Part II

Chapter I

Bret Harte

NIGHT at last, and the stir and tumult of a great fight over. Even the excitement that had swept this portion of the battlefield—only a small section of a vaster area of struggle—into which a brigade had marched, held its own, been beaten back, recovered its ground, and pursuing, had passed out of it forever, leaving only its dead behind, and knowing nothing more of that struggle than its own impact and momentum—even this wild excitement had long since evaporated with the stinging smoke of gunpowder, the acrid smell of burning rags from the clothing of a dead soldier fired by a bursting shell, or the heated reek of sweat and leather. A cool breath that seemed to bring back once more the odor of the upturned earthworks along the now dumb line of battle began to move from the suggestive darkness beyond.

But into that awful penetralia of death and silence there was no invasion—there had been no retreat. A few of the wounded had been brought out, under fire, but the others had been left with the dead for the morning light and succor. For it was known that in that horrible obscurity, riderless horses, frantic with the smell of blood, galloped wildly here and there, or, maddened by wounds, plunged furiously at the intruder; that the wounded soldier, still armed, could not always distinguish friend from foe or from the ghouls of camp followers who stripped the dead in the darkness and struggled with the dying. A shot or two heard somewhere in that obscurity counted as nothing with the long fusillade that had swept it in the daytime; the passing of a single life, more or less, amounted to little in the long roll-call of the day’s slaughter.

But with the first beams of the morning sun—and the slowly moving “relief detail” from the camp—came a weird half-resurrection of that ghastly field. Then it was that the long rays of sunlight, streaming away a mile beyond the battle line, pointed out the first harvest of the dead where the reserves had been posted. There they lay in heaps and piles, killed by solid shot or bursting shells that had leaped the battle line to plunge into the waiting ranks beyond. As the sun lifted higher its beams fell within the range of musketry fire, where the dead lay thicker,—even as they had fallen when killed outright,—with arms extended and feet at all angles to the field. As it touched these dead upturned faces, strangely enough it brought out no expression of pain or anguish—but rather as if death had arrested them only in surprise and awe. It revealed on the lips of those who had been mortally wounded and had turned upon their side the relief which death had brought their suffering, sometimes shown in a faint smile. Mounting higher, it glanced upon the actual battle line, curiously curving for the shelter of walls, fences, and breastworks, and here the dead lay, even as when they lay and fired, their faces prone in the grass but their muskets still resting across the breastworks. Exposed to grape and canister from the battery on the ridge, death had come to them mercifully also—through the head and throat. And now the whole field lay bare in the sunlight, broken with grotesque shadows cast from sitting, crouching, half-recumbent but always rigid figures, which might have been effigies on their own monuments. One half-kneeling soldier, with head bowed between his stiffened hands, might have stood for a carven figure of Grief at the feet of his dead comrade. A captain, shot through the brain in the act of mounting a wall, lay sideways half across it, his lips parted with a word of command; his sword still pointing over the barrier the way that they should go.

But it was not until the sun had mounted higher that it struck the central horror of the field and seemed to linger there in dazzling persistence, now and then returning to it in startling flashes that it might be seen of men and those who brought succor. A tiny brook had run obliquely near the battle line. It was here that, the night before the battle, friend and foe had filled their canteens side by side with soldierly recklessness—or perhaps a higher instinct—purposely ignoring each other’s presence; it was here that the wounded had afterwards crept, crawled, and dragged themselves, here they had pushed, wrangled, striven, and fought for a draught of that precious fluid which assuaged the thirst of their wounds—or happily put them out of their misery forever; here overborne, crushed, suffocated by numbers, pouring their own blood into the flood, and tumbling after it with their helpless bodies, they dammed the stream, until recoiling, red and angry, it had burst its banks and overflowed the cotton-field in a broad pool that now sparkled in the sunlight. But below this human dam—a mile away—where the brook still crept sluggishly, the ambulance horses sniffed and started from it.

The detail moved on slowly, doing their work expeditiously, and apparently callously, but really only with that mechanical movement that saves emotion. Only once they were moved to an outbreak of indignation,—the discovery of the body of an officer whose pockets were turned inside out, but whose hand was still tightly grasped on his buttoned waistcoat, as if resisting the outrage that had been done while still in life. As the men disengaged the stiffened hand something slipped from the waistcoat to the ground. The corporal picked it up and handed it to his officer. It was a sealed packet. The officer received it with the carelessness which long experience of these pathetic missives from the dying to their living relations had induced, and dropped it in the pocket of his tunic, with the half-dozen others that he had picked up that morning, and moved on with the detail. A little further on they halted, in the attitude of attention, as a mounted officer appeared, riding slowly down the line.

There was something more than the habitual respect of their superior in their faces as he came forward. For it was the general who had commanded the brigade the day before,—the man who had leaped with one bound into the foremost rank of military leaders. It was his invincible spirit that had led the advance, held back defeat against overwhelming numbers, sustained the rally, impressed his subordinate officers with his own undeviating purpose, and even infused them with an almost superstitious belief in his destiny of success. It was this man who had done what it was deemed impossible to do,—what even at the time it was thought unwise and unstrategic to do,—who had held a weak position, of apparently no importance, under the mandate of an incomprehensible order from his superior, which at best asked only for a sacrifice and was rewarded with a victory. He had decimated his brigade, but the wounded and dying had cheered him as he passed, and the survivors had pursued the enemy until the bugle called them back. For such a record he looked still too young and scholarly, albeit his handsome face was dark and energetic, and his manner taciturn.

His quick eye had already caught sight of the rifled body of the officer, and contracted. As the captain of the detail saluted him he said curtly,—

“I thought the orders were to fire upon any one desecrating the dead?”

“They are, General; but the hyenas don’t give us a chance. That’s all yonder poor fellow saved from their claws,” replied the officer, as he held up the sealed packet. “It has no address.”

The general took it, examined the envelope, thrust it into his belt, and said,—

“I will take charge of it.”

The sound of horses’ hoofs came from the rocky roadside beyond the brook. Both men turned. A number of field officers were approaching.

“The division staff,” said the captain, in a lower voice, falling back.

They came slowly forward, a central figure on a gray horse leading here—as in history. A short, thick-set man with a grizzled beard closely cropped around an inscrutable mouth, and the serious formality of a respectable country deacon in his aspect, which even the major-generals blazon on the shoulder-strap of his loose tunic on his soldierly seat in the saddle could not entirely obliterate. He had evidently perceived the general of brigade, and quickened his horse as the latter drew up. The staff followed more leisurely, but still with some curiosity, to witness the meeting of the first general of the army with the youngest. The division general saluted, but almost instantly withdrew his leathern gauntlet, and offered his bared hand to the brigadier. The words of heroes are scant. The drawn-up detail, the waiting staff listened. This was all they heard:—

“Halleck tells me you’re from California?”

“Yes, General.”

“Ah! I lived there, too, in the early days.”

“Wonderful country. Developed greatly since my time, I suppose?”

“Yes, General.”

“Great resources; finest wheat-growing country in the world, sir. You don’t happen to know what the actual crop was this year?”

“Hardly, General! but something enormous.”

“Yes, I have always said it would be. Have a cigar?”

He handed his cigar-case to the brigadier. Then he took one himself, lighted it at the smouldering end of the one he had taken from his mouth, was about to throw the stump carelessly down, but, suddenly recollecting himself, leaned over his horse, and dropped it carefully a few inches away from the face of a dead soldier. Then, straightening himself in the saddle, he shoved his horse against the brigadier, moving him a little further on, while a slight movement of his hand kept the staff from following.

“A heavy loss here!”

“I’m afraid so, General.”

“It couldn’t be helped. We had to rush in your brigade to gain time, and occupy the enemy, until we could change front.”

The young general looked at the shrewd, cold eyes of his chief.

“Change front?” he echoed.

“Yes. Before a gun was fired, we discovered that the enemy was in complete possession of all our plans, and knew every detail of our forward movement. All had to be changed.”

The younger man now instantly understood the incomprehensible order of the day before.

The general of division continued, with his first touch of official formality,—

“You understand, therefore, General Brant, that in the face of this extraordinary treachery, the utmost vigilance is required, and a complete surveillance of your camp followers and civilians, to detect the actual spy within our lines, or the traitor we are harboring, who has become possessed of this information. You will overhaul your brigade, and weed out all suspects, and in the position which you are to take to-morrow, and the plantation you will occupy, you will see that your private quarters, as well as your lines, are cleared of all but those you can vouch for.”

He reined in his horse, again extended his hand, saluted, and rejoined his staff.

Brigadier-General Clarence Brant remained for a moment with his head bent in thoughtful contemplation of the coolness of his veteran chief under this exciting disclosure, and the strategy with which he had frustrated the traitor’s success. Then his eye caught the sealed packet in his belt. He mechanically drew it out, and broke the seal. The envelope was filled with papers and memorandums. But as he looked at them his face darkened and his brow knit. He glanced quickly around him. The staff had trotted away; the captain and his detail were continuing their work at a little distance. He took a long breath, for he was holding in his hand a tracing of their camp, even of the position he was to occupy tomorrow, and a detailed account of the movements, plans, and force of the whole division as had been arranged in council of war the day before the battle! But there was no indication of the writer or his intentions.

He thrust the papers hurriedly back into the envelope, but placed it, this time, in his breast. He galloped towards the captain.

“Let me see again the officer from whom you took that packet!”

The captain led him to where the body lay, with others, extended more decently on the grass awaiting removal. General Brant with difficulty repressed an ejaculation.

“Why, it’s one of our own men,” he said quickly.

“Yes, General. They say it’s Lieutenant Wainwright, a regular, of the paymaster general’s department.”

“Then what was he doing here?” asked General Brant sternly.

“I can’t make out, sir, unless he went into the last advance as a volunteer. Wanted to see the fight, I suppose. He was a dashing fellow, a West Pointer,—and a Southerner, too,—a Virginian.”

“A Southerner!” echoed Brant quickly.

“Yes, sir.”

“Search him again,” said Brant quietly. He had recovered his usual coolness, and as the captain again examined the body, he took out his tablets and wrote a few lines. It was an order to search the quarters of Lieutenant Wainwright and bring all papers, letters, and documents to him. He then beckoned one of the detail towards him. “Take that to the provost marshal at once. Well, Captain,” he added calmly, as the officer again approached him, “what do you find?”

“Only this, sir,” returned the captain, with a half smile, producing a small photograph. “I suppose it was overlooked, too.”

He handed it to Brant.

There was a sudden fixing of his commanding officer’s eyes, but his face did not otherwise change.

“It’s the usual find, General. Always a photograph! But this time a handsome woman!”

“Very,” said Clarence Brant quietly. It was the portrait of his own wife.

Clarence - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter II

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback