BY ROBERT IV. CHAMBERS
ABOUT five o'clock that evening a Rhode Island battery clanked through the village and parked six dusty guns in a pasture occupied by some astonished cows.
A little later the cavalry arrived, riding slowly up the tree-shaded street, escorted by every darky and every dog in the countryside.
The clothing of this regiment was a little out of the ordinary. Instead of usual campaign head-gear the troopers wore forage-caps strapped under their chins, heavy vizors turned down, and their officers were conspicuous in fur-trimmed hussar tunics slung from the shoulders of dark-blue shell-jackets; but most unusual and most interesting of all, a mounted cavalry band rode ahead, led by a band-master who sat his horse like a colonel of regulars—a slim young man with considerable yellow and gold on his faded blue sleeves, and an easy manner of swinging forward his heavy cut-and-thrust sabre as he guided the column through the metropolitan labyrinths of Sand River.
Sand River had seen and scowled at Yankee cavalry before, but never before had the inhabitants had an opportunity to ignore a mounted band and band-master. There was, of course, no cheering; a handkerchief fluttered from a veranda here and there, but Sand River was loyal only in spots, and the cavalry pressed past groups of silent people, encountering the averted heads or scornful eyes of young girls and the cold hatred in the faces of gray-haired gentle-women, who turned their backs as the ragged guidons bobbed past and the village street rang with the clink-clank of scabbards and rattle of Spencer carbines.
But there was a small boy on a pony who sat entranced as the weather-ravaged squadrons trampled by. Cap in hand, straight in his saddle, he saluted the passing flag; a sunburnt trooper called out: "That's right, son! Bully for you!"
The boy turned his pony and raced along the column under a running fire of approving chaff from the men, until he came abreast of the band-master once more, whom he stared at with fascinated and uncloyed satisfaction.
Into a broad common wheeled the cavalry; the boy followed on his pony, guiding the little beast in among the mounted men, edging as close as possible to the bandmaster, who had drawn bridle and wheeled his showy horse abreast of a group of officers. When the boy had crowded up as close as possible to the bandmaster he sat in silence, blissfully drinking in the splendors of that warrior's dusty apparel.
"I'm right glad you-all have come," ventured the boy.
The bandmaster swung round in his saddle and saw a small sun-tanned face and two wide eyes intently fixed on his.
"I reckon you don't know how glad my sister and I are to see you-all down here," said the boy, politely. "When are you going to have a battle?"
"A battle!" repeated the bandmaster.
"Yes, sir. You're going to fight, of course, aren't you?"
"Not if people leave us alone—and leave that railroad alone," replied the officer, backing his restive horse to the side of the fence as the troopers trotted past into the meadow, fours crowding closely on fours.
"Not fight?" exclaimed the boy, astonished. "Isn't there going to be a battle?"
"I'll let you know when there's going to be one," said the bandmaster, absently.
"You won't forget, will you?" inquired the boy. "My name is William Stuart Westcote, and I live in that house." He pointed with his riding-whip up the hill. "You won't forget, will you?"
"No, child, I won't forget."
"My sister Celia calls me Billy; perhaps you had better just ask her for Billy if I'm not there when you gallop up to tell me—that is, if you're coming yourself. Are you?" he ended, wistfully.
"Do you want me to come?" inquired the bandmaster, amused.
"Would you really come?" cried the boy. "Would you really come to visit me?"
"I'll consider it," said the bandmaster, gravely.
"Do you think you could come to-night?" asked the boy. "We'd certainly be glad to see you—my sister and I. Folks around here like the Malletts and the Colvins and the Garnetts don't visit us any more, and it's lonesome sometimes."
"I think that you should ask your sister first," suggested the bandmaster.
"Why? She's loyal!" exclaimed the boy, earnestly. "Besides, you're coming to visit me, I reckon. Aren't you?"
"Certainly," said the bandmaster, hastily.
"I'll do my best, Billy."
The boy held out a shy hand; the officer bent from his saddle and took it in his soiled buckskin gauntlet.
"Good night, my son," he said, without a smile, and rode off into the meadow among a crowd of troopers escorting the regimental wagons.
A few moments later a child on a pony tore into the weed-grown drive leading to the great mansion on the hill, scaring a lone darky who had been dawdling among the roses.
" 'Clar' tu goodness, Mars Will'm, I done tuk you foh de Black Hoss Cav'ly!" said the ancient negro, reproachfully. "Hi! Hi! Wha' foh you mek all dat fuss an' a-gwine-on?"
"Oh, Mose!" cried the boy, "I've seen the Yankee cavalry, and they have a horse-band, and I rode with them, and I asked a general when they were going to have a battle, and the general said he'd let me know!"
"Gin'ral?" demanded the old darky, suspiciously; "who dat gin'ral dat gwine tell you 'bout de battle? Was he drivin' de six-mule team, or was he dess a-totin' a sack o' co'n? Kin you splain dat, Mars Will'm?"
"Don't you think I know a general?" exclaimed the boy, scornfully. "He had yellow and gilt on his sleeves, and he carried a sabre, and he rode first of all. And—oh, Mose! He's coming here to pay me a visit! Perhaps he'll come to-night; he said he would if he could."
"Dat gin'ral 'low he gwine come here?" muttered the darky. "Spec' you better see Miss Celia 'fo' you ax dis here gin'ral."
"I'm going to ask her now," said the boy. "She certainly will be glad to see one of our own men. Who cares if all the niggers have run off? We're not ashamed;—and anyhow you're here to bring in the decanters for the general."
"Shoo, honey, you might talk dat-a-way ef yo' pa wuz in de house," grumbled the old man. "Ef hit's done fix, nobody kin onfix it. But dess yo' leave dem gin'rals whar dey is nex' time, Mars Will'm. Hit wuz a gin'ral dat done tuk de Dominiker hen las' time de blueco'ts come to San' River."
The boy, sitting entranced in reverie, scarcely heard him; and it was only when a far trumpet blew from the camp in the valley that he started in his saddle and raised his rapt eyes to the windows. Somebody had hung out a Union flag over the jasmine-covered portico.
"There it is! There it is, Mose!" he cried, excitedly, scrambling from his saddle. "Here—take the bridle! And the very minute you hear the general dashing into the drive, let me know!"
He ran jingling up the resounding veranda—he wore his father's spurs—and mounted the stairs, two at a jump, calling: "Celia! Celia! You'll be glad to know that a general who is a friend of mine—"
"Hush, Billy," said his sister, checking him on the landing and leading him out to the gallery from which the flag hung,—"can't you remember that grandfather is asleep by sundown? Now—what is it, dear, you wish to tell me?"
"Oh, I forgot; truly I did, Celia,—but a general is coming to visit me to-night if you can possibly manage it, and I'm so glad you hung out the flag—and Moses can serve the Madeira, can't he?"
"What general?" inquired his sister, uneasily. And her brother's explanations made matters no clearer. "You remember what the Yankee cavalry did before," she said, anxiously. "You must be careful, Billy, now that the quarters are empty and there's not a soul in the place except Mose."
"But, Celia! the general is a gentleman. I shook hands with him!"
"Very well, dear," she said, passing one arm around his neck and leaning forward over the flag. The sun was dipping between a cleft in the hills, flinging out long rosy beams across the misty valley. The mocking-birds had ceased, but a thrasher was singing in a tangle of Cherokee roses under the western windows.
While they stood there the sun dipped so low that nothing remained except a glowing scarlet rim.
"Hark!" whispered the boy. Far away the strains of the cavalry band rose in the evening silence, "The Star-spangled Banner" floating from the darkening valley. Boom! The evening gunshot set the soft echoes tumbling from hill to hill, distant, more distant. Then silence; and presently a low, sweet thrush-note from the dusky garden.
It was after supper, when the old darky had lighted the dips—there being no longer any oil or candles to be had,—that the thrush who had been going into interminable ecstasies of fluty trills suddenly became mute. A faint jingle of metal sounded from the garden walk, a step on the porch, a voice inquiring for Mr. Westcote; and old Mose replying with reproachful dignity: "Mars Wes'cote, suh? Mrs. Wes'cote daid, suh."
"That's my friend the general!" exclaimed Billy, leaping from his chair. "Mose, you fool nigger, why don't you ask the general to come in!" he whispered, fiercely; then, as befitted the master of the house, he walked straight out into the hall, small hand outstretched, welcoming his guest as he had seen his father receive a stranger of distinction. "I am so glad you came," he said, crimson with pleasure. "Moses will take your cap and cloak—Mose!"
The old servant shuffled forward, much impressed by the uniform' revealed as the long blue mantle fell across his own ragged sleeve.
"Do you know why I came, Billy?" asked the bandmaster, smiling.
"I reckon it was because you promised to, wasn't it?" inquired the child.
"Certainly," said the bandmaster, hastily. "And I promised to come because I have a brother about your age—'way up in New York. Shall we sit here on the veranda and talk about him?"
"First," said the boy, gravely, "my sister Celia will receive you."
He turned, leading the way to the parlor with inherited self-possession; and there, through the wavering light of a tallow dip, the bandmaster saw a young girl in black rising from a chair by the centre-table; and he brought his spurred heels together and bowed his very best bow.
"My brother," she said, "has been so anxious to bring one of our officers here. Two years ago the Yan—the Federal cavalry passed through, chasing Carrington's Horse out of Oxley Court House, but there was no halt here." She resumed her seat with a gesture toward a chair opposite; the bandmaster bowed again and seated himself, placing his sabre between his knees.
"Our cavalry advance did not behave very well in Oxley," he said.
"They took a few chickens en passant. she said, smiling; "but had they asked for them we should have been glad to give. We are loyal, you know."
"Those gay jayhawkers were well disciplined for that business when Stannard took them over," said the bandmaster, grimly. "Had they behaved themselves, we should have had ten friends here where we have one now."
The boy listened earnestly. "Would you please tell me," he asked, "whether you have decided to have a battle pretty soon?"
"I don't decide such matters," said the bandmaster, laughing.
"Why, I thought a general could always have a battle when he wanted to!" insisted the boy, surprised.
"But I'm not a general, Billy," replied the young fellow, coloring. "Did you think I was?"
"My brother's ideas are very vague," said his sister, quickly; "any officer who fights is a general to him."
"I'm sorry," said the bandmaster, looking at the child,—"but do you know I am not even a fighting-officer? I am only the regimental bandmaster, Billy,—a non-combatant."
For an instant the boy's astonished disappointment crushed out his inbred courtesy as host. His sister, mortified but self-possessed, broke the strained silence with a quiet question or two concerning the newly arrived troops; and the band-master replied, looking at the boy.
Billy, silent, immersed in reflection, sat with curly head bent and hands folded on his knees. His sister glanced at him, looked furtively at the bandmaster, and their eyes met. He smiled, and she returned the smile; and he looked at Billy and smiled again.
"Billy," he said, "I've been sailing under false colors, it seems,—but you hoisted them, I'm afraid. I think I ought to go."
The boy looked up at him, startled.
"Good night," said the bandmaster, gravely, rising to his lean height from the chair beside the table. The boy flushed to his hair.
"Don't go," he said; "I like you even if you don't fight!"
Then the bandmaster began to laugh,—and the boy's sister bit her lip and looked at her brother.
"Billy! Billy!" she said, catching his hands in hers, "do you think the only brave men are those who gallop into battle?"
Hands imprisoned in his sister's, he looked up at the bandmaster.
"If you were ordered to fight, you'd fight, wouldn't you?" he asked.
"Under those improbable circumstances I think I should," admitted the young fellow, solemnly reseating himself.
"Celia! Do you hear what he says?" cried the boy.
"I hear," said his sister, gently; "now sit very still while Moses serves the Madeira;—only half a glass for Mr. William, Moses,—no, not one drop more!"
Moses served the wine with pomp and circumstance; the lean young bandmaster looked straight at the boy's sister and rose, bowing with a grace that instantly entranced the aged servant.
"Celia," said the boy, "we must drink to the flag, you know;" and the young girl rose from her chair, and looking at the bandmaster, touched her lips to the glass.
"I wish they could see us," said the boy.—"the Colvins and the Malletts. I've heard their 'Bonnie Blue Flag' and their stirrup toasts until I'm sick—"
"Billy!" said his sister, quietly. And reseating herself and turning to the band-master, "Our neighbors differ with us," she said, "and my brother cannot understand it. I have to remind him that if they were not brave men our army would have been victorious three years ago, and there would have been no more war after Bull Run."
The bandmaster assented thoughtfully. Once or twice his worn eyes swept the room—a room that made him homesick for his own. It had been a long time since he had sat in a chair in a room like this,—a long time since he had talked with women and children. Perhaps the boy's sister divined something of his thoughts—he was not much older than she,—for, as he rose, hooking up his sabre, and stepped forward to take his leave, she stood up too, offering her hand.
"Our house is always open to Union soldiers," she said, simply. "Will you come again?"
"Thank you," he said,—"you don't know, I think, how much you have already done for me."
They stood a moment looking at one another, then he bowed and turned to the boy, who caught his hand impulsively.
"I knew my sister would like you!" he exclaimed.
"Everybody is very kind," said the young bandmaster, looking steadily at the boy.
Again he bowed to the boy's sister, not raising his eyes this time; and holding the child's hand tightly in his, he walked out to the porch.
Moses was there to assist him with his long blue mantle; the boy clung to his gloved hand a moment, then stepped back into the doorway, where the old servant shuffled about, muttering half aloud: "Yaas, suh. Done tole you so. He bow lak de quality, he drink lak de Garnetts—what I tole yo'? Mars Will'm, ef dat ossifer ain' er gin'ral, he gwine be mighty quick!"
"I don't care," said the boy, "I just love him."
The negro shuffled out across the moonlit veranda, peered around through the fragrant gloom, wrinkled hands linked behind his back. Then he descended the steps stiffly, and teetered about through the shrubbery with the instinct of a watch-dog worn out in service.
"Nuff'n to scare nobody, scusin' de hoot-owls," he muttered. "Spec' hit's time Miss Celia bolt de do', 'long o' de sodgers an' all de gwines-on. Shoo! Hear dat fool chickum crow!" He shook his head, bent rheumatically, and seated himself on the veranda step, full in the moonlight. "All de fightin's an' de gwines-on 'long o' dis here wah!" he soliloquized, joining his shrivelled thumbs reflectively. "Whar de use? Spound dat! Whar all de fool niggers dat done skedaddle 'long o' de Linkum troopers? Splain dat!" He chuckled; a whippoorwill answered breathlessly.
"Dar dat scan'lous widder-bird a-hollerin'!" exclaimed the old man, listening. " 'Pears lak we gwine have moh wah, moh daid men, moh widders. Dar de ha'nt! Dar de sign an' de warnin'. G'way, widder-bird." He crossed his withered fingers and began rocking to and fro, crooning softly to himself:
"Butterfly a-flyin' in de Chinaberry-tree
(Butterfly, flutter by!),
Kitty-gull a-cryin' on the sunset sea
(Fly, li'l gull, fly high!),
Bully-bat a-follerin' de moon in de sky,
Widder-bird a-hollerin', 'Hi, dar! Hi!'
(Sleep, li'l honey!
De moon cost a shillin'
But we ain't got money!),
Sleep, li'l honey,
While de firefly fly,
An' Chuck-Will's Widder holler, 'Hi, dar! Hi!' "
Before dawn the intense stillness was broken by the rushing music of the birds,—a ceaseless cheery torrent of song poured forth from bramble and woodland. Distant and nearer cockcrows rang out above the melodious tumult, through which a low confused undertone, scarcely apparent at first, was growing louder,—the dull sound of the stirring of many men.
Men? The valley was suddenly alive with them, choking the roads in heavy, silent lines; they were in the lanes, they plodded through the orchards, they swarmed across the hills, column on column, until the entire country seemed flowing forward in steady streams. Sand River awoke, restlessly listening; lights glimmered behind darkened windows; a heavier, vaguer rumor grew, hanging along the hills. It increased to a shaking, throbbing monotone, like the fax dissonance of summer thunder!
And now artillery was coming, bumping down the dim street with clatter of chain and harness jingling. Up at the great house on the hill they heard it,—the boy in his white nightdress leaning from the open window, and his sleepy sister kneeling beside him, pushing back her thick hair to peer out into the morning mist. On came the battery, thudding and clanking, horses on a long swinging trot, gun, caisson, forge, mounted artillerymen succeeding each other, faster, faster under the windows. A guidon danced by; more guns, more caissons, then a trampling, plunging gallop, a rattle of sabres,—and the battery had passed.
"What is that heavy sound behind the hills?" whispered the boy.
"The river rushing over the shallows;—perhaps a train on the trestle at Oxley Court House—" She listened, resting her rounded chin on her hands. "It is thunder, I think. Go to bed now for a while—"
"Hark!" said the boy, laying his small hand on hers.
"It is thunder," she said again. "How white the dawn is growing. Listen to the birds;—is it not sweet?"
"Celia," whispered the boy, "that is not thunder. It is too hushed, too steady;—it hums and hums and hums. Where was that battery galloping? I am going to dress."
She looked at him, turned to the east and stared at the coming day. The air of dawn was full of sounds, ominous sustained vibrations.
She rose, went back to her room, and lighted a dip. Then, shading the pallid smoky flame with her hand, she opened a door and peered into the next bedroom. "Grandfather!" she whispered, smiling, seeing that he was already awake. And as she leaned over him, searching the dim and wrinkled eyes, she read something in their unwonted lustre that struck her silent. It was only when she heard her brother's step on the stairs that she roused herself, bent, and kissed the aged head lying there inert among the pillows.
"It is cannon," she breathed, softly,—"you know that sound, don't you, grandfather? Does it make you happy? Why are you smiling? Look at me;—I understand; you want something. Shall I open the curtains? And raise the window? Ah, you wish to hear. Hark! Horsemen are passing at a gallop. What is it you wish—to see them? But they are gone, dear. If any of our soldiers come, you shall see them. That makes you happy?—that is what you desire?—to see one of our own soldiers? If they pass, I shall go out and bring one here to you—truly I shall." She paused, marvelling at the strange light that glimmered across the ravaged visage. Then she blew out the dip and stole into the hall.
"Billy!" she called, hearing him fumbling at the front door.
"Oh, Celia! The cavalry trumpets! Do you hear? I'm going out. Perhaps he may pass the house."
"Wait for me," she said; "I am not dressed. Run to the cabin and wake Moses, dear!"
She heard him open the door; the deadened thunder of the cannonade filled the house for an instant, shut out by the closing door, only to swell again to an immense unbroken volume of solemn harmony. The bird-music had ceased; distant hilltops grew brighter.
Down in the village lights faded from window and cabin; a cavalryman, signalling from the church-tower, whirled his flaming torch aside and picked up a signal-flag. Suddenly the sharp crack of a rifled cannon saluted the rising sun; a shell soared skyward through the misty glory, towered, curved, and fell, exploding among the cavalrymen, completely ruining the breakfasts of chief-trumpeter O'Halloran and kettle-drummer Pillsbury.
For a moment a geyser of ashes, coffee, and bacon rained among the men.
"Hell!" said Pillsbury, furiously, wiping his face with his dripping sleeve and spitting out ashes.
"Young kettle-drums he don't love his vittles," observed a trooper, picking up the cap that had been jerked from his head by a whirring fragment.
"Rich feedin' is the sp'ilin' o' this here hoss-band," added the farrier, stanching the flow of blood from his scalp; "quit quar'lin' with your rations, kettle-drums!"
"Y'orter swaller them cinders," insisted another; "they don't cost nothin'!"
The band, accustomed to chaffing, prepared to retire to the ambulance, where heretofore their fate had always left them among luggage, surgeons, and scared camp-niggers during an engagement.
The Rhode Island battery, placed just north of the church, had opened; the cavalry in the meadow could see them—see the whirl of the smoke, the cannoniers moving with quick precision amid the obscurity,—the flash, the recoil as gun after gun jumped back, buried in smoke.
It lasted only a few minutes; no more shells came whistling down among the cavalry; and presently the battery grew silent, and the steaming hill, belted with vapor, cleared slowly in the breezy sunshine.
The cavalry had mounted and leisurely filed off to the shelter of a grassy hollow; the band, dismounted, were drawn up to be told off in squads as stretcher-bearers; the bandmaster was sauntering past, buried in meditation, his sabre trailing a furrow through the dust, when a clatter of hoofs broke out along the village street, and a general officer followed by a plunging knot of horsemen tore up and drew bridle.
The colonel of the cavalry regiment, followed by the chief trumpeter, trotted out to meet them, saluting sharply; there was a quick exchange of words; the general officer waved his hand toward the south, wheeled his horse, hesitated, and pointed at the band.
"How many sabres?" he asked.
"Twenty-seven," replied the colonel,—"no carbines."
"Better have them play you in—if you go," said the officer.
The colonel saluted and backed his horse as the cavalcade swept past him; then he beckoned to the bandmaster.
"Here's your chance," he said. "Orders are to charge anything that appears on that road. You'll play us in this time. Mount your men."
Ten minutes later the regiment, band ahead, marched out of Sand River and climbed the hill, halting in the road that passed the great white mansion. As the outposts moved forward they encountered a small boy on a pony, who swung his cap at them gayly as he rode. Squads, dismounted, engaged in tearing away the rail fences bordering the highway, looked around, shouting a cheery answer to his excited greeting; the colonel on a ridge to the east lowered his field-glasses to watch him; the bandmaster saw him coming and smiled as the boy drew bridle beside him, saluting.
"If you're not going to fight, why are you here?" asked the boy, breathlessly.
"It really looks," said the bandmaster, "as though we might fight, after all."
"Then—could you come into the house—just a moment? My sister asked me to find you."
A bright blush crept over the band-master's sun-tanned cheeks.
"With pleasure," he said, dismounting, and leading his horse through the gateay and across the shrubbery to the trees.
"Celia! Celia!" called the boy, running up the veranda steps. "He is here! Please hurry, because he's going to have a battle!"
She came, slowly, pale and lovely in her black gown, and held out her hand.
"There is a battle going on all around us, isn't there?" she asked. "That is what all this dreadful uproar means?"
"Yes," he said; "there is trouble on the other side of those hills."
"Do you think there will be fighting here?"
"I don't know," he said.
She motioned him to a veranda chair, then seated herself. "What shall we do?" she asked, calmly. "I am not alarmed—but my grandfather is bedridden, and my brother is a child. Is it safe to stay?"
The bandmaster looked at her helplessly.
"I don't know," he repeated,—"I don't know what to say. Nobody seems to understand what is happening; we in the regiment are never told anything; we know nothing except what passes under our eyes." He broke off suddenly; the situation, her loneliness, the impending danger, appalled him.
"May I ask a little favor?" she said, rising. "Would you mind coming in a moment to see my grandfather?"
He stood up obediently, sheathed sabre in his left hand; she led the way across the hall and up the stairs, opened the door, and motioned toward the bed. At first he saw nothing save the pillows and snowy spread.
"Will you speak to him?" she whispered.
He approached the bed, cap in hand.
"He is very old," she said; "he was a soldier of Washington. He desires to see a soldier of the Union."
And now the bandmaster perceived the occupant of the bed, a palsied, bloodless phantom of the past,—an inert, bed-ridden, bony thing that looked dead until its deep eyes opened and fixed themselves on him.
"This is a Union soldier, grandfather," she said, kneeling on the floor beside him. And to the bandmaster she said in a low voice: "Would you mind taking his hand? He cannot move."
The bandmaster bent stiffly above the bed and took the old man's hand in his.
The sunlit room trembled in the cannonade.
"That is all," said the girl, simply. She took the fleshless hand, kissed it, and laid it on the bedspread. "A soldier of Washington," she said, dreamily. "I am glad he has seen you;—I think he understands: but he is very, very old."
She lingered a moment to touch the white hair with her hand; the band-master stepped back to let her pass, then put on his cap, hooked his sabre, turned squarely toward the bed and saluted. The phantom watched him as a dying eagle watches; then the slim hand of the granddaughter fell on the bandmaster's arm, and he turned and clanked out into the open air.
The boy stood waiting for them, and as they appeared, he caught their hands in each of his. talking all the while and walking with them to the gateway, where pony and charger stood, nose to nose under the trees.
"If you need anybody to dash about carrying despatches," the boy ran on, " why, I'll do it for you. My father was a soldier, and I'm going to be one, and I—"
"Billy," said the bandmaster, abruptly, "when we charge, go up on that hill and watch us. If we don't come back, you must be ready to act a man's part. Your sister counts on you."
They stood a moment there together, saying nothing. Presently some mounted officers on the hill wheeled their horses and came spurring toward the column drawn up along the road. A trumpet spoke briskly; the bandmaster turned to the boy's sister, looked straight into her eyes, and took her hand.
"I think we're going," he said; "I am trying to thank you—I don't know how. Good-by."
"Is it a charge?" cried the boy.
"Good-by," said the bandmaster, smiling, holding the boy's hand tightly. Then he mounted, touched his cap, wheeled, and trotted off, freeing his sabre with his right hand.
The colonel had already drawn his sabre, the chief bugler sat his saddle, bugle lifted, waiting. A loud order, repeated from squadron to squadron, ran down the line; the restive horses wheeled, trampled forward, and halted.
The air shrilled with the swish of steel.
Far down the road horsemen were galloping in—the returning pickets.
They were moving.
"Steady—right dress!" taken up in turn by the company officers,—"steady—right dress!"
The bandmaster swung his sabre forward; the mounted band followed. Far away across the level fields something was stirring; the colonel saw it and turned in his saddle, scanning the column that moved forward on a walk.
Half a mile, and, passing a hill, an infantry regiment rose in the shallow trenches to cheer them. Instantly the mounted band crashed out into "The Girl I Left Behind Me"; an electric thrill passed along the column.
"Steady! Steady! Right dress!" rang the calm orders as a wood, almost behind them, was suddenly fringed with white smoke and a long rolling crackle broke out.
The band swung out to the right; the squadrons passed on; and,—"Steady! Trot! Steady—right dress—gallop!" came the orders.
The wild music of "Garryowen" set the horses frantic—and the men, too. The band, still advancing at a walk, was dropping rapidly behind. A bullet hit kettle-drummer Pillsbury, and he fell with a grunt, doubling up across his nigh kettle-drum. A moment later Peters struck his cymbals wildly together and fell clean out of his saddle, crashing to the sod. Schwarz, his trombone pierced by a ball, swore aloud and dragged back his frantic horse into line.
"Right dress!" said the bandmaster, blandly, mastering his own splendid mount as a bullet grazed its shoulder.
They were in the smoke now; they heard the yelling charge ahead, the rifle-fire raging, swelling to a terrific roar; and they marched forward, playing "Garryowen,"—not very well, for Connor's jaw was half gone, and Bradley's horse was down; and the bandmaster, reeling in the saddle, parried blow on blow from a clubbed rifle, until a stunning crack alongside of the head laid him flat across his horse's neck. And there he clung till he tumbled off, a limp, loose-limbed mass lying in the trampled grass under the heavy pall of smoke.
Long before sunset the echoing thunder in the hills had ceased; the edge of the great battle that had skirted Sand River, with a volley or two and an obscure cavalry charge, was ended. Beyond the hills, far away on the horizon, the men of the North were tramping forward through the walls of a crumbling Confederacy. The immense exodus had begun again; the invasion was developing; and as the tremendous red spectre receded, the hem of its smoky robe brushed Sand River and was gone, leaving a scorched regiment or two along the railroad, and a hospital at Oxley Court House overcrowded.
In the sunset light the cavalry returned, passing the white mansion on the hill. They brought in their dead and wounded on hay-wagons; and the boy, pale as a spectre, looked on, while the creaking wagons passed by under the trees.
But it was his sister whose eyes caught the glitter of a gilt and yellow sleeve lying across the hay; and she dropped her brother's hand and ran out into the road.
"Is he dead?" she asked the trooper who was driving.
"No, miss. Will you take him in?"
"Yes," she said. "Bring' him."
The driver drew rein, wheeled his team, and drove into the great gateway. "Hospital's plum full, ma'am," he said. "Wait; I'll carry him up. Head's bust a leetle—that's all. A day's nussin' will bring him into camp again."
"I want him put in my bed," whispered the boy, as the trooper staggered up-stairs with his burden, leaving a trail of dark wet spots along the stairs.
"All right, son," panted the trooper, following his small guide.
The bandmaster became conscious when they laid him on the bed, but the concussion troubled his eyes so that he was not certain that she was there until she bent close over him, looking down at him in silence.
"I thought of you—when I was falling," he explained, vaguely—"only of you."
The color came into her face; but her eyes were steady. She set the flaring dip on the bureau, and came back to the bed. "We thought of you, too," she said.
His restless hand, fumbling the quilt, closed on hers; his eyes were shut, but his lips moved, and she bent nearer to catch his words:
"We non-combatants get into heaps of trouble—don't we?"
"Yes," she whispered, smiling; "but the worst is over now."
"There is worse coming."
"We march—to-morrow. I shall never see you again."
After a silence she strove gently to release her hand; but his held it; and after a long while, as he seemed to be asleep, she sat down on the bed's edge, moving very softly lest he awaken. All the tenderness of innocence was in her gaze, as she laid her other hand over his and left it there, even after he stirred and his unclosing eyes met hers.
"Celia!" called the boy, from the darkened stairway, "there's a medical officer here."
"Bring him," she said. She rose, her lingering fingers still in his, looking down at him all the while; their hands parted, and she moved backward slowly, her young eyes always on his.
The medical officer passed her, stepping quickly to the bedside, stopped short, hesitated, and bending, opened the clotted shirt, placing a steady hand over the heart.
The next moment he straightened up, pulled the sheet over the bandmaster's face, and turned on his heel, nodding curtly to the girl as he passed out.
When he had gone, she walked slowly to the bed and drew the sheet from the bandmaster's face.
And as she stood there, dry-eyed, mute, from the dusky garden came the whispering cry of the widow-bird, calling, calling to the dead that answer not.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1933, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 89 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.