The trees began softly to sing a hymn of twilight. The sun sank until slanted bronze rays struck the forest. There was a lull in the noises of insects as if they had bowed their beaks and were making a devotional pause. There was silence save for the chanted chorus of the trees.
Then, upon this stillness, there suddenly broke a tremendous clangor of sounds. A crimson roar came from the distance.
The youth stopped. He was transfixed by this terrific medley of all noises. It was as if worlds were being rended. There was the ripping sound of musketry and the breaking crash of the artillery.
His mind flew in all directions. He conceived the two armies to be at each other panther fashion. He listened for a time. Then he began to run in the direction of the battle. He saw that it was an ironical thing for him to be running thus toward that which he had been at such pains to avoid. But he said, in substance, to himself that if the earth and the moon were about to clash, many persons would doubtless plan to get upon the roofs to witness the collision.
As he ran, he became aware that the forest had stopped its music, as if at last becoming capable of hearing the foreign sounds. The trees hushed and stood motionless. Everything seemed to be listening to the crackle and clatter and earthshaking thunder. The chorus peaked over the still earth.
It suddenly occurred to the youth that the fight in which he had been was, after all, but perfunctory popping. In the hearing of this present din he was doubtful if he had seen real battle scenes. This uproar explained a celestial battle; it was tumbling hordes a-struggle in the air.
Reflecting, he saw a sort of a humor in the point of view of himself and his fellows during the late encounter. They had taken themselves and the enemy very seriously and had imagined that they were deciding the war. Individuals must have supposed that they were cutting the letters of their names deep into everlasting tablets of brass, or enshrining their reputations forever in the hearts of their countrymen, while, as to fact, the affair would appear in printed reports under a meek and immaterial title. But he saw that it was good, else, he said, in battle every one would surely run save forlorn hopes and their ilk.
He went rapidly on. He wished to come to the edge of the forest that he might peer out.
As he hastened, there passed through his mind pictures of stupendous conflicts. His accumulated thought upon such subjects was used to form scenes. The noise was as the voice of an eloquent being, describing.
Sometimes the brambles formed chains and tried to hold him back. Trees, confronting him, stretched out their arms and forbade him to pass. After its previous hostility this new resistance of the forest filled him with a fine bitterness. It seemed that Nature could not be quite ready to kill him.
But he obstinately took roundabout ways, and presently he was where he could see long gray walls of vapor where lay battle lines. The voices of cannon shook him. The musketry sounded in long irregular surges that played havoc with his ears. He stood regardant for a moment. His eyes had an awestruck expression. He gawked in the direction of the fight.
Presently he proceeded again on his forward way. The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.
He came to a fence and clambered over it. On the far side, the ground was littered with clothes and guns. A newspaper, folded up, lay in the dirt. A dead soldier was stretched with his face hidden in his arm. Farther off there was a group of four or five corpses keeping mournful company. A hot sun had blazed upon this spot.
In this place the youth felt that he was an invader. This forgotten part of the battle ground was owned by the dead men, and he hurried, in the vague apprehension that one of the swollen forms would rise and tell him to begone.
He came finally to a road from which he could see in the distance dark and agitated bodies of troops, smoke-fringed. In the lane was a blood-stained crowd streaming to the rear. The wounded men were cursing, groaning, and wailing. In the air, always, was a mighty swell of sound that it seemed could sway the earth. With the courageous words of the artillery and the spiteful sentences of the musketry mingled red cheers. And from this region of noises came the steady current of the maimed.
One of the wounded men had a shoeful of blood. He hopped like a schoolboy in a game. He was laughing hysterically.
One was swearing that he had been shot in the arm through the commanding general’s mismanagement of the army. One was marching with an air imitative of some sublime drum major. Upon his features was an unholy mixture of merriment and agony. As he marched he sang a bit of doggerel in a high and quavering voice:
“Sing a song ‘a vic’try,
A pocketful ‘a bullets,
Five an’ twenty dead men
Baked in a–pie.”
Parts of the procession limped and staggered to this tune.
Another had the gray seal of death already upon his face. His lips were curled in hard lines and his teeth were clinched. His hands were bloody from where he had pressed them upon his wound. He seemed to be awaiting the moment when he should pitch headlong. He stalked like the specter of a soldier, his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown.
There were some who proceeded sullenly, full of anger at their wounds, and ready to turn upon anything as an obscure cause.
An officer was carried along by two privates. He was peevish. “Don’t joggle so, Johnson, yeh fool,” he cried. “Think m’ leg is made of iron? If yeh can’t carry me decent, put me down an’ let some one else do it.”
He bellowed at the tottering crowd who blocked the quick march of his bearers. “Say, make way there, can’t yeh? Make way, dickens take it all.”
They sulkily parted and went to the roadsides. As he was carried past they made pert remarks to him. When he raged in reply and threatened them, they told him to be damned.
The shoulder of one of the tramping bearers knocked heavily against the spectral soldier who was staring into the unknown.
The youth joined this crowd and marched along with it. The torn bodies expressed the awful machinery in which the men had been entangled.
Orderlies and couriers occasionally broke through the throng in the roadway, scattering wounded men right and left, galloping on followed by howls. The melancholy march was continually disturbed by the messengers, and sometimes by bustling batteries that came swinging and thumping down upon them, the officers shouting orders to clear the way.
There was a tattered man, fouled with dust, blood and powder stain from hair to shoes, who trudged quietly at the youth’s side. He was listening with eagerness and much humility to the lurid descriptions of a bearded sergeant. His lean features wore an expression of awe and admiration. He was like a listener in a country store to wondrous tales told among the sugar barrels. He eyed the story-teller with unspeakable wonder. His mouth was agape in yokel fashion.
The sergeant, taking note of this, gave pause to his elaborate history while he administered a sardonic comment. “Be keerful, honey, you ‘ll be a-ketchin’ flies,” he said.
The tattered man shrank back abashed.
After a time he began to sidle near to the youth, and in a diffident way try to make him a friend. His voice was gentle as a girl’s voice and his eyes were pleading. The youth saw with surprise that the soldier had two wounds, one in the head, bound with a blood-soaked rag, and the other in the arm, making that member dangle like a broken bough.
After they had walked together for some time the tattered man mustered sufficient courage to speak. “Was pretty good fight, wa’n’t it?” he timidly said. The youth, deep in thought, glanced up at the bloody and grim figure with its lamblike eyes. “What?”
“Was pretty good fight, wa’n’t it?”
“Yes,” said the youth shortly. He quickened his pace.
But the other hobbled industriously after him. There was an air of apology in his manner, but he evidently thought that he needed only to talk for a time, and the youth would perceive that he was a good fellow.
“Was pretty good fight, wa’n’t it?” he began in a small voice, and the he achieved the fortitude to continue. “Dern me if I ever see fellers fight so. Laws, how they did fight! I knowed th’ boys ‘d like it when they onct got square at it. Th’ boys ain’t had no fair chanct up t’ now, but this time they showed what they was. I knowed it ‘d turn out this way. Yeh can’t lick them boys. No, sir! They ‘re fighters, they be.”
He breathed a deep breath of humble admiration. He had looked at the youth for encouragement several times. He received none, but gradually he seemed to get absorbed in his subject.
“I was talkin’ ‘cross pickets with a boy from Georgie, onct, an’ that boy, he ses, ‘Your fellers ‘ll all run like hell when they onct hearn a gun,’ he ses. ‘Mebbe they will,’ I ses, ‘but I don’t b’lieve none of it,’ I ses; ‘an’ b’jiminey,’ I ses back t’ ‘um, ‘mebbe your fellers ‘ll all run like hell when they onct hearn a gun,’ I ses. He larfed. Well, they didn’t run t’ day, did they, hey? No, sir! They fit, an’ fit, an’ fit.”
His homely face was suffused with a light of love for the army which was to him all things beautiful and powerful.
After a time he turned to the youth. “Where yeh hit, ol’ boy?” he asked in a brotherly tone.
The youth felt instant panic at this question, although at first its full import was not borne in upon him.
“What?” he asked.
“Where yeh hit?” repeated the tattered man.
“Why,” began the youth, “I–I–that is–why–I–”
He turned away suddenly and slid through the crowd. His brow was heavily flushed, and his fingers were picking nervously at one of his buttons. He bent his head and fastened his eyes studiously upon the button as if it were a little problem.
The tattered man looked after him in astonishment.