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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 19240

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


LIEUTENANT McNEIL

The Williamsport ferry-boat came slowly across the Potomac, from the Maryland to the Virginia side. The clear, deep water lay faintly blue beneath the winter sky, and the woods came so close that long branches of sycamore swept the flood. In that mild season every leaf had not fallen; up and down the river here the dull red of an oak met the eye, and there the faded gold of a willow.

The flatboat, a brown shadow beneath a creaking wire and pulley, came slowly to the southern side of the stream. The craft, squat to the water and railed on either side, was in the charge of an old negro. Clustered in the middle of the boat appeared a tall Marylander in blue jeans, two soldiers in blue cloth, and a small darky in a shirt of blue gingham. All these stared at a few yards of Virginia road, shelving, and overarched by an oak that was yet touched with maroon, and stared at a horseman in high boots, a blue army overcoat, and a blue and gold cap, who, mounted upon a great bay horse, was waiting at the water's edge. The boat crept into the shadow of the trees.

One of the blue soldiers stood watchfully, his hands upon an Enfield rifle. The other, a middle-aged, weather-beaten sergeant-major who had been leaning against the rail, straightened himself and spoke, being now within a few feet of the man on horseback.

"Your signal was all right," he said. "And your coat's all right. But how did your coat get on this side of the river?"

"It's been on this side for some time," explained the man on horseback, with a smile. "Ever since Uncle Sam presented it to me at Wheeling-and that was before Bull Run." He addressed the negro. "Is this the fastest this boat can travel? I've been waiting here half an hour."

The sergeant-major persisted. "Your coat's all right, and your signal's all right, and if it hadn't ha' been, our sharpshooters wouldn't ha' left much of you by now-Your coat's all right, and your signal's all right, but I'm damned if your voice ain't Southern-" The head of the boat touched the shore and the dress of the horseman was seen more closely.-"Lieutenant," ended the speaker, with a change of tone.

The rider, dismounting, led his horse down the yard or two of road and into the boat. "So, Dandy! Just think it's the South Branch, and come on! Thirty miles since breakfast, and still so gaily!"

Horse and man entered the boat, which moved out into the stream.

"I was once," stated the sergeant-major, though still in the proper tone of respect toward a lieutenant, "I was once in Virginia for a month, down on the Pamunkey-and the people all said 'gaily.'"

"They say it still," answered the rider. "Not so much, though, in my part of Virginia. It's Tuckahoe, not Cohee. I'm from the valley of the South Branch, between Romney and Moorefield."

The heretofore silent blue soldier shifted his rifle. "What in hell-" he muttered. The sergeant-major looked at the Virginia shore, looked at the stranger, standing with his arm around his horse's neck, and looked at the Williamsport landing, and the cannon frowning from Doubleday's Hill. In the back of his head there formed a little picture-a drumhead court-martial, a provost guard, a tree and a rope. Then came the hand of reason, and wiped the picture away. "Pshaw! spies don't say they're Southern. And, by jiminy! one might smile with his lips, but he couldn't smile with his eyes like that. And he's lieutenant, and there's such a thing, Tom Miller, as being too smart!-" He leaned upon the rail, and, being an observant fellow, he looked to see if the lieutenant's hand trembled at all where it lay upon the horse's neck. It did not; it rested as quiet as an empty glove. The tall Marylander began to speak with a slow volubility. "There was a man from the Great Kanawha to Williamsport 't other day-a storekeeper-a big, fat man with a beard like Abraham's in the 'lustrated Bible. I heard him a-talking to the colonel. 'All the Union men in northwestern Virginia are on the Ohio side of the mountains,' said he. 'Toward the Ohio we're all for the Union,' said he. 'There's more Northern blood than Southern in that section, anyway,' said he. 'But all this side of the Alleghenies is different, and as for the Valley of the South Branch-the Valley of the South Branch is a hotbed of rebels.' That's what he said-'a hotbed of rebels.' 'As for the mountain folk in between,' he says, 'they hunt with guns, and the men in the valley hunt with dogs, and there ain't any love lost between them at the best of times. Then, too, it's the feud that settles it. If a mountain man's hereditary enemy names his baby Jefferson Davis, then the first man, he names his Abraham Lincoln, and shoots at the other man from behind a bush. And vice versa. So it goes. But the valley of the South Branch is old stock,' he says, 'and a hotbed of rebels.'"

"When it's taken by and large, that is true," said the horseman with coolness. "But there are exceptions to all rules, and there are some Union men along the South Branch." He stroked his horse's neck. "So, Dandy! Aren't there exceptions to all rules?"

"He's a plumb beauty, that horse," remarked the sergeant-major. "I don't ride much myself, but if I had a horse like that, and a straight road, and weather like this, I wouldn't ask any odds between here and Milikenville, Illinois! I guess he's a jim dandy to travel, Lieutenant-"

"McNeill," said the Virginian. "It is lovely weather. You don't often have a December like this in your part of the world."

"No, we don't. And I only hope 't will last."

"I hope it will," assented McNeill. "It's bad marching in bad weather."

"I don't guess," said the sergeant-major, "that we'll do much marching before springtime."

"No, I reckon not," answered the man from the South Branch. "I came from Romney yesterday. General Kelly is letting the men build cabins there. That doesn't look like moving."

"We're doing the same here," said the sergeant-major, "and they say that the army's just as cosy at Frederick as a bug in a rug. Yes, sir; it's in the air that we'll give the rebels rope till springtime."

The ferry-boat touched the northern bank. Here were a little, rocky shore, an expanse of swampy ground, a towpath, a canal, a road cut between two hills, and in the background a village with one or two church spires. The two hills were white with tents, and upon the brow cannon were planted to rake the river. Here and there, between the river and the hills, were knots of blue soldiers. A freight boat loaded with hay passed snail-like down the canal. It was a splendid early afternoon, cool, still, and bright. The tall Marylander and the three blue soldiers left the boat, the man from Romney leading his horse. "Where's headquarters?" he demanded. "I'll go report, and then get something to eat for both Dandy and myself. We've got to make Frederick City to-night."

"The large wall tents over there on the hill," directed the sergeant-major. "It's a long way to Frederick, but Lord! with that horse-" He hesitated for a moment, then spoke up in a courageous, middle-aged, weather-beaten fashion, "I hope you'll have a pleasant ride, lieutenant! I guess I was a little stiffer'n good manners calls for, just at first. You see there's been so much talk of-of-of masquerading-and your voice is Southern, if your politics ain't! 'T isn't my usual way."

Lieutenant McNeill smiled. "I am sure of that, sergeant! As you say, there has been a deal of masquerading, and this side of the river naturally looks askance at the other. But you see, General Kelly is over there, and he happens, just now, to want to communicate with General Banks." His smile grew broader. "It's perfectly natural, but it's right hard on the man acting courier! Lord knows I had trouble enough running Ashby's gauntlet without being fired on from this side!"

"That's so! that's so!" answered the sergeant cordially. "Well, good luck to you getting back! You may find some friends here. We've a company or two of Virginians from the Ohio."

General Kelly's messenger proceeded to climb the hill to the wall tents indicated. There was a short delay, then he found himself in the presence of the colonel commanding at Williamsport. "From General Kelly at Romney? How did you get here?"

"I left Romney, sir, yesterday morning, and I came by bridle paths through the mountains. I was sent because I have hunted over every mile of that country, and I could keep out of Ashby's way. I struck the river above Bath, and I worked down through the woods to the ferry. I have a letter for General Banks."

Drawing out a wallet, he opened it and handed to the other the missive in question. "If I was chased I was to destroy it before capture," he said. "The slip with it is a line General Kelly gave me."

The colonel commanding at Williamsport glanced at the latter document. "A native of the South Branch valley," he said crisply. "That's a disaffected region."

"Yes, sir. It is. But there are one or two loyal families."

"You wish to go on to Frederick this afternoon?"

"Yes, sir. As soon as my horse is a little rested. My orders are to use all dispatch back to Romney with General Banks's answer."

The colonel, seated at a table, weighed General Kelly's letter in his hand, looked at the superscription, turned it over, and studied the seal. "Do the rebels on the other side show any signs of coming activity? Our secret service men have not been very successful-they make statements that it is hard to credit. I should be glad of any reliable information. What did you see or hear c

oming through?"

The lieutenant studied the floor a moment, shrugged, and spoke out. "Ashby's active enough, sir. Since yesterday I have just grazed three picket posts. He has vedettes everywhere. The report is that he has fifteen hundred troopers-nearly all valley men, born to the saddle and knowing every crook and cranny of the land. They move like a whirlwind and deal in surprises-

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold-

Only these cohorts are grey, not purple and gold. That's Ashby. On the other hand, Jackson at Winchester need not, perhaps, be taken into account. The general impression is that he'll stay where he is until spring. I managed to extract some information from a mountain man above Sleepy Creek. Jackson is drilling his men from daylight until dark. It is said that he is crazy on the subject-on most subjects, in fact; that he thinks himself a Cromwell, and is bent upon turning his troops into Ironsides. Of course, should General Banks make any movement to cross-preparatory, say, to joining with General Kelly-Jackson might swing out of Winchester and give him check. Otherwise, he'll probably keep on drilling-"

"The winter's too far advanced," said the colonel, "for any such movement upon our part. As soon as it is spring we'll go over there and trample out this rebellion." He weighed Kelly's letter once more in his hand, then restored it to the bearer. "It's all right, Lieutenant McNeill. I'll pass you through.-You read Byron?"

"Yes," said Lieutenant McNeill briefly. "He's a great poet. 'Don Juan,' now, and Suvaroff at Ismail-

He made no answer, but he took the city.

The bivouac, too, in Mazeppa." He restored General Kelly's letter and the accompanying slip to his wallet. "Thank you, sir. If I am to make Frederick before bedtime I had better be going-"

"An aide of General Banks," remarked the colonel, "is here, and is returning to Frederick this afternoon. He is an Englishman, I believe, of birth. You might ride together-Very opportunely; here he is!"

A tall, blond being, cap-à-pie for the road, had loomed in dark blue before the tent door. "Captain Marchmont," said the colonel, "let me make you acquainted with Lieutenant McNeill, a loyal Virginian bearing a letter from General Kelly to General Banks-a gentleman with a taste, too, for your great poet Byron. As you are both riding to Frederick, you may find it pleasant to ride in company."

"I must ride rapidly," said McNeill, "but if Captain Marchmont-"

"I always ride rapidly," answered the captain. "Learned it in Texas in 1843. At your service, lieutenant, whenever you're ready."

The road to Frederick lay clear over hill and dale, past forest and stream, through a gap in the mountain, by mill and barn and farmhouse, straight through a number of miles of crystal afternoon. Out of Williamsport conversation began. "When you want a purchaser for that horse, I'm your man," said the aide. "By any chance, do you want to sell?"

McNeill laughed. "Not to-day, captain!" He stroked the brown shoulder. "Not to-day, Dun-Dandy!"

"What's his name? Dundandy?"

"No," replied the lieutenant. "Just Dandy. I'm rather fond of him. I think we'll see it out together."

"Yes, they aren't bad comrades," said the other amicably. "In '53, when I was with Lopez in Cuba, I had a little black mare that was just as well worth dying for as a woman or a man or most causes, but, damn me! she died for me-carried me past a murderous ambuscade, got a bullet for her pains, and never dropped until she reached our camp!" He coughed. "What pleasant weather! Was it difficult getting through Jackson's lines?"

"Yes, rather."

They rode for a time in silence between fields of dead aster and goldenrod. "When I was in Italy with Garibaldi," said Captain Marchmont thoughtfully, "I saw something of kinsmen divided in war. It looked a very unnatural thing. You're a Virginian, now?"

"Yes, I am a Virginian."

"And you are fighting against Virginia. Curious!"

The other smiled. "To be where you are you must believe in the inviolability of the Union."

"Oh, I?" answered Marchmont coolly. "I believe in it, of course. I am fighting for it. It chanced, you see, that I was in France-and out of service and damnably out at elbows, too!-when Europe heard of Bull Run. I took passage at once in a merchant ship from Havre. It was my understanding that she was bound for New Orleans, but instead she put into Boston Harbour. I had no marked preference, fighting being fighting under whatever banner it occurs, so the next day I offered my sword to the Governor of Massachusetts. North and South, they're none of mine. But were I in England-where I haven't been of late years-and a row turned up, I should fight with England."

"No doubt," answered the other. "Your mind travels along the broad and simple lines of the matter. But with us there are many subtle and intricate considerations."

Passing now through woods they started a covey of partridges. The small brown and white shapes vanished in a skurry of dead leaves. "No doubt, no doubt!" said the soldier of fortune. "At any rate, I have rubbed off particularity in such matters. Live and let live-and each man to run the great race according to his inner vision! If he really conflicts with me, I'll let him know it."

They rode on, now talking, now silent. To either side, beyond stone walls, the fields ran bare and brown to distant woods. The shadow of the wayside trees grew longer and the air more deep and cold. They passed a string of white-covered wagons bearing forage for the army. The sun touched the western hills, rimming them as with a forest fire. The horsemen entered a defile between the hills, travelled through twilight for a while, then emerged upon a world still softly lighted. "In the country at home," said the Englishman, "the waits are practicing Christmas carols."

"I wish," answered the Virginian, "that we had kept that old custom. I should like once to hear English carols sung beneath the windows on a snowy night." As he rode he began to sing aloud, in a voice not remarkable, but good enough to give pleasure-

"As Joseph was a-walking,

He heard an angel sing,

'This night shall be born

Our Heavenly King-'"

"Yes, I remember that one quite well," said Captain Marchmont, and proceeded to sing in an excellent bass,-

"He neither shall be born

In housen nor in hall,

Nor in the place of Paradise,

But in an ox's stall-

"Do you know the next verse?"

"Yes," said McNeill.

"He neither shall be clothed

In purple nor in pall,

But all in fair linen

As are babies all!"

"That's it," nodded the other. "And the next goes,-

"He neither shall be rocked

In silver nor in gold

But in a wooden cradle

That rocks on the mould-"

Alternately they sang the carol through. The sun went down, but the pink stayed in the sky and was mirrored in a tranquil stream which they crossed. It faded at last into the quiet dusk. A cricket chirped from a field of dried Michaelmas daisies. They overtook and passed an infantry regiment, coming up, an officer told them, from Harper's Ferry. The night fell, cold and still, with many stars. "We are not far from Frederick," said Marchmont. "You were never here before?"

"No."

"I'll take you at once to General Banks. You go back to Kelly at Romney to-morrow."

"Just as soon as General Banks shall have answered General Kelly's letter."

"You have an occasional fight over there?"

"Yes, up and down the line. Ashby's command is rather active."

"By George! I wish I were returning with you! When you've reported I'll look after you if you'll allow me. Pleasant enough mess.-Major Hertz, whom I knew in Prussia, Captain Wingate of your old army and one or two others."

"I'm exceedingly obliged," said McNeill, "but I have ridden hard of late, and slept little, and I should prove dull company. Moreover there's a good priest in Frederick who is a friend of a friend of mine. I have a message for him, and if General Banks permits, I shall sleep soundly and quietly at his house to-night."

"Very good," said Marchmont. "You'll get a better night there, though I'm sorry not to have you with us.-There are the lights of Frederick, and here's the picket. You have your pass from Williamsport?"

McNeill gave it to a blue soldier, who called a corporal, who read it by a swinging lantern. "Very good. Pass, Lieutenant McNeill."

The two rode on. To left and right were lighted streets of tents, varied here and there by substantial cabins. Commissary quarters appeared, sutlers' shops, booths, places of entertainment, guardhouses, a chapel. Soldiers were everywhere, dimly seen within the tents where the door flap was fastened back, plain to view about the camp-fires in open places, clustering like bees in the small squares from which ran the camp streets, thronging the trodden places before the sutlers, everywhere apparent in the foreground and divined in the distance. From somewhere came the strains of "Yankee Doodle." A gust of wind blew out the folds of the stars and stripes, fastened above some regimental headquarters. The city of tents and of frame structures hasty and crude, of fires in open places, of sutlers' shops and cantines, and booths of strolling players, of chapels and hospitals, of fluttering flags and wandering music, of restless blue soldiers, oscillating like motes in some searchlight of the giants, persisted for a long distance. At last it died away; there came a quiet field or two, then the old Maryland town of Frederick.

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