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Owen Parry's Faded Coat of Blue
Civil War historical mystery
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Faded Coat of Blue
First Chapter

Owen Parry's Faded Coat of Blue coverA sentry with troubled bowels discovered the body. A shock it must havebeen for the boy. He fired off his rifle and the Good Lord knows whatelse, then ran up through the mud and fog to his camp. I do not faultthe lad, you understand. A soldier may be brave easily enough with hiscomrades all about him. But a boy new to service, touched with sicknessand with the autumn chill upon him, such a one might be forgiven awallop of fear when he tumbles over a dead officer in the pursuit of awinkle of privacy.
He should not have left his post, of course. That he should not havedone. But they were all the greenest of soldiers in those days. As greenas Gwent. Their days were full of drill and boasting, but well I knowthe nights of a soldier's doubt. So I understand what the lad felt, whenhe found the fairest of young men bedded down in the morning dark with abullet through his heart.
The rest arrived at a run, slopping down through the mire the storm hadleft, and a dangerous pack they were. Lads in their unmentionables, withcartridge boxes flapping and rifles poorly handled. Sergeants bellowed.Company officers stumbled as they tried to run and draw on their bootsat the same time, tripping over swords they had not mastered. Wet andweary they were. And some fool blasted a bugle.
I was not there. I am reconstructing events. But I have known many acamp surprised by a creeping enemy or a stray cow, and there was alwaysa terrible confusion at the first. So I see them flushing out of theirtents at the sound of their sentinel's shot, eyes hungry for more lightand hearts in an uproar. I hear the voices of the weaker souls, cryingout that the Rebels were upon them, and aimless shots.
When no one fired back, they settled a bit, and the light rose. YoungPrivate Haney--for that was his name--blundered in leading a party downto his discovery. They slipped in the muck of the hillside, where themen had torn away each last twig for their campfires, and cursedrelentlessly, though profanity helps no man. At last, they reached thebody, down in the ravine, lying a pistol shot from the military road.They told me the dead man looked like an angel fallen to earth, but someof them were Irish and given to adorning language.
Later, they would all learn a muchness of death. More than any manshould know. But let that bide. Their regiment was too new to have beenat Bull Run, and the corpse was the first most of the men had seen. I donot count those taken by typhoid and the like, for that is a naturalthing. This death was unnatural, and they knew it in their souls. Thenewspapermen wrote that the dead officer possessed the countenance andvoice of a sweet, blessed saint. They had written that even before hisdeath, after which no commentary might be trusted. The young man wasknown, and beloved, and should have lived long.
The soldiers who stood over his body were rugged lads from the highlandsof New York, hill farmers. They were not great readers of thenewspapers, and they certainly would not have left their fields for alecture on the evils of slavery. They were men who worked hard, tillerswith settled eyes and small expectations even in their youth, and theirshoulders were oxen. They admired the officer in his death, but couldnot fix him with a name, and only stood about, uncertain what to do,looking down on his beauty. He was not of their regiment, and not oftheir world. Not even a sergeant dared touch his fine blue coat.
It took the officers to recognize him. Officers are terrible ones forspotting the bad in a situation, and not a few soon make it worse. Ispoke with them later, in the course of my inquiry, and they told me howit was. At first, they, too, caught the fear of an attack and went aboutrallying the men--valiantly, to hear them tell it--but with the climbingof the light Captain Steele made his way down to the party gathered overthe corpse. He thought he knew the face that lay before him, but he hadbeen a lawyer before he took up arms and went cautiously about things.He waited until Major Campbell, the adjutant, joined him.
Now Campbell was a great Scotsman, and they are devils in the morning,see. He come down barking and settling his belt, sword in his hand. Hehad been a politician in his county, and that sort is ever more given tospeech than to thought, although base calculation is not beyond them.The men moved aside for their major, and he saw the still, white facewith its frame of golden hair, and brayed for all the world. "Well, I'llbe damned and resurrected," he said, and I am certain he was halfcorrect. "That's Anthony Fowler."
It was a death that changed my life.
I was not there, for my regimental days were behind me. I had failed mynew country at Bull Run, but a Welshman is a tenacious thing when youspin him up and I was a clerking officer now. I missed my Mary Myfanwyand longed to return to her, but duty is not a thing that will let go ofa man if he holds the least worth. When the call sounded through theward for men who could figure accounts, I stood to it. That I stillcould do for our Union. My leg pained me, I will not lie to you, but Iwould have walked through serpents like a Hindoo holy man to leave thestench of that hospital behind. Twas the smell of bad butchering.
So I was not in that encampment south of the Potomac on the second ofNovember, in the Year of Our Lord 1861. Nor was I in any camp or fort ofthe hundreds ringing our capital. Nor was I in my bed at Mrs.Schutzengel's boardinghouse, though as a middle-aged man of thirty-threeI was ever glad of its warmth. No, ladies and gentlemen, that morning Iwas down at the depot below our unfinished Capitol, waiting for atrainload of trousers.
Twas but four in the morning, with the world black and shivering. Therehad been a great rain and blow in the night, and a window-rattling as ifdeath himself had gone walking. It had barely stopped when I left mybed. The cold was enough to make a man want shelter, but the depot hallwas locked to keep out the drunkards lamming from the provost marshal.Carters bunched in the streets, their horses slithering wet and wagonscreaking.
There were always loaded wagons about the depot. The war was a greatbenefit for tradesmen, a matter I was studying in my new position, andspace for goods on the trains was a precious thing. Men fought withtheir fists and their dollars for right of place. The Marylander bridgeswere not in steady repair, and even when they were up the governmentseemed to favor Mr. Cameron's Harrisburg line, which took the long wayabout, over the short route to Philadelphia. It made for a great wantingof trains. There was always more cargo than capacity. It was a new worldof steel rails and high business, and we were learning it in the midstofa war, and there was more than a whisper of dishonesty in these matters.A man would have expected all of the cargoes to come into Washington tosupport our army, with little returning to the north. But all around mewagons rich with cotton and tobacco wedged toward the rails, and I didnot think all was of legitimate provenance. But let that bide.
I stood under a gaslight, doing figures. The rain was not above a tardysplash, but no time is to be wasted, as my Mary Myfanwy would have said.There was cold, but a man must learn to appreciate his advantages. Withthe heat behind us for the year, Washington did not stink so badly, andthat was a blessing. Now I am an old bayonet and a veteran of JohnCompany's fusses, and my nose has not been stuffed with violets from thecradle up. But I tell you I have never smelled a great stink like thatof Washington in the summer. It filled me with wonder, when first I metit face to face. Neither your Seekh nor your wild Afghanee would havelived amid such a terrible odor, but would have run screaming. A wild,dirty, unfinished little place it was in those days, our Washington. Toa man who had seen London, Delhi, and Lahore, it was not much at all.Pardon me the sin of pride.
As I stood under that gaslight, with just a little stink rising from thecanal and the leavings of the market, a wonder appeared before my eyes.A great carriage come up, with a pair of outriders in uniform and abrace of other carriages following. A trooper leapt out of his saddleand banged on the station door. He went at it with great whacks, whilehis comrades flustered about the big carriage, pulling on a pair of armsas if the occupant was unwilling to emerge.
Twas General Scott.
History stepped down before me, ladies and gentlemen. Six-foot-five andmany a pound of it. General Scott come squeezing out the door of thatcarriage, fair blooming out of it, his cloak heavy with braid and hisfeathered hat before him. He was a great massive man, a good doer attable, and you could see what a specimen he had been in his prime. Buthe groaned and grunted now, and could not manage the carriage stepswithout the aid of a little army of staff officers.
His going had been rumored, his resignation expected, but we lessers hadno facts to hand. Of course, we all wanted to see him go, in ourheartlessness and our folly. He was too old, too fat, too tired for us.With the years behind me, I see his greatness now. But the country feltonly impatience with him that autumn, and I longed to be one with my newcountry. Bull Run be jiggered--if you will excuse my ferocity--the Unionwanted to march on Richmond. I knew better, of course, but what isknowledge compared to emotion?
We thought we had our man in General McClellan. But I must not go tooswiftly.
Lights rose in the hall, and General Scott plumped for the doors, an oldbear on parade. You could hear his limbs weep. A teamster hollered,"You're a-going the wrong way, gen'rul. Rebs is yonder." But none of hisfellows took up the mockery. The carriages in trail produced faceshalf-familiar, politicians who perched at the bar in Mr. Willard'shotel, and ladies made fine, the sort who stuck to the north side ofPennsylvania Avenue on their promenades. Old Scott was going, but hewould not go alone. His companions were making a social affair of it.
There is sadness in such doings.
The general did not see me. I am not great of stature, nor a commandingsort. Nor was I a man of any importance. But I saw the old man's face.Twas the composition of sorrow.
Just as he was set to enter the station, we heard an uproar come on at agallop, the shot crack of horseshoes on wet paving, then the muffling asthey turned into the mud of the station yard. Accouterments jangled, andtroopers riding in advance shouted a path through the wagons and cartsand stray women of the sort who have lost their direction in life.
I am a man blessed with an instinct for where to look, and it has oftenbeen in the direction opposite from the public's attention. With thecavalcade just upon us, I turned toward General Scott. What I saw wasfar sadder than the loneliness of retirement. I saw hope. I understoodhim, you see, as one soldier understands another. I saw the quick,bright glow of hope that his President had changed his mind, refusing toaccept his resignation and recalling him to his generalcy over the newmultitudes in blue.
He was disappointed. General McClellan, our champion and as young asScott was old, pranced up on his stallion. Even in the dark, the manshone, and his India-rubber cape looked like a lord's hunting kit. Weall knew him by sight, great galloper that he was. McClellan was everunderway, racing over the long bridge to inspect the fortifications onthe Virginia side, dashing up to the heights to welcome a newly arrivedregiment, always on his infernal monster of a horse. Little Mac was themost visible man in the Union, a fellow who might have made a greatcareer in the theater, had he not been fitted to the military. I had afondness for him because he was a great man but not a big one, barelytaller than myself. I thought him set to convince the world at last ofthe spark in the man of compact physique. And he was anotherPennsylvania man.
McClellan made a perfect stop on his horse, gallant and just broadsideto the old general, then he threw back his wet cape. The two men shareda taste for fine uniforms, and even this early in the morning they wereresplendent. No Worth gown will match the magnificence of a general withan indulgent tailor.
Another man might have found humor in the contrast between themountainous old soldier and the young rooster set to replace him. Intruth, McClellan did not come up to Scott's shoulders. Not even with hisFrench cap on. But Mac had zest, and old Scott did not. The young mancarried it off with a fine salute. I was proud of him.
It seemed generous to me that McClellan should rise so early to bid alast farewell to an old soldier, but perhaps it was simply clever. Nomatter. I believed in its decency at the time. And once his facesettled, General Scott appeared pleased, accepting the visit as a markof respect from the boy who booted him, unwilling to think further onit.
I heard nothing of their conversation beyond the greeting, for admirerssurrounded them, and the sound of an incoming train called me to duty. Ihad received a telegraphic message promising that a much-delayedshipment of trousers would arrive with certainty this time. We hadsoldiers standing guard in their drawers and sharing blankets undertentage that would not keep out a spit of tobacco. A week back, GeneralMeigs, who was a hard and honest fellow, had condemned twenty-fivethousand army overcoats that had been delivered shoddy. Think of thecost of such like. Our government bled money to buy the things thesoldiers needed, but the relationship between payment and deliveryseemed to have broken down. There was not an excess of honesty among themanufacturers, if I may be pardoned the frankness, and not a few seemedto regard the war first and foremost as a splendid opportunity tobolster their fortunes. Nor was our government composed entirely ofinnocents.
In the camps, sickness whittled at our regiments while the officersquibbled. My new duty was to clothe them, yet I could not do even that.It was a dark time, that first autumn of the war. We had no victories,and few heroes. The country was impatient with Mr. Lincoln. It seemed wecould not bear another blow. But let that bide.
The trousers did not arrive. There was a shipment of cannon of a marklater found to explode upon repeated firings, and a company of zouavessang a vulgar tune off pitch as they staggered from the train. But thecargo master had nothing for me.
General Scott boarded a fine private car behind his own locomotive, setto pull away ahead of the six o'clock train. McClellan bid him ahandsome farewell, then strutted off, pausing only to inspect a drivingwheel, for he had become a big railroad man before the war. Mr. Cameron,our Secretary of War and himself a railroad fellow, come hurrying tojoin old Scott, but he and Little Mac went out of each other's way likecholera shunning the plague. Only the barest of formal greetings passedbetween them, though they were both Pennsylvania men.
Now I worked on loan to Mr. Cameron's department under a queerarrangement with the Quartermaster General, and I would have liked tobelieve in the man. But I could not mistake that he had greatacquaintance among those manufacturers least respondent to payment. Ihad twice been warned not to bother mill owners for due delivery. AndMr. Cameron had great interests in ore and iron and steel, as well. Hewould have been right at home in Merthyr's mill offices, or up inCrawshay's Castle. White-haired and weak of chin, Mr. Cameron had anarrow face and the eyes of a barracks lender. I marked it to LittleMac's credit that there was no great love between them. But let thatbide.
The depot was a blustering place, what with the loading and the workmenshouting and the parlor laughter of the ladies attending the general.Bales tumbled from wagons and raindrops skirmished. Newspapermen, hardlycreatures of the dawn, accumulated beside Scott's railway coach, weavingand pitching questions. Cars shifted, brakes shrieked, and steam rose. Acourier boy ran up to one of the scribblers, and the man left quickly,as though the general's interest to the public had vanished in aninstant, but I thought nothing of it at the time.
Nor did I think on the trouserless infantry, if I am to be honest. Mythoughts were fixed on myself, and they were sour. I had been made afool again, see. I had presumed to lead a company of men into battle,but I could not even secure a shipment of woolens. Perhaps I should havegone back to Pottsville and my Mary Myfanwy, for all the good I was tothe Union.
I marched off in vexation. Along the first blocks of PennsylvaniaAvenue, I had to keep to the high sidewalk, for the street was underwater from the storm. A dead cat floated by and the slop water comeright up to the base of the elms. Twas Saturday, and early still, yetfarmers creaked in to market atop weathered carts, the rough wheelschurning through the flood. Wet through, their wives shielded pies tohawk to the soldiers. Wagons of firewood, down from the counties, rolledbehind nags too broken to sell to army purchasing agents. Drovers chasedmuddy beeves along the great avenue, a day's feed for the army, andlanguage that was not Christian followed them. A boy sold chestnuts froma brazier for a workingman's breakfast. The fragrance took me in itsthrall till I was tempted to buy, but we must be modest and firm in ourexpenditures.
The sky cracked above the Island. Light seeped over the roofs, fightingthrough the veil of chimney smoke. Bugles sounded in the distance, firstone, then dozens, taking up the call one from the other like jackals.Our camps were everywhere, in the squares and on the great lawns, on theheights above the city and beyond the river. The army was growing like agreat blue muscle, and the city swelled with it.
There is lovely when a city wakes to morning. But there was no peace forme.
Cheating the law, a saloon stood open for the devil's breakfast. Apainted bit of a girl leaned near the doorway.
"Special price for the first of the day, sweetie," she told me.
I walked by, but she would not leave well enough alone, and called afterme, "I'll make you feel like a real big man. You won't feel like acripple no more."
Now I am not given to light conversation with such, although I will notbe the hypocrite who pretends his youth was a model of Christiandeportment, but something set off my powder that morning. Perhaps it wasthe undelivered trousers, or the child's voice issuing from the harlot'smask--if she was fourteen, I'm the Maharajee of Mysore. In truth, itmight have been her lack of charity as to my person. All up, I turned onthe girl, swiveling on my cane.
"How old are you?" I demanded.
"How old d'you want me to be?"
"Now, now, missy. Just tell us the truth, and there's a good girl."
"I'm old enough to show a fellow a time."
She had the look of a farm lass a week in the city and fallen in withits refuse.
"Look you," I said. "This is a bad business. If you're hard upon it, youcan go to the Reverend Abernathy's mission for help. It's but a walk up9th Street, where you'll find it clean and orderly."
She looked at me with the disdain of youth. "Oh, I know them kind. Whatall they want's a free tossing between the hymn howling, no thanks. Anddon't you talk queer like? 'Ye cane goo tah ta RevrentMeegillicutty...'" She laughed a laugh I would not wish on a girl soyoung. "Maybe you're a Reb spy?"
Now I understood the silliness about spies, for there was a great dealof rumor that autumn, and rumor would be such a girl's fact. But myspeech has always been incontestably normal.
A man with a mustache as wide as his shoulders appeared in the door andaddressed me in terms I will spare you. I turned to be on my way, butthe girl called after me, with the sad spite of a child, "Go on, Cap'nGimpy Leg. Look at the little sucker, would you?'' I heard the sound ofa blow then, followed by weeping and a man's voice commanding her toremove an indiscreet part of her anatomy to the interior of the saloon.
I am not blind. I have seen war, from the plains of Chillianwala to thehills of Virginia, and I know what it brings in its train. But I do notlike that which is done to children, nor what is often made of them.
Seventh Street had begun to stir as I turned up its fine pavings. Thedaughters of the German shopkeepers were out clearing away the stormdebris, scrubbing their windows and entranceways, ever the earliest, forthey are a clean and industrious people. A few of them knew me to beMrs. Schutzengel's boarder and greeted me as Herr Hauptmann. It seemedthat all the Germans in Washington were quietly prosperous andacquainted one with the other. Great singers, they were, too, with theirlittle societies for it, though they could not hold a candle to theWelsh. I think the Germans a fine people for an artisan class andkeeping shops, and an honest race, but you will never make soldiers ofthem.
I turned at the Patent Office. My leg wanted an end to the walk, but wecannot indulge the flesh. A pair of ragamuffins who should have been tobed aped my limp and saluted. When I did not respond, they soon lostinterest. It is an odd thing to remember. My injury that seemed so greatto me then was nothing to what others would suffer in the war. We had nosense of the coming terribleness or its duration. By the end of it, aman with a bothered leg would hold no attraction for even the worst ofboys.
I could smell Mrs. Schutzengel's house from half a block away, but thiswas a fine smell, the baking of bread and cakes, and a great frying. Inever understood my fellow officers who mocked me for taking a simpleroom at an unfashionable address, for what more could a man desire in aboardinghouse than cleanliness, good cooking, and a fair price? Whichleft a nice remittance for my Mary Myfanwy. Now you might say the Welshare tight in the purse--and I have heard that said--but your Germans andWelsh understand one another. A fair service for a fair price, and allare made happy.
I came in and the hall was cold, but I hung up my coat on the peg. Thedining room would be warm now. Mrs. Schutzengel could be depended upon,and that is always a fine thing in life.
I was early, of course, with the other boarders still in their sleep. Isurprised Mrs. Schutzengel in the kitchen, though I did not mean to doso.
She was a great door-filling woman, akin to the Low Dutch we hadencountered about our new home in Pottsville. When I come in, she wasbent to the oven a spectacle from which a gentlemen of sense would averthis eyes--and the effort of straightening her back left her out ofbreath and red and tottering. Her hands grabbed the air.
"Oooch," she said, "Mein lieber Gott, oooch, ist nur Sie, HerrHauptmann? Oooch, mein Gott, Sie haben so eine Angst in mich gejagt!"
"Good morning, Mrs. Schutzengel," I said. "There is sorry I am, if Igave you a fright."
She sweated like an old sergeant in the summer of Hindoostan, and themoisture clung to her cabbage of a nose.
"Ist nichts, ist nichts! Oooch, now I am always so bad to speak German.I speak Deutsch to you, I am sorry. When I am so frightened. Maybe it isthem Rebels. Come sit, Captain Jones."
"No, no. I'm sorry. It's only that I thought"
"Now you has been in the cold and all wet, I think? You must becomewarm. Sit, sit. I make you a breakfast."
"Only a little coffee, see."
"No! Nein to only coffee. Your wife, Gott erbarme, she will think, `Whois this terrible person, the Schutzengel?' when you are coming home allin bones like the Sensenmann. You will have ein gutes Fru[auhstu[aucknow. Think of your wife, of the little Kind."
"I think of them all the time, Mrs. Schutzengel. That I do. It's onlythat I seem to be developing this American craving for coffee, and Ihoped"
She resettled her apron, and a great apron it was, then she planted herfists on her hips. I must say she was dauntingly large. Though good ofheart.
"Sit,'' she commanded. "Eat."
I stepped back in from the yard, prepared to leave the house for theday, when I heard a ruckus in the dining room. The other boarders wereup and at their victuals, with a steady sound of cutlery. But MisterMager, a drummer of uncertain wares and a fellow countryman of Mrs.Schutzengel's, was in high complaint.
"Where ist sausages?" he demanded. "I smells sausages."
"Es gibt keine Wurst heute,''Mrs. Schutzengel roared, for she was notpacific when aroused. "No sausages today."
"I smells sausages," Mager insisted.
I closed the front door behind me. Twas the politic thing to do. At mycaptive breakfast in her kitchen, Mrs. Schutzengel had thrust fine,bursting swells of sausage upon me, and I will not say I did not respondwith appetite. Now Mrs. Schutzengel kept an abundant board, and she wasgenerous with her potatoes and puddings, her biscuits and stuffings andbreads--all gleaming with gravy or slathered with lard, as I see hertable still--but the portions of meat she kept under firm control. I hadeaten the day's entire ration of sausage, though not with ill intent orknowledge of the deed. Mrs. Schutzengel was a woman of great drive, andshe was always driven to feed me. Perhaps she thought I was not donegrowing. I never understood her, but women are deep as a pit mine.
Now Saturday was a quiet day to work in the War Department. There weremany who should have been at their desks, but the young gentlemen alwaysfound reason to be away, paying court to women honorable and less so,and when the officers are absent you must not expect great diligencefrom the ranks. I was not alone in the great brick building, but I mighthave been for all the work being done, war or no.
Evans the Telegraph, a good Glamorgan man, come by with a set ofnewspapers in the crook of his arm. I will admit that I examined themwith him. But they had gone to press too early to report on GeneralScott's departure. Nor did they yet tell of the death that would soaffect my life. I soon laid them aside. If I am to be honest, mynewspaper was The Evening Star, and none of the morning folders. Now ifthere was sensation in The Star, it was also a sheet that knew how totell a story, and Mr. Wallach had a scent for news. Three good cents forfour good pages, I always said.
A barricade of ledgers and bills my desk was, but Evans the Telegraphsaid, "A letter I've had, Captain Jones. From my Keziah's folk." Hisspeech was slow and considered, as becomes a chapel man. "They wouldsend young Dafydd to America. No work but bad in the valleys, see. Howdo you think on it?"
I thought on it. "Mr. Evans, I would counsel a delay. For war is a greattemptation to the young. I expect an end to it with the springcampaigning."
Evans nodded. "Just so. But young Dafydd is taken with young MadlinRhys. Of the Pontypridd line. You see how it is."
I shook my head. "No good to come of that."
Evans drew out his pipe and I feared a long stay. There were figures toreckon, battles to be fought with pen and ink and rule. But I will admitI find a good talk with another Welshman hard to resist.
"No," Evans went on. "No good. For there's English blood on that side.Low people out of Hereford."
"Perhaps the boy should come on then. Better a war than an Englishwife."
Evans lit his tobacco with one of those blazing American matches. Henodded, puffed up the smoke, and sighed like a heartsick dragon. "Justso, just so. Had the girl but been a Pendoylan Rhys, that would havebeen a fine pairing..."
We settled that I would write to my Mary Myfanwy about the matter. Iwrote to her each day. She could inquire of her uncle, Mr. Evan Evans ofPottsville´no relation to Evans the Telegraph--who had set me to a fairjob in the mining administration in my own time of need. The collierieswere short of able hands, with the outflux of volunteers. There were noteven Irish enough.
"And how is Mr. Lincoln?" I asked, as I asked at the close of eachvisit. Mr. Lincoln was a great one for visiting the telegraph office.The question was a notice that I had no more time, not even for abuttie.
"A great sad man. Full of jokes,'' Evans said. "I believe his healthsustains. But a cloud hangs over him since the scrap by Leesburg."
He left me then, in his goodness, taking up his papers and puffing hispipe like a steam engine.
The department's accounts were a horror. Twas not only that a man beganto suspect dishonesty and graft. Not a line tallied. Now as you willlearn, I have little enough nostalgia for the service of old JohnCompany or even the Queen, God bless her, but we never would haveallowed the books of the remotest regiment to get into such a state. No,sir, I tell you. The provisioning sergeant would have been broken to theranks and the responsible officer sent off to map the Kush. With thebest will in the world, I could make but little progress.
I worked till the light left me, then shut up my papers under lock. Ihad not seen a general all day, nor a colonel nor major. Of course, thesharp ones would be over to General McClellan's headquarters. But how mynew countrymen neglected the necessaries, from the Army's feeding to thegood harnessing of its horses, was a mortal sin to me. Now it was amighty task to go from a small establishment to a great battling army ina matter of months. We could not expect perfection. Yet the neglect ofduty was everywhere, and I could not like it. War was still a lark tothem. I would have liked to see only one general at his post that day,but all I saw as I left was Mr. Lincoln making his way to the telegraphoffice, shawl about his shoulders. He looked for all the world like arailway inspector on a county line.
I walked home past the supply yard put up behind Mr. Corcoran's newmansion, where an Irish sergeant called for cavalry boots and the devil.The gas lamps were on and carriages halted before the fine houses,delivering ladies from their afternoon visits. Cooking smells rose, andFine Jim stood bandy on his corner.
"I'll have my Evening Star, thank you," I told the lad.
He looked at me. "You won't, sir."
Now that was not in the order of things.
"Ain't come out yet," he told me. "They're holding it back. There's agreat story, they says. Coming any time now."
It ruffled me. Now a man must make allowances for wartime, certainly,but a regular fellow has his habits. My evening newspaper was apleasant, indeed, a necessary thing to me. It was my day's rest to readin the parlor after dinner, while Mrs. Schutzengel sat in her martyredvelvet chair and fingered her way through those great German tomes ofhers, all the while keeping an ear to the boarders working off theirdebts in the kitchen. Then I would go up to my room and write to my wifeby lamplight, for Mrs. Schutzengel saw no joy in a wasted penny and hadnot put in gas above the stairs.
Now the world was out of kilter. I am, I hope, a reasonable man. But Iwas unsettled without my newspaper. My leg pained me doubly much as Imade my way home.
It is at such times that the decency in men redeems us. I grumbled myway to Mrs. Schutzengel's block. Twas near the end of the last decentstreet, bordering a sharp drop in quality beyond, where God's imagedeteriorated until it reached the Irish snags down in Swampoodle. Thelamps wore haloes in the damp air, and the wind sparked up. The rainwould return as sleet, you could feel it. More storms we would have.
Ahead, I saw a gathering of soldiers, more than a dozen of them, just atthe boardinghouse porch. I could not figure it. There was not a saloonnor one house of disgrace in our street.
Then I come up closer, and I recognized them just as they spotted me.
"It's Captain Jones," a voice called. "Down there." Private Pierce. Hissound high and thin as a cheap bugle.
There stood a dozen lads from my old company, come to town from camp. Tothe Lord knew what end. But I will tell you fair, I was glad to seethem. My heart leapt. Then I remembered the terrible, sad look onGeneral Scott's face that morning and warned myself to be steady.
They gathered around me. Though a few had come by the hospital, aconvalescent ward is a trial for young men and they did not last it. Butnow they had come. Try as they might, they could not hold their eyesfrom my limp. They were such young men, and so helpless.
Mrs. Schutzengel stood on her porch, a human bulwark.
"Oooch, Captain Jones. You are come home now, Gott sei Dank. These mensdo not listen. They spits on my stones. On the stones I have scrubbed,they spitted. Save me."
I braced up my back.
"Masters? You spitting again?"
"No, sir, Captain. No, sirree. Not much."
"And you, Farmer?"
Yes, a culprit there. I could tell by the face on him. Yet I could notbe hard. I was so glad to see my boys.
"I will tend to them, Mrs. Schutzengel. They will behave. Now, what iswanted here, boys?"
They were lads out of the anthracite mines, or off the low farms, youngPennsylvania bucks, and speech was a burden to them. They shuckeredabout. Finally, Corporal Mays took charge.
"If the captain don't mind," he said, "would the captain climb up thesteps there. So it's official like?"
I would have done anything for the boys. Anything legal and honest, youunderstand. But I could not let them see it. I put on my dependableface, the one I learned in the sweat and blood of the Punjab as a youngfusilier.
I climbed the steps toward the scent of dinner. Private Berry moved toassist me, but I turned on him a face that stopped that quick. I wouldnot be helped, for I was not an invalid, but a serving officer. With aslight crook to the leg, but no matter that.
"Will the captain face about, sir?"
"I am facing about, Corporal Mays. All in good time, see."
"Yes, sir. Captain Jones, sir."
I looked them over in the lamplight and shadows. Their uniforms stilldid not fit, still had not settled to their bodies, and flaps of clothrose with the wind. Their buttons were badly polished at best. But atleast they had trousers.
"Now, Mays... all of you... if you're in town for the drink, you know Ido not approve of intoxicants, to say nothing of the breakdown injudgement that can lead a man to"
"Begging your pardon, Captain Jones..." Twas Pierce of the bugle voice.Speaking out of turn. As always.
"What is it, Pierce?"
"Sir, Corporal Mays has something to say to you. If you please, sir."
Yes. I knew it, of course. But I am coward in matters of the heart, see.
"Go on, Corporal."
Mays put the boys into two ranks before Mrs. Schutzengel's garden fence.Then he come to the foot of the steps with a wooden case under his leftarm. He snapped his heels together and saluted.
"Now, Mays," I said. "You'll do to unlearn that salute. I taught youwrong, and you're to learn the ways of our own army. Hide that palm,man. Finger tipped to the brim of the cap."
"Yes, sir. I've learned it right, sir. I just done it that way foryou.''
"Go on, Mays."
"Captain Jones," he began, with the heaviness of a man who has memorizedhis speech, "sir, we come to apologize. The whole company would've come,but we couldn't get the let for all. So we're the elected volunteerscome to resent the entire"
" 'Represent,' Corporal Mays. 'Represent."'
"Pardon, sir. To represent the entire company." He began to step towardme, then caught himself. "We come to say we're sorry we run away. We'resorry we let you down. After how good you trained us. Wasn't right, whatwe done out at Bull Run. And to think of your leg..."
"My leg will be fine, Corporal. As for running, you will not do itagain. That is enough."
"After how good you trained us..." he started again.
" 'Bayonets fore! Second rank, up! Third rank, ready!"' That wasRoberts. Who was often light of heart and not the best representative ofthe Welsh race.
"Shut up, Bob," Corporal Mays told him.
"Roberts," I said, "we'll have no more of those improper commands. Itaught you what I knew, and twas from another army. An expedientmeasure, no more. It's Hardee's Tactics for you now."
Mays could restrain himself no longer. He rushed up the steps, holdingout the wooden case in both hands. "Sir... the boys all took up acollection. All the boys from home. Now that you're a big staff officerand all, and a hero, we thought you ought to have"
"I am no hero, Mays. We'll have no such talk. A man is not a hero fordoing his duty." The wind got in my eyes. "Why, couldn't I tell you boysof heroes, though. If you could have seen Sergeant Pomeroy atChillianwala, a hundredfold of Seekhs all raging bloody about him"
"Would the captain inspect his gift, sir?"
He opened the box before me. Twas little enough light from the gaslampon the corner and the parlor fittings behind the curtains, but the metaland plate shone high. The boys had got me a revolver, one of the newArmy Colts. But it was a special-made thing. It looked like asilversmith had taken his hand to it. And a goldsmith, too.
I am not one who holds firearms dear. They are the devil's instruments,and I had long thought that part of my life behind me. But that isanother story. This was a gift of good intent, and no mistaking it. Ilifted the pistol out of its velvet bed.
The men gave a little cheer, but one look put an end to that. We couldnot have a disturbance in the street.
Still, Pierce called out, "We even miss your singing, Captain. Thepistol was a heavy weapon, balanced long in the barrel, but sleek andvery fine as such things go. And Mr. Colt was an honest manufacturer whodelivered on his contracts, so I faced no reservations there.
"There is fine," I told them at the quiet. Emotion must be mastered."Though it is a wasteful thing you have done."
"It's from all the boys," Farmer spoke up. "Ever one. The new captain,he wanted to chip in, too. But we wouldn't let him."
"You will be loyal to him," I said fiercely.
"Yes, sir. Only he wasn't part of what..."
"Yes, Farmer. But you are to mind your waywardness. You are given to anindependence that does not become a private soldier." Then I said,"Thank you, boys. I thank you all. A fine gift, this. Thoughextravagant."
The tooling was beautiful. If such things can be beautiful. The pistollooked too fine to use.
"When you see it in the light," Corporal Mays instructed me, "it gotlettering put on it. Siney done that, the jeweler's boy. It says, `ToCaptain A. Jones.' And on the other side, there's, `Hero of Bull Run."'
"That is excessive, Corporal Mays."
Now I will not lie to you. The boys made me proud that night. Thoughthey had been wasteful of purse. But the rain was coming again, and thelittle ceremony was over, and I recognized it before they did. I had tolet them go. In truth I know it was more for them than for me, the gift.They were good lads, and longed to make amends. They would never seethat I did not fault them.
"All right, men," I said. "You'll do the company and the regiment proud,I know it. But you're never to let Pierce anchor the line, for he cannottell his right from left. And Berry, you're not to close both eyes whenyou fire. You are dismissed now. And do nothing in this city to shameyour wives or mothers."
They come up to shake my hand, and most of them saluted. They were good
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boys, and had I not pitied them that first sad night I saw themstruggling to drill themselves, I would have bided at home with my MaryMyfanwy and little John. But we all must go to our duty when we see it.
I watched them leave, with the pistol case clutched to my heart. Twasnot a gift I would have chosen, you understand.
I was about to go in to Saturday dinner, when a figure like a ragged catdarted under the gaslamp. Twas Fine Jim, come with my paper.
"Cap'n Jones," he said, "I brung you something terrible." - The Online Mystery Network The Online Mystery Network.
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