit herself for life, for would he too be of the same mind? For a moment she stood still indecisive, then she tore up her too tender letter and wrote the brief note which so troubled him. She sent it and then was sorry she had not obeyed the impulse of the kindlier hour.

The nobler woman instinct is apt to be armed by nature for defensive warfare. If she has imagination, she has in hours of doubt some sense of humiliation in the vast surrender of marriage. This accounts for certain of the cases of celibate women, who miss the complete life and have no ready traitor within the guarded fortress to open the way to love. Some such instinctive limitations beset Leila Grey. The sorrow of a great, a nearer and constant affection came to her aid. To think of anything like love, even if again it questioned her, was out of the question while before her eyes James Penhallow was fading in mind.

John Penhallow was shortly relieved by McGregor's order that he should get some exercise. It enabled him to escape the early surgical visit and the diverse odours of surgical dressings which lingered in the long ward while breakfast was being served. There were more uneasy sleepers than he in the ward and much pain, and crippled men with little to look forward to. The suffering he saw and could not lessen had been for John one of the depressing agencies of this hospital life. The ward was quiet when he awoke at dawn of April 13th. He quickly summoned an orderly and endured the daily humiliation of being dressed like a baby. He found Josiah waiting with the camp-chair at the door as he came out of the ward.

"How you feeling, Master John?"

"Rather better. What time is it? That Reb stole my watch." Even yet it was amusing. He laughed at the remembrance of having been relieved by the prisoners of purse and watch.

For Josiah to extract his own watch was as McGregor said something like a surgical operation. "It's not goin', Master John. It's been losing time-like it wasn't accountable. What's it called watch for if it don't watch?"

This faintly amused John. He said no more, but sat enjoying the early morning quiet, the long hazy reaches of the James River, the awakening of life here and there, and the early stir among the gun-boats.

"Get me some coffee, Josiah," he said. "I am like your watch, losing time and everything else."

Josiah stood over him. His unnatural depression troubled a simple mind made sensitive by a limitless affection and dog-like power to feel without comprehending the moods of the master.

"Captain John, you was sayin' to me yesterday you was most unfortunate. I just went away and kept a kind of thinkin' about it."

"Well, what conclusion did you come to?" He spoke wearily.

"Oh, I just wondered if you'd like to change with me-guess you wouldn't for all the pain?"

Surprised at the man's reflection, John looked up at the black kindly face. "Get me some coffee."

"Yes, sir-what's that?" The morning gun rang out the sunrise hour.

"What's that, sir?" The flag was being hoisted on the slope below them.

"It's stopped at half-mast, sir! Who's dead now?"

"Go and ask, Josiah." McGregor came up as he spoke.

"The President was killed last night, John, by an assassin!"

"Lincoln killed!"

"Yes-I will tell you by and by-now this is all we know. I must make my rounds. We leave to-morrow for home."

John sat alone. This measureless calamity had at once on the thoughtful young soldier the effect of lessening the influences of his over-sensitive surrender to pain and its attendant power to weaken self-control. Like others, in the turmoil of war he had given too little thought to the Promethean torment of a great soul chained to the rock of duty-the man to whom like the Christ "the common people listened gladly." He looked back over his own physical suffering with sense of shame at his defeat, and sat up in his chair as if with a call on his worn frame to assert the power of a soul to hear and answer the summons of a great example.

"Thank you, Josiah," he said cheerfully. "No coffee is like yours to set a fellow up." A greater tonic was acting. "We go home to-morrow."

"That's good. Listen, sir-what's that?"

"Minute guns, Josiah. Have you heard the news?"

"Yes, sir-it's awful; but we are going home to Westways."

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