MoboReader > Literature > The Long Roll


The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 25767

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Miriam and Christianna sat at the window, watching. The day was parching, the sky hot blue steel, the wind that blew the dust through the streets like a breath from the sun himself. People went by, all kinds of people, lacking only soldiers. There seemed no soldiers in town. Miriam, alternately listless and feverishly animated, explained matters to the mountain girl. "When there's to be a battle, every one goes to the colours.-Look at that old, old, old man, hobbling on his stick. You'd think that death was right beside him, wouldn't you?-ready to tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Fall, fall, old leaf! But it isn't so; death is on the battlefield looking for young men. Listen to his stick-tap, tap, tap, tap, tap-"

Christianna rose, looked at the clock, which was about to strike noon, left the room and returned with a glass of milk. "Mrs. Cleave said you was to drink this-Yes, Miss Miriam, do!-There now! Don't you want to lie down?"

"No, no!" said Miriam. "I don't want to do anything but sit here and watch.-Look at that old, old woman with the basket on her arm! I know what is in it-Things for her son; bread and a little meat and shirts she has been making him-There's another helping her, as old as she is. I mean to die young."

The people went by like figures on a frieze come to life. The room in which the two girls sat was on the ground floor of a small, old-fashioned house. Outside the window was a tiny balcony, with a graceful ironwork railing, and heavy ropes and twists of wistaria shaded this and the window. The old brick sidewalk was almost immediately below. For the most part the people who passed went by silently, but when there was talking the two behind the wistaria could hear. A nurse girl with her charges came by. "What's a 'cisive battle, honey? Yo'd better ask yo' pa that. Reckon it's where won't neither side let go. Why won't they? Now you tell me an' then I'll tell you! All I knows is, they're gwine have a turrible rumpus presently, an' yo' ma said tek you to yo' gran'ma kaze she gwine out ter git jes' ez near the battle an' yo' pa ez she kin git!" Nurse and children passed, and there came by an elderly man, stout and amiable-looking. His face was pale, his eyes troubled; he took off his straw hat, and wiped his forehead with a large white handkerchief. Appearing from the opposite direction, a young man, a case of surgeon's instruments in his hand, met him, and in passing said good-day. The elder stopped him a moment, on the hot brick pavement before the wistaria. "Well, doctor, they're all out Mechanicsville way! I reckon we may expect to hear the cannon any moment now. I saw you at Gilland's, didn't I, yesterday?"

"Yes, I am there-"

"Well, if by ill luck my boy is wounded and brought there, you'll look out for him, eh? Youngest boy, you know-Blue eyes, brown hair. I'm on the Ambulance Committee. We've got a string of wagons ready on the Nine-Mile road. You look out for him if he's brought in-"

The surgeon promised and each went his way. Three women passed the window. One was knitting as she walked, one was in deep black, and a third, a girl, carried a great silver pitcher filled with iced drink for some near-by convalescent. Two men came next. A negro followed, bearing a spade. One of the two was in broadcloth, with a high silk hat. "I told them," he was saying, "better bury her this morning, poor little thing, before the fighting begins. She won't mind, and it will be hard to arrange it then-" "Yes, yes," said the second, "better so! Leave to-morrow for the Dead March from 'Saul.'"

They passed. A church bell began to ring. Miriam moved restlessly. "Is not mother coming back? She ought to have let me go with her. I can't knit any more,-the needles are red hot when I touch them,-but I can sew. I could help her.-If I knew which sewing-room she went to-"

Christianna's hand timidly caressed her. "Better stay here, Miss Miriam. I'm going to give you another glass of milk now, directly-There's a soldier passing now."

It proved but a battered soldier-thin and hollow-eyed, arm in a sling, and a halt in his walk. He came on slowly, and he leaned for rest against a sycamore at the edge of the pavement. Miriam bent out from the frame of wistaria. "Oh, soldier! don't you want a glass of milk?"

"Oh, soldier" looked nothing loath. He came over to the little balcony, and Miriam took the glass from Christianna and, leaning over, gave it to him. "Oh, but that's nectar!" he said, and drank it. "Yes-just out of hospital. Said I might go and snuff the battle from afar. Needed my pallet for some other poor devil. Glad I'm through with it, and sorry he isn't!-Yes, I've got some friends down the street. Going there now and get out of this sun. Reckon the battle'll begin presently. Hope the Accomac Invincibles will give them hell-begging your pardon, I'm sure. That milk certainly was good. Thank you, and good-bye, Hebe-two Hebes." He wavered on down the street. Christianna looked after him critically. "They oughtn't to let that thar man out so soon! Clay white, an' thin as a bean pole, an' calling things an' people out of their names-"

Men and women continued to pass, the church bell to ring, the hot wind to blow the dust, the sun to blaze down, the sycamore leaves to rustle. A negro boy brought a note. It was from Margaret Cleave. "Dearest: There is so much to do. I will not come home to dinner nor will Cousin Harriet neither. She says tell Sarindy to give you two just what you like best. Christianna must look after you. I will come when I can."

Sarindy gave them thin crisp toast, and a pitcher of cool milk, and a custard sweetened with brown sugar. Sarindy was excited. "Yaas, Lawd, dar's sho' gwine ter be doin's this day! What you reckon, Miss Miriam? Dar's er lady from South Callina stayin' cross't de street, 'n' she's got er maid what's got de impidence ob sin! What you reckon dat yaller gal say ter me? She say dat South Callina does de most ob de fightin' 'n' de bes' ob it, too! She say Virginia pretty good, but dat South Callina tek de cake. She say South Callina mek 'em run ebery time! Yaas'm! 'n' I gits up 'n' I meks her er curtsy, 'n' I say ter her, 'Dat's er pretty way ter talk when you're visitin' in Virginia, 'n' ef dat's South Callina manners I'se glad I wuz born in Virginia!' Yaas'm. 'N' I curtsy agin, 'n' I say, 'Ain' nobody or nothin' ever lay over Virginia fer fightin' 'n' never will! 'N' ef Virginia don' mek 'em run ebery time, South Callina needn't hope ter!' 'N' I asks her how come she never hear ob Gineral Stonewall Jackson? Yaas'm. 'N' I curtsy ter her ebery time-lak dis! 'N' ain' she never hear ob Gineral Lee? An' I ain' er doubtin' dat Gineral Wade Hampton is a mighty fine man-'deed I knows he is-but ain' she never heard ob Gineral Johnston? 'N' how erbout Gineral Stuart-Yaas'm! 'n' the Black Troop, 'n' the Crenshaw Battery, 'n' the Purcell Battery. Yaas'm! 'n' the Howitzers, 'n' the Richmon' Blues-Yaas'm! I sho' did mek her shet her mouf!-Braggin' ter er Virginia woman ob South Callina!"

The two went back to the large room. The air was scorching. Miriam undressed, slipped her thin, girlish arms into a muslin sacque, and lay down. Christianna drew the blinds together, took a palm-leaf fan and sat beside her. "I'll fan you, jest as easy," she said, in her sweet, drawling voice. "An' I can't truly sing, but I can croon. Don't you want me to croon you 'Shining River'?"

Miriam lay with closed eyes. A fly buzzed in the darkened room. The fan went monotonously to and fro. Christianna crooned "Shining River" and then "Shady Grove." Outside, on the brick pavement, the sound of feet went by in a slender stream.

"Shady Grove! Shady Grove-

Going to Church in Shady Grove-"

The stream without grew wide and deep, then hurrying. Christianna looked over her shoulder, then at Miriam. The latter's long lashes lay on her cheek. Beneath them glistened a tear, but her slight, girlish bosom rose and fell regularly. Christianna crooned on,

"Shady Grove! Shady Grove-

Children love my Shady Grove-"

Boom! Boom!-Boom, Boom! Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!

Miriam started up with a cry. Outside the window a hoarse and loud voice called to some one across the street. "That's beyond Meadow Bridge! D' ye know what I believe? I believe it's Stonewall Jackson!" The name came back like an echo from the opposite pavement. "Stonewall Jackson! Stonewall Jackson! He thinks maybe it's Stonewall Jackson!"

Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom, Boom!

Miriam rose, threw off the muslin sacque and began to dress. Her eyes were narrowed, her fingers rapid and steady. Christianna opened the window-blinds. The sound of the hurrying feet came strongly in, and with it voices. "The top of the Capitol!-see best from there-I think the hills toward the almshouse-Can you get out on the Brook turnpike?-No; it is picketed-The hill by the President's House-try it!" Christianna, turning, found Miriam taking a hat from the closet shelf. "Oh, Miss Miriam, you mustn't go-"

Miriam, a changed creature, steady and sure as a fine rapier, turned upon her. "Yes, I am going, Christianna. If you like, you may come with me. Yes, I am well enough.-No, mother wouldn't keep me back. She would understand. If I lay there and listened, I should go mad. Get your bonnet and come."

The cannon shook the air. Christianna got her sunbonnet and tied the strings with trembling fingers. All the wild rose had fled from her cheeks, her lips looked pinched, her eyes large and startled. Miriam glanced her way, then came and kissed her. "I forgot it was your first battle. I got used to them in Winchester. Don't be afraid."

They went out into the hot sunshine. By now the greater part of the stream had hurried by. They saw that it flowed eastward, and they followed. The sun blazed down, the pavement burned their feet. The mountain girl walked like a piece of thistledown; Miriam, light and quick in all her actions, moved beside her almost as easily. It was as though the hot wind, rushing down the street behind them, carried them on with the dust and loosened leaves. There were other women, with children clinging to their hands. One or two had babes in their arms. There were old men, too, and several cripples. The lighter-limbed and unencumbered were blown ahead. The dull sound rocked the air. This was a residence portion of the city, and the houses looked lifeless. The doors were wide, the inmates gone. Only where there was illness, were there faces at the window, looking out, pale and anxious, asking questions of the hurrying pale and anxious folk below. The cannonading was not yet continuous. It spoke rather in sullen thunders, with spaces between in which the heart began to grow quiet. Then it thundered again, and the heart beat to suffocation.

The wind blew Miriam and Christianna toward the President's House. Tall, austere, white-pillared, it stood a little coldly in the heat. Before the door were five saddle horses, with a groom or two. The staff came from the house, then the President in grey Confederate cloth and soft hat. He spoke to one of the officers in his clear, incisive voice, then mounted his grey Arab. A child waved to him from an upper window. He waved back, lifted his hat to the two girls as they passed, then, his staff behind him, rode rapidly off toward the sound of the firing.

Miriam and Christianna, turning a little northward, found themselves on a hillside thronged with people. It was like a section of an amphitheatre, and it commanded a great stretch of lowland broken here and there by slight elevations. Much of the plain was in forest, but in some places the waist-deep corn was waving, and in others the wheat stood in shocks. There were marshes and boggy green meadows and old fields of pine and broom sedge. Several roads could be seen. They all ran into a long and low cloud of smoke. It veiled the northern horizon, and out of it came the thunder. First appeared dull orange flashes, then, above the low-lying thickness, the small white expanding cloud made by the bursting shell, then to the ear rushed the thunder. On the plain, from the defences which rimmed the city northward to the battle cloud, numbers of grey troops were visible, some motionless, some marching. They looked like toy soldiers. The sun heightened red splashes that were known to be battle-flags. Horsemen could be seen galloping from point to point. In the intervals between the thunders the hillside heard the tap of drum and the bugles blowing. The moving soldiers were going toward the cloud.

Miriam and Christianna sank down beneath a little tree. They were on a facet of the hill not quite so advantageous as others. The crowded slopes were beyond. However, one could see the smoke cloud and hear the cannon, and that was all that could be done anyhow. There were men

and women about them, children, boys. The women were the most silent,-pale and silent; the men uttered low exclamations or soliloquies, or talked together. The boys were all but gleeful-save when they looked at the grown people, and then they tried for solemnity. Some of the children went to sleep. A mother nursed her babe. Near the foot of this hill, through a hollow, there ran a branch,-Bacon Quarter Branch. Here, in the seventeenth century, had occurred an Indian massacre. The heavy, primeval woods had rung to the whoop of the savage, the groan of the settler, the scream of English woman and child. To-day the woods had been long cut, and the red man was gone. War remained-he had only changed his war paint and cry and weapons.

Miriam clasped her thin brown hands about her knee, rested her chin on them, and fastened her great brown eyes on the distant battle cloud. Christianna, her sunbonnet pushed back, looked too, with limpid, awe-struck gaze. Were Pap and Dave and Billy fighting in that cloud? It was thicker than the morning mist in the hollow below Thunder Run Mountain, and it was not fleecy, pure, and white. It was yellowish, fierce, and ugly, and the sound that came from it made her heart beat thick and hard. Was he there-Was Allan Gold there in the cloud? She felt that she could not sit still; she wished to walk toward it. That being impossible, she began to make a little moaning sound. A woman in black, sitting on the grass near her, looked across. "Don't!" she said. "If you do that, all of us will do it. We've got to keep calm. If we let go, it would be like Rachel weeping. Try to be quiet."

Christianna, who had moaned as she crooned, hardly knowing it, at once fell silent. Another woman spoke to her. "Would you mind holding my baby? My head aches so. I must lie down here on the grass, just a minute." Christianna took the baby. She handled it skilfully, and it was presently cooing against her breast. Were Pap and Dave over there, shooting and cutting? And Billy-Billy with a gun now instead of the spear the blacksmith had made him? And Allan Gold was not teaching in the schoolhouse on Thunder Run....

The woman took the baby back. The sun blazed down, there came a louder burst of sound. A man with a field-glass, standing near, uttered a "Tchk!" of despair. "Impenetrable curtain! The ancients managed things better-they did not fight in a fog!"

He seemed a person having authority, and the people immediately about him appealed for information. He looked through the glass and gave it, and was good, too, about lending the glass. "It's A. P. Hill, I'm sure-with Longstreet to support him. It's A. P. Hill's brigades that are moving into the smoke. Most of that firing is from our batteries along the Chickahominy. We are going undoubtedly to cross to the north bank-Yes. McClellan's right wing-Fitz John Porter-A good soldier-Oh, he'll have about twenty-five thousand men."

A boy, breathing excitement from top to toe, sent up a shrill voice. "Isn't Jackson coming, sir? Aren't they looking for Jackson?"

The soldier who had drunk the milk was discovered by Miriam and Christianna, near their tree. He gave his voice. "Surely! He'll have come down from Ashland and A. P. Hill is crossing here. That's an army north, and a big lot of troops south, and Fitz John Porter is between like a nut in a nut cracker. The cracker has only to work all right, and crush goes the filbert!" He raised himself and peered under puckered brows at the smoke-draped horizon. "Yes, he's surely over there-Stonewall.-Going to flank Fitz John Porter-Then we'll hear a hell of a fuss."

"There's a battery galloping to the front," said the man with the glass. "Look, one of you! Wipe the glass; it gets misty. If it's the Purcell, I've got two sons-"

The soldier took the glass, turning it deftly with one hand. "Yes, think it is the Purcell. Don't you worry, sir! They're all right. Artillerymen are hard to kill-That's Pender's brigade going now-"

Christianna clutched Miriam. "Look! look! Oh, what is it?"

It soared into the blue, above the smoke. The sunlight struck it and it became a beautiful iridescent bubble, large as the moon. "Oh, oh!" cried the boy. "Look at the balloon!"

The hillside kept silence for a moment while it gazed, then-"Is it ours?-No; it is theirs!-It is going up from the hill behind Beaver Dam Creek.-Oh, it is lovely!-Lovely! No, no, it is horrible!-Look, look! there is another!"

A young man, a mechanic, with sleeves rolled up, began to expatiate on "ours." "We haven't got but one-it was made in Savannah by Dr. Langon Cheves. Maybe they'll send it up to-day, maybe not. I've seen it. It's like Joseph's coat in the Bible. They say the ladies gave their silk dresses for it. Here'll be a strip of purple and here one of white with roses on it, and here it is black, and here it is yellow as gold. They melted rubber car-springs in naphtha and varnished it with that, and they're going to fill it with city gas at the gas works-"

The bubbles floated in the clear air, above and beyond the zone of smoke. It was now between four and five in the afternoon. The slant rays of the sun struck them and turned them mother-of-pearl. An old man lifted a dry, thin voice like a grasshopper's. "Once I went to Niagara, and there was a balloon ascension. Everybody held their breath when the fellow went up, and he got into some trouble, I don't remember just what it was, and we almost died of anxiety until he came down; and when he landed we almost cried we were so glad, and we patted him on the back and hurrahed-and he was a Yankee, too! And now it's war time, and there's nothing I 'd like better than to empty a revolver into that fine windbag!"

The sound in the air became heavier. A man on horseback spurred along the base of the hill. The people nearest stopped him. "Tell you? I can't tell you! Nobody ever knows anything about a battle till it's over, and not much then. Is Jackson over there? I don't know. He ought to be, so I reckon he is! If he isn't, it's A. P. Hill's battle, all alone."

He was gone. "I don't believe it's much more than long-range firing yet," said the soldier. "Our batteries on the Chickahominy-and they are answering from somewhere beyond Beaver Dam Creek. No musketry. Hello! The tune's changing!"

It changed with such violence that after a moment's exclamation the people sat or stood in silence, pale and awed. Speculation ceased. The plunging torrent of sound whelmed the mind and stilled the tongue. The soldier held out a moment. "Close range now. The North's always going to beat us when it comes to metal soldiers. I wonder how many they've got over there, anyhow!" Then he, too, fell silent.

The deep and heavy booming shook air and earth. It came no longer in distinct shocks but with a continuous roar. The smoke screen grew denser and taller, mounting toward the balloons. There was no seeing for that curtain; it could only be noted that bodies of grey troops moved toward it, went behind it. A thin, elderly man, a school-teacher, borrowed the glass, fixed it, but could see nothing. He gave it back with a shake of the head, sat down again on the parched grass, and veiled his eyes with his hand. "'Hell is murky,'" he said.

No lull occurred in the firing. The sun as it sank reddened the battle cloud that by now had blotted out the balloons. "When it is dark," said the soldier, "it will be like fireworks." An hour later the man with the glass discovered a string of wagons on one of the roads. It was coming citywards. "Ambulances!" he said, in a shaking voice.

"Ambulances-ambulances-" The word went through the crowd like a sigh. It broke the spell. Most on the hillside might have an interest there. Parents, wives, brothers, sisters, children, they rose, they went away in the twilight like blown leaves. The air was rocking; orange and red lights began to show as the shells exploded. Christianna put her hand on Miriam's. "Miss Miriam-Miss Miriam! Mrs. Cleave'll say I didn't take care of you. Let's go-let's go. They're bringing back the wounded. Pap might be there or Dave or Billy or-Miss Miriam, Miss Miriam, your brother might be there."

The long June dusk melted into night, and still the city shook to the furious cannonading. With the dark it saw, as it had not seen in the sunshine. As the soldier said, it was like fireworks.

Beginning at twilight, the wagons with the wounded came all night long. Ambulances, farm wagons, carts, family carriages, heavy-laden, they rumbled over the cobblestones with the sound of the tumbrels in the Terror. It was stated that a number of the wounded were in the field hospitals. In the morning the knowledge was general that very many had lain, crying for water, all night in the slashing before Beaver Dam Creek.

All the houses in Richmond were lighted. Through the streets poured a tide of fevered life. News-News-News!-demanded from chance couriers, from civilian spectators of the battle arriving pale and exhausted, from the drivers of wagon, cart, and carriage, from the less badly wounded-"Ours the victory-is it not? is it not?-Who led?-who fought?-who is fighting now? Jackson came? Jackson certainly came? We are winning-are we not? are we not?" Suspense hung palpable in the hot summer night, suspense, exaltation, fever. It breathed in the hot wind, it flickered in the lights, it sounded in the voice of the river. For many there sounded woe as well-woe and wailing for the dead. For others, for many, many others, there was a misery of searching, a heart-breaking going from hospital to hospital. "Is he here?-Are they here?" The cannon stopped at nine o'clock.

The Stonewall Hospital was poorly lighted. In ward number 23 the oil lamps, stuck in brackets along the walls, smoked. At one end, where two pine tables were placed, the air from the open window blew the flames distractingly. A surgeon, half dead with fatigue, strained well-nigh to the point of tears, exclaimed upon it. "That damned wind! Shut the window, Miss Cary. Yes, tight! It's hell anyhow, and that's what you do in hell-burn up!"

Judith closed the window. As she did so she looked once at the light on the northern horizon. The firing shook the window-pane. The flame of the lamp now stood straight. She turned the wick higher, then lifted a pitcher and poured water into a basin, and when the surgeon had washed his hands took away the reddened stuff. Two negroes laid a man on the table-a gaunt North Carolinian, his hand clutching a shirt all stiffened blood. Between his eyelids showed a gleam of white, his breath came with a whistling sound. Judith bent the rigid fingers open, drew the hand aside, and cut away the shirt. The surgeon looked. "Humph! Well, a body can but try. Now, my man, you lie right still, and I won't hurt you much. Come this side, Miss Cary-No, wait a moment!-It's no use. He's dying."

The North Carolinian died. The negroes lifted him from the table and put another in his place. "Amputation," said the surgeon. "Hold it firmly, Miss Cary; just there." He turned to the adjoining table where a younger man was sewing up a forearm, ripped from wrist to elbow by a piece of shell. "Lend me your saw, will you, Martin?-Yes, I know the heat's fearful! but I can't work by a lamp that has Saint Vitus!" He turned back to his table. "Now, my lad, you just clench your teeth. Miss Cary and I aren't going to hurt you any more than we can help. Yes, above the knee." The younger surgeon, having finished the cut, wiped away with a towel the sweat that blinded him. "The next.-Hm! Doctor, will you look here a moment?-Oh, I see you can't! It's no use, Mrs. Opie. Better have him taken back. He'll die in an hour.-The next."

The ward was long, low ceiled, with brown walls and rafters. Between the patches of lamplight the shadows lay wide and heavy. The cots, the pallets, the pew cushions sewed together, were placed each close by each. A narrow aisle ran between the rows; by each low bed there was just standing room. The beds were all filled, and the wagons bringing more rumbled on the cobblestones without. All the long place was reekingly hot, with a strong smell of human effluvia, of sweat-dampened clothing, of blood and powder grime. There was not much crying aloud; only when a man was brought in raving, or when there came a sharp scream from some form under the surgeon's knife. But the place seemed one groan, a sound that swelled or sank, but never ceased. The shadows on the wall, fantastically dancing, mocked this with nods and becks and waving arms,-mocked the groaning, mocked the heat, mocked the smell, mocked the thirst, mocked nausea, agony, delirium, and the rattle in the throat, mocked the helpers and the helped, mocked the night and the world and the dying and the dead. At dawn the cannon began again.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top