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   Chapter 40 A GUNNER OF PELHAM'S

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 15596

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Major John Pelham looked at the clouds boiling up above Bull Run Mountains.

"Rain, rain go away,

Come again another day!-"

he said. "What's the house they've burned over there?"

"Chantilly, sir."

Ruined wall and chimney, fallen roof-tree, gaping holes where windows had been, the old mansion stood against the turmoil of the sky. It looked a desolation, a poignant gloom, an unrelieved sorrow. A courier appeared. "The enemy's rearguard is near Ox Hill, sir. They've driven in some of our patrols. The main body is moving steady toward Fairfax Court House. General Jackson has sent the Light Division forward. General Stuart's going, too. He says, 'Come on.'"

The clouds mounted high and dark, thunder began to mutter; by the time a part of the Light Division and a brigade of Ewell's came into touch with Reno and Kearney, the afternoon, already advanced, was of the hue of twilight. Presently there set in a violent storm of thunder and lightning, wind and rain. The trees writhed like wounded soldiers, the rain came level against the face, stinging and blinding, the artillery of the skies out-thundered man's inventions. It grew darker and darker, save for the superb, far-showing lightning flashes. Beneath these the blue and the grey plunged into an engagement at short range.

What with the howling of the storm, the wind that took voices and whirled them high and away, the thunder above and the volleying musketry below, to hear an order was about the most difficult feat imaginable. Stafford gathered, however, that Lawton, commanding since Ewell's wound, was sending him to Jackson with a statement as to affairs on this wing. He went, riding hard against the slanting rain, and found Jackson standing in the middle of the road, a piece of bronze played round by lightning. One of the brigadiers was speaking to him. "The cartridges are soaking wet, sir. I do not know that I can hold my position." Jackson's voice came deep and curt. "Yes, sir, you can. If your muskets won't go off, neither will the enemy's. You are to hold it, whether you can or not. Go and do it."

The brigadier went. Stafford gave his information, and received an order. "Go back along the road until you find the horse artillery. Tell Major Pelham to bring his guns to the knoll yonder with the blasted tree."

Stafford turned his horse and started. The rain and wind were now at his back-a hundred paces, and the road, lonely save for stragglers, the grey troops, the battle in front, was all sheeted and shrouded in the darkly drifting storm. The fitful bursts of musketry were lost beneath the artillery of the clouds. He travelled a mile, found Pelham and gave his order, then stood aside under the tossing pines while the horse artillery went by. It went by in the dusk of the storm, in the long howl of the wind and the dash of the rain, like the iron chariots of Pluto, the horses galloping, the gunners clinging wherever they might place hand or foot, the officers and mounted men spurring alongside. Stafford let them all turn a bend in the road, then followed.

All this stretch of road and field and wood had been skirmished over, Stuart and the blue cavalry having been in touch through the earlier part of the day. The road was level, with the mournful boggy fields, with the wild bending woods. In the fields and in the woods there were dark objects, which might be mounds of turf or huge twisted roots, or which might be dead men and horses. Stafford, riding through wind and rain, had no sooner thought this than he saw, indeed, what seemed a mere hummock beneath a clump of cedars undoubtedly move. He looked as closely as he might for the war of water, air, and fire, and made out a horse outstretched and stark, and a man pinned beneath. The man spoke. "Hello, upon the road there! Come and do a Christian turn!"

Stafford left his horse and, stepping through a quagmire of watery turf, came into the ring of cedars. The man who had called upon him, a tall, long-moustached person in blue, one arm and booted leg painfully caught beneath the dead steed, spoke in a voice curt with suffering. "Grey, aren't you? Don't care. Can't help it. Get this infernal weight off me, won't you?"

The other bent to the task, and at last managed to free the blue soldier. "There! That position must have been no joke! How long-"

The blue cavalryman proceeded to feel bone and flesh, slowly and cautiously to move the imprisoned limbs. He drew a breath of relief. "Nothing broken!-How long? Well, to reckon by one's feeling I should say about a week. Say, however, since about noon. We drove against a party under Stuart. He got the best of us, and poor Caliph got a bullet. I could see the road. Everything grey-grey as the sea."

"Why didn't you call before? Any one would have helped you."

The other continued to rub his arm and leg. "You haven't got a drop of brandy-eh?"

"Yes, I have. I should have thought of that before." He gave the other a small flask. The cavalryman drank. "Ah! in '55, when I was with Walker in Nicaragua, I got pinned like that beneath a falling cottonwood." He gave the flask back. "You are the kind of Samaritan I like to meet. I feel a new man. Thanks awfully."

"It was foolish of you to lie there for hours-"

The other leaned his back against a cedar. "Well, I thought I might hold out, perhaps, until we beat you and I was again in the house of my friends. I don't, however, object to acknowledging that you're hard to beat. Couldn't manage it. Growing cold and faint-head ringing. Waited as long as I could, then called. They say your prisons are very bad."

"They are no worse than yours."

"That may be. Any of them are bad."

"We are a ravaged and blockaded country. It is with some difficulty that we feed and clothe our armies in the field. As for medicines with which to fight disease, you will not let them pass, not for our women and children and sick at home, and not for your own men in prison. And, for all our representations, you will not exchange prisoners. If there is undue suffering, I think you must share the blame."

"Yes, yes, it is all hellish enough!-Well, on one side of the dice, prisoner of war; on the other, death here under poor Caliph. Might escape from prison, no escape from death. By Jove, what a thunderclap! It's Stonewall Jackson pursuing us, eh?"

"Yes. I hear Pelham's guns-You are an Englishman?"

"Yes. Francis Marchmont, at your service; colonel of the Marchmont"-he laughed-"Invincibles."

"I am Maury Stafford, serving on General Ewell's staff.-Yes, that's Pelham."

He straightened himself. "I must be getting back to the front. It is hard to hear for the wind and rain and thunder, but I think the musketry is recommencing." He looked about him. "We came through these woods this morning. Stuart has patrols everywhere, but I think that dip between the hills may be clear. You are pretty pale yet. You had better keep the brandy flask. Are you sure that you can walk?"

"Walk beside you into your lines, you mean?"

"No. I mean try a way out between the hills."

"I am not your prisoner?"

"No."

Marchmont pulled at his moustaches. "Yes. I think I can walk. I won't deprive you of your flask-but if I might have another mouthful-Thank you." He rose stiffly. "If at any time I can serve you, I trust that you will remember my name-Francis Marchmont, colonel Marchmont Invincibles. Send me a slip of paper, a word, anything. Ox Hill will do-and you will find me at your service. Yes, the firing is beginning again-"

Stafford, once more upon the road, travelled northward in an unabated storm. Tree and bush, weed, flower and grass, writhed and shrank beneath the anger of the air; the rain hissed and beat, the lightning glared, the thunder crashed. Be

tween the flashes all was dusk. Before him the rattle of musketry, the booming of the guns grew louder. He saw to the right, on a bare rise of ground, Pelham's guns.

There came an attempted flanking movement of the blue-a dash of cavalry met by Stuart and followed by a movement of two of Hill's brigades. The action barred the road and fields before Stafford. He watched it a moment, then turned aside and mounted the rise of ground to Pelham's guns. A great lightning-flash lit them, ranged above him. All their wet metal gleamed; about them moved the gunners; a man with a lifted sponge staff looked an unearthly figure against the fantastic castles and battlements, the peaks and abysses of the boiling clouds. The light vanished; Stafford came level with the guns in the dusk.

Pelham welcomed him. "'Trust in God and keep your powder dry,' eh, major? It's the kind of storm you read about-Hello! they've brought up another battery-"

Stafford dismounted. One of the guns had the vent so burned and enlarged that it was useless. It rested cold and silent beside its bellowing fellows. Stafford seated himself on the limber, and watched the double storm. It raged above the little hill, with its chain lightnings, with wind, with reverberations of thunder; and it raged below, between some thousands of grey and blue figures, small, small, in the dusk, shadowy manikins sending from metal tubes glow-worm flashes! He sat, with his chin in his hand, pondering the scene.

Pelham came heavily into action. There was a blue battery on the opposite hill. The two spoke in whispers beneath the storm. The gunners, now in darkness, now in the vivid lightning, moved about the guns. Now they bent low, now they stood upright. The officer gestured to them and they to each other. Several were killed or wounded; and as now this section, now that, was more deeply engaged, there was some shifting among the men, occasional changes of place. The dusk increased; it was evident that soon night and the storm would put an end to the battle. Stafford, watching, made out that even now the blue and grey forms in the tossing woods and boggy meadows were showing less and less their glow-worm fires, were beginning to move apart. The guns above them boomed more slowly, with intervals between their speech. The thunder came now, not in ear-splitting cracks but with long rolling peals, with spaces between filled only by the wind and the rain. The human voice might be heard, and the officers shouted, not gestured their orders. The twilight deepened. The men about the gun nearest Stafford looked but shadows, bending, leaning across, rising upright. They talked, however, and the words were now audible. "Yes, if you could handle lightning-take one of them zigzags and turn it loose on blue people!"-"That battery is tired; it's going home! Right tired myself. Reckon we're all tired but Old Jack. He don't never get tired. This is a pretty behaving gun-" "That's so! and she's got good men. They do first-rate."-"That's so! Even the new one's good"-"Good! He learned that gun same as though they grew artillery wherever he came from. Briery Creek-No, Briony Creek-hey, Deaderick?"

"Briony Creek."

Stafford dropped his hand. "Who spoke?"

The question had been breathed, not loudly uttered. No one answered. The gunners continued their movements about the guns, stooping, handling, lifting themselves upright. It was all but night, the lightning less and less violent, revealing little beyond mere shape and action. Stafford sank back. "Storm within and storm without. They breed delusions!"

The blue battery opposite limbered up and went away. The musketry fire in the hollows between the hills grew desultory. A slow crackle of shots would be followed by silence; then might come with fierce energy a sudden volley; silence followed it, too,-or what, by comparison, seemed silence. The thunder rolled more and more distantly, the wind lashed the trees, the rain beat upon the guns. Officers and men of the horse artillery were too tired, too wet, and too busy for much conversation, but still human voices came and went in the lessening blast, in the semi-darkness and the streaming rain.

There was a gunner near Stafford who worked in silence and rested from his work in silence. Stafford became conscious of him during one of the latter periods-a silent man, leaning against his gun. He was not ten feet away, but the twilight was now deep, and he rested indistinct, a shadow against a shadow. Once there came a pale lightning flash, but his arm was raised as if to shield his eyes, and there was seen but a strongly made gunner with a sponge staff. Darkness came again at once. The impression that remained with Stafford was that the gunner's face was turned toward him, that he had, indeed, when the flash came, been regarding him somewhat closely. That was nothing-a man not of the battery, a staff officer sitting on a disabled gun, waiting till he could make his way back to his chief-a moment's curiosity on an artilleryman's part, exhibited in a lull between fighting. Stafford had a certain psychic development. A thinker, he was adventurous in that world; to him, the true world of action. The passion that had seized and bound him had come with the force of an invader, of a barbaric horde, from a world that he ordinarily ignored. It held him helpless, an enslaved spirit, but around it vaguely worked the old habits of mind. Now it interested him-though only to a certain degree-that, in some subtle fashion and for some reason which he could not explain, the gunner with the sponge staff could so make himself felt across space. He wondered a little about this man; and then, insensibly, he began to review the past. He had resolution enough, and he did not always choose to review the past. To-night it was perhaps the atmosphere, the commotion of the elements, the harp of the wind, the scourging rain-at any rate, he reviewed it and fully. When the circle was completed and his attention touched again the storm and the twilight hill near Chantilly, and he lifted his eyes from the soaked and trodden ground, it was to find the double shadow still before him. He felt that the eyes of the gunner with the sponge staff were on him, had been on him for some time. Quite involuntarily he moved, with a sudden gesture, as though he evaded a blow. A sergeant's voice came through the twilight, the wind and the rain. "Deaderick!"

The man by the gun moved, took up the sponge staff that had rested beside him, turned in the darkness and went away.

A little later Stafford left the hilltop. The cannon had ceased their booming, except for here and there a fitful burst; the musketry fire had ceased. Pope's rearguard, Lee's advance, the two drew off and the engagement rested indecisive. Blue and grey, a thousand or two men suffered death or wounding. They lay upon the miry earth, beneath the pelting storm. Among the blue, Kearney and Stevens were killed. Through the darkness that wrapped the scene, Stafford found at last his way to his general. He found him with Stuart, who was reporting to Stonewall Jackson. "They're retreating pretty rapidly, sir. They'll reach Fairfax Court House presently."

"Yes. They won't stop there. We'll bivouac on the field, general."

"And to-morrow, sir?"

"To-morrow, sir, we will follow them out of Virginia."

September the second dawned bright and clear. From Fairfax Court House Pope telegraphed to Halleck. "There is undoubted purpose on the part of the enemy to keep on slowly turning my position so as to come in on the right. The forces under my command are unable to prevent his doing so. Telegraph what to do."

Halleck telegraphed to fall back to the fortifications of Alexandria and Washington.

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