Wakamin is a town with a soul. It used to have a sentimental soul which got thrills out of neighborliness and “The Star–Spangled Banner,” but now it wavers between two generations, with none of the strong, silly ambition of either. The pioneering generation has died out, and of the young men, a hundred have gone to that new pioneering in France. Along the way they will behold the world, see the goodness and eagerness of it, and not greatly desire to come back to the straggly ungenerous streets of Wakamin.
Those who are left, lords of the dead soul of Wakamin, go to the movies and play tight little games of bridge and aspire only to own an automobile, because a car is the sign of respectability.
Mr. Gale felt the savorlessness of the town within ten minutes after he had arrived. He had come north to wind up the estate of his cousin, the late proprietor of the Wakamin Creamery. Mr. Gale was from the pine belt of Alabama but he did not resemble the stage Southerner. There was a look of resoluteness and industry about his broad red jaw. He spoke English very much like a man from New York or San Francisco. He did not say “Yessuh,” nor “Ah declah”; he had neither a large white hat nor a small white imperial; he was neither a Colonel nor a Judge. He was Mr. Gale, and he practiced law, and he preferred lemonade to mint juleps. But he had fought clear through the War for the Southern Confederacy; and once, on a gray wrinkled morning before a cavalry battle, he had spoken to Jeb Stuart.
While he was settling up the estate, Mr. Gale tried out the conversational qualities of the editor and the justice of the peace, and gave up his attempt to get acquainted with the Wakamites — except for Mrs. Tiffany, at whose house he went to board. Mrs. Captain Tiffany was daughter and widow of Territorial Pioneers. She herself had teamed-it from St. Paul, with her young husband, after the War. The late Captain Tiffany had been the last commander of the Wakamin G. A. R. Post, and Mrs. Tiffany had for years been president of the Women’s Relief Corps. After the barniness of the Wakamin Hotel Mr. Gale was at home in her cottage, which was as precise and nearly as small as the whitewashed conch shell at the gate. He recovered from the forlorn loneliness that had obsessed him during walks on these long, cold, blue twilights of spring. Nightly he sat on the porch with Mrs. Tiffany, and agreed with her about politics, corn-raising, religion, and recipes for hot biscuits.
When he was standing at the gate one evening of April, a small boy sidled across the street, made believe that he was not making-believe soldiers, rubbed one shin with the other foot, looked into the matter of an electric-light bug that was sprawling on its foolish back, violently chased nothing at all, walked backward a few paces, and came up to Mr. Gale with an explosive, “Hello!”
“You staying with Mrs. Tiffany?”
“Yes, for a while.”
“Where do you come from?”
“I’m from Alabama.”
“Alabama? Why, gee, then you’re a Southerner!”
“I reckon I am, old man.”
The small boy looked him all over, dug his toe into the leaf-mold at the edge of the curb, whistled, and burst out, “Aw, gee, you aren’t either! You don’t wear gray, and you haven’t got any darky body servant. I seen lots of Confederuts in the movies, and they always wear gray, and most always they got a body servant, and a big sword with a tossel on it. Have you got a sword with a tossel?”
“No, but I’ve got a suit of butternuts back home.”
“Gee, have you? Say, were you ever a raider?”
“No, but I know lots about raiders, and once I had dinner with Colonel Mosby.”
“Gee, did you? Say, what’s your name? Say, are you a gen’rul?”
“No, I was a high private. My name is Gale. What is your name, if I may ask you, as one man to another?”
“I’m Jimmy Martin. I live across the street. My dad’s got a great big phonograph and seventy records. Were you a high private? How high? Gee, tell me about the raiders!”
“But James, why should a loyal Northerner like you desire to know anything about the rebel horde?”
“Well, you see, I’m the leader of the Boy Scouts, and we haven’t any Scout Master, at least we did have, but he moved away, and I have to think up games for the Scouts, and gee, we’re awfully tired of discovering the North Pole, and being Red Cross in Belgium, and I always have to be the Eskimos when we discover the North Pole, or they won’t play, and I thought maybe we could be raiders and capture a Yankee train.”
“Well, you come sit on the porch, James. It occurs to me that you are a new audience for my stories. Let us proceed to defend Richmond, and do a quick dash into Illinois, to our common benefit. Is it a bargain?”
It was, and Jimmy listened, and Mrs. Tiffany came out and listened also and the three lovers of the Heroic Age sat glowing at one another till from across the village street, long and thin and drowsy, came the call, “Jim-m-m-ee Mar-r-r-tin!”
Later, Jimmy’s mother was surprised to discover her heir leading a Confederate raid, and she was satisfied only when she was assured that the raid was perfectly proper, because it was led by General Grant, and because all the raiders had voluntarily set free their slaves.
It was Jimmy Martin who enticed Mr. Gale to go spearing pickerel, and they two, the big slow-moving man and the boy who took two skips to his one solid pace, plowed through the willow thickets along the creek all one Saturday afternoon.
At the end of the trip, Jimmy cheerfully announced that he would probably get a whale of a licking, because he ought to have been chopping stovewood. Mr. Gale suggested strategic measures; he sneaked after Jimmy, through a stable door to the Martins’ woodshed, and cut wood for an hour, while Jimmy scrabbled to pile it.
In the confidences of Jimmy and in Mrs. Tiffany’s stories of her Vermont girlhood and pioneer days in Minnesota, Mr. Gale found those green memories of youth which he had hoped to discover, on coming North, in comradely talks with veterans of the Wakamin G. A. R.
But now there was no G. A. R. at all in Wakamin.
During the past year the local post had been wiped out. Of the four veterans remaining on Decoration Day a year before, three had died and one had gone West to live with his son, as is the Mid–Western way. Of the sturdy old men who had marched fifty strong to Woodlawn Cemetery a decade before, not one old man was left to leaven the land.
But they did live on in Mrs. Tiffany’s gossip, as she begged Mr. Gale to assure her that there would be a decorating of the graves, though the comrades were gone. This assurance Mr. Gale always gave, though upon sedulous inquiry at the barber shop he discovered that there was very little chance for a celebration of the Day. The town band had broken up when the barber, who was also the bandleader, had bought a car. The school principal had decided that this year it was not worth while to train the girls to wear red-white-and-blue cheesecloth, and sing “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” from a decked-over hay wagon.
Mr. Gale endeavored to approve this passing of Decoration Day. He told himself that he was glad to hear that all of his old enemies had gone. But no matter how often he said it, he couldn’t make it stick. He felt that he, too, was a derelict, as he listened to Mrs. Tiffany’s timid hopes for a celebration. To her, the Day was the climax of the year, the time when all her comrades, living and dead, drew closer together. She had a dazed faith that there would be some sort of ceremony.
She went on retrimming the blue bonnet which she had always worn in the parade, at the head of the W. R. C. Not till the day before the holiday did she learn the truth. That evening she did not come down to supper. She called in a neighbor’s daughter to serve Mr. Gale. The young woman giggled, and asked idiotic questions about Society Folks in the South, till Mr. Gale made his iron-gray eyebrows a line of defense. He tramped out the road eastward from town, after supper, growling to himself between periods of vacuous unhappiness:
“Feel’s if it’s me and the boys I fought with, not them I fought against, they’re going to neglect tomorrow. Those Yanks were lively youngsters. Made me do some tall jumping. Hate to think of ’em lying there in the cemetery, lonely and waiting, trusting that we — that the Dam-yanks — will remember them. Look here, J. Gale, Esq., you sentimental old has-been, what do you mean, whimpering about them? You know good and well you never did like Yanks — killed your daddy and brother. But — poor old codgers, waiting out there —”
His walk had brought him to a fenced field. He peered across. It was set with upright and ghostly stones. He had come to the cemetery. He stopped, prickly. He heard creepy murmurs in the dusk. He saw each white stone as the reproachful spirit of an old soldier robbed of his pension of honor. He turned away with a measured calmness that was more panicky than a stumbling retreat.
The morning of the empty Decoration Day was radiant as sunshine upon a beech trunk. But nowhere was the old-time bustle of schoolgirls in bunting, of mothers preparing lunch baskets, of shabby and halting old civilians magically transformed into soldiers. A few families mechanically hung out flags. Mrs. Tiffany did not. When Mr. Gale came down to breakfast he found her caressing an ancient silken flag. She thrust it into a closet, locked the door, hastened out to the kitchen. She was slow in the serving of breakfast, looked dizzy, often pressed her hand against her side. Mr. Gale begged her to let him help. She forbade him sternly. She seemed to have a calm and embittered control of herself.
He hastened out of the house. There was no business to which he could attend on this holiday. He made shameless overtures for the company of Jimmy Martin, who was boisterous over the fact that summer vacation had begun, and his dear, dear teachers gone away. The Martin family was not going to any of the three or four picnics planned for the day, and Jimmy and Mr. Gale considered gravely the possibility of a fishing trip. They sat in canvas chairs on the tiny lawn, and forgot a certain difference in age.
The door of the Tiffany house slammed. They stopped, listened. Nervous footsteps were crossing the porch, coming along the gravel walk. They looked back. Running toward them was Mrs. Tiffany. She wore no hat. Her hair was like a shell-torn flag, thin gray over the yellowed skin of her brow. Her hands dabbled feebly in the air before her glaring eyes. She moaned:
“Oh, Mr. Gale, I can’t stand it! Don’t they know what they’re doing? My boy lies there, my husband, and he’s crying for me to come to him and show I remember him. I tell you I can hear him, and his voice sounds like a rainy wind. I told him I’d go to Woodlawn all by myself, I said I’d fill my little basket with flowers, and crabapple blossoms, but he said he wanted the others to come too, he wanted a Decoration Day parade that would honor all the graves. Oh, I heard him —”
Mr. Gale had sprung up. He put his arm about her shoulder. He cried, “There will be a parade, ma’am! We’ll remember the boys, every one of them, every grave. You go in the house, honey, and you put on your bonnet, and pack a little sack for you and me to eat after the ceremony, maybe you’ll have time to bake a batch of biscuits, but anyway, in an hour or so, maybe hour and a half, you’ll hear the parade coming, and you be all ready.” Mr. Gale’s voice had something of the ponderous integrity of distant cannon. He smoothed her disordered hair. He patted her, like the soft pawing of a fond old dog, and led her to the paint-blistered door of the house.
He went back to his canvas chair, scratching his scalp, shaking his head. Jimmy, who had edged away, returned and sighed, “Gee, I wisht I could do something.”
“I bet you would, if you were a little older, James, but — better run away. This old Rebel has got to stir up his sleepy brain and conjure up a Federal parade, with a band and at least twenty flags, out of the sparrows in the street. Good-by.”
After five minutes, or it may have been ten, of clawing at his chin, Mr. Gale looked happy. He hastened down the street. He entered the drug store, and from the telephone booth he talked to hotel clerks in three different towns within ten miles of Wakamin.
He hurried to the livery stable which operated the two cars in town that were for hire. One of the cars was out. The second was preparing to leave, as he lumbered up to the door.
“I want that car,” he said to the stableman-chauffeur.
“Well, you can’t have it.” The stableman bent over, to crank up.
“Because I’m going to take a skirt out for a spin, see?”
“Look here. I’m Mr. Gale who —”
“Aw, I know all about you. Seen you go by. You out-of-town guys think we have to drop everything else just to accommodate you —”
Mr. Gale puffed across the floor like a steam-roller. He said gently, “Son, I’ve been up all night, and I reckon I’ve had a lee-tle mite too much liquor. I’ve taken a fancy to going riding. Son, I’ve got the peacefulest heart that a grown-up human ever had; I’m like a little playing pussy-cat, I am; but I’ve got a gun in my back pocket that carries the meanest .44–40 bullet in the South. Maybe you’ve heard about us Southern fire-eaters, heh? Son, I only want that car for maybe two hours. Understand?”
He bellowed. He was making vast, vague, loosely swinging gestures, his perspiring hands very red. He caught the stableman by the shoulder. The man’s Adam’s apple worked grotesquely up and down. He whimpered:
“All right. I’ll take you.”
Mr. Gale pacifically climbed into the car. “Joralemon, son, and fast, son, particular fast,” he murmured.
In the speeding car he meditated: “Let’s see. Must be forty years since I’ve toted any kind of a gun — and twenty years since I’ve called anybody ‘son.’ Oh, well.”
Again, “Let’s see. I’ll be a Major. No, a Colonel; Colonel Gale of the Tenth New York. Private Gale, I congratulate you. I reckon the best you ever got from a darky was ‘Cap’n’ or ‘boss.’ You’re rising in the world, my boy. Poor woman! Poor, faithful woman —”
When they reached the town of Joralemon, Mr. Gale leaned out from the car and inquired of a corner loafer, “Where’s the Decoration Day parade? The G. A. R.?”
“At the exercises in Greenwood Cemetery.”
“Greenwood, son,” he blared, and the stableman made haste.
At the entrance to the cemetery Mr. Gale insinuated, “Now wait till I come back, son. I’m getting over that liquor, and I’m ugly, son, powerful ugly.”
“All right,” growled the stableman. “Say, do I get paid —?”
“Here’s five dollars. When I come back with my friends, there’ll be another five. I’m going to steal a whole Decoration Day parade.”
“I’m going to surround them.”
“My — Gawd!” whispered the stableman.
The Southerner bristled at the sight of the Northern regimental flag among the trees of the cemetery. But he shrugged his shoulders and waddled into the crowd. The morning’s radiance brought out in hot primary colors the red and yellow of flowers in muddy glass vases upon the graves. Light flashed from the mirrory brown surfaces of polished granite headstones, with inscriptions cut in painfully white letters. The air was thick with the scent of dust and maple leaves and packed people. Round a clergyman in canonicals were the eight veterans now left in Joralemon; men to whose scrawny faces a dignity was given by their symbolic garb. From their eyes was purged all the meanness of daily grinding. The hand of a sparse-bearded Yankee, who wore an English flag pinned beside his G. A. R. button, was resting on the shoulder of a Teutonic-faced man with the emblem of the Sigel Corps.
Round the G. A. R. were ringed the Sons of Veterans, the Hose and Truck Company, the Women’s Relief Corps, and the Joralemon Band; beyond them a great press of townspeople. The road beside the cemetery was packed with cars and buggies, and the stamp of horses’ feet as they restlessly swished at flies gave a rustic rhythm to the pause in the clergyman’s voice.
Here in a quiet town, unconscious of the stir of the world beyond, was renewed the passion of their faith in the Union.
Mr. Gale shoved forward into the front row. Everyone glared at the pushing stranger. The voice of the gray, sunken-templed clergyman sharpened with indignation for a second. Mr. Gale tried to look unconcerned. But he felt hot about the spine. The dust got into his throat. The people about him were elbowing and sticky. He was not happy. But he vowed, “By thunder, I’ll pull this off if I have to kidnap the whole crowd.”
As the clergyman finished his oration, Mr. Gale pushed among the G. A. R. He began loudly, cheerfully, “Gentlemen —”
The clergyman stared down from his box rostrum. “What do you mean, interrupting this ceremony?”
The crowd was squeezing in, like a street mob about a man found murdered. Their voices united in a swelling whisper. Their gaping mouths were ugly. Mr. Gale was rigid with the anger that wipes out all fear of a crowd, and leaves a man facing them as though they were one contemptible opponent.
“Look here,” he bawled, “I had proposed to join you in certain memorial plans. It may interest you to know that I am Colonel John Gale, and that I led the Tenth New York through most of the war!”
“Ah,” purred the clergyman, “you are Colonel — Gale, is it?”
“I am.” The clergyman licked his lips. With fictitious jocularity Mr. Gale said, “I see you do not salute your superior officer. But I reckon a dominie isn’t like us old soldiers. Now, boys, listen to me. There’s a little woman —”
The clergyman’s voice cut in on this lumbering amiability as a knife cuts butter: “My dear sir, I don’t quite understand the reason for this farce. I am a ‘dominie,’ as you are pleased to call it, but also I am an old soldier, the present commander of this post, and it may ‘interest you to know’ that I fought clear through the war in the Tenth New York! And if my memory is still good, you were not my commanding officer for any considerable period!”
“No!” bellowed Mr. Gale, “I wa’n’t! I’m a Southerner. From Alabama. And after today I’m not even sure I’m reconstructed! I’m powerful glad I never was a blue-bellied Yank, when I think of that poor little woman dying of a broken heart up in Wakamin!”
With banal phrases and sentimental touches, with simple words and no further effort to be friendly, he told the story of Mrs. Captain Tiffany, though he did not satisfy the beggar ears of the crowd with her name.
His voice was at times almost hostile. “So,” he wound up, “I want you-all to come to Wakamin and decorate the graves there, too. You, my dear sir, I don’t care a damaged Continental whether you ever salute me or not. If you boys do come to Wakamin, then I’ll know there’s still some MEN, as there were in the ‘60’s. But if you eight or nine great big husky young Yanks are afraid of one poor old lone Johnny Reb, then by God, sir, I win another scrimmage for the Confederate States of America!”
Silence. Big and red, Mr. Gale stood among them like a sandstone boulder. His eyes were steady and hard as his clenched fist. But his upper lip was trembling and covered with a triple row of sweat drops.
Slowly, as in the fumbling stupor of a trance, the clergyman drew off his canonicals and handed them to a boy. He was formal and thin and rather dry of aspect in his black frock coat. His voice was that of a tired, polite old gentleman, as he demanded of Mr. Gale, “Have you a car to take us to Wakamin?”
“Room for five.”
To a man beside him the clergyman said, “Will you have another car ready for us?” Abruptly his voice snapped: “‘Tention. Fall in. Form twos. B’ th’ right flank. For’ard. March!”
As he spoke he leaped down into the ranks, and the veterans tramped toward the gate of the cemetery, through the parting crowd. Their faces were blurred with weariness and dust and age, but they stared straight ahead, they marched stolidly, as though they had been ordered to occupy a dangerous position and were too fagged to be afraid.
The two rear-line men struck up with fife and drum. The fifer was a corpulent banker, but he tootled with the agility of a boy. The drummer was a wisp of humanity. Though his clay-hued hands kept up with the capering of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” his yellowish eyes were opening in an agonized stare, and his chin trembled.
“Halt!” the clergyman ordered. “Boys, seems to me the commander of this expedition ought to be Colonel Gale. Colonel, will you please take command of the post?”
“W— why, I wouldn’t hardly call it regular.”
“You old Rebel, I wouldn’t call any of this regular!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gale. “‘Tention!”
The old drummer, his eyes opening wider and wider, sank forward from the knees, and held himself up only by trembling bent arms. Two men in the crowd caught him. “Go on!” he groaned. His drumsticks clattered on the ground.
Uneasily exchanging glances, the other old men waited. Each face said, “Risky business. Hot day. We might collapse, too.”
The clergyman slipped the drum belt over his own head, picked up the sticks. “Play, confound you, Lanse!” he snapped at the pompous banker-fifer, and together they rolled into a rude version of “Marching Through Georgia.”
The squad straightened its lines and marched on without even an order from Mr. Gale, who, at the head of the procession, was marveling, “I never did expect to march to that tune!”
The two motor cars shot from Joralemon to Wakamin, with steering wheels wrenching and bucking on the sandy road, and old men clinging to seat-edge and robe-rack. They stopped before the Tiffany cottage.
Mrs. Tiffany sat on the porch, her blue bonnet lashed to her faded hair, with a brown veil, a basket of flowers and a shoe-box of lunch on her knees. As the cars drew up, she rushed out, with flustered greetings. The old men greeted her elaborately. One, who had known Captain Tiffany, became the noisy spokesman. But he had little of which to speak. And the whole affair suddenly became a vacuous absurdity. Now that Mr. Gale had them here, what was he going to do with them?
The quiet of the village street flowed over them. This was no parade; it was merely nine old men and an old woman talking in the dust. There was no music, no crowd of spectators, none of the incitements of display which turn the ordinary daily sort of men into one marching thrill. They were old, and tired, and somewhat hungry, and no one saw them as heroes. A small automobile passed; the occupants scarce looked at them.
The unparading parade looked awkward, tried to keep up brisk talk, and became dull in the attempt.
They were engulfed in the indifferent calm of the day. After the passing of the one automobile, there was no one to be seen. The box-elder trees nodded slowly. Far off a rooster crowed, once. In a vacant lot near by a cud-chewing cow stared at them dumb and bored. Little sounds of insects in the grass underlaid the silence with a creeping sleepiness. The village street, stretching out toward the wheat fields beyond, grew hotter and more hazy to their old eyes. They all stood about the cars, plucking at hinges and door-edges, wondering how they could give up this childish attempt and admit that they were grannies. A sparrow hopped among them unconcernedly.
“Well?” said the clergyman.
“Wel-l —” said Mr. Gale.
Then Jimmy Martin strolled out in front of his house.
He saw them. He stopped short. He made three jubilant skips, and charged on them.
“Are you going to parade?” he shrilled at Mr. Gale.
“Afraid not, Jimmy. Reckon we haven’t quite got the makings. The young people don’t appear to care. Reckon we’ll give up.”
“No, no, no!” Jimmy wailed. “The Scouts want to come!”
He dashed into his house, while the collapsed parade stared after him with mild elderly wonder. He came back to the gate. He wore a Boy Scout uniform and a red neckerchief, and he carried a cheap bugle.
He stood at the gate, his eyes a glory, and he blew the one bugle call he knew — the Reveille. Wavering at first, harsh and timorous, the notes crept among the slumberous trees, then swelled, loud, madly imploring, shaking with a boy’s worship of the heroes.
Another boy ran out from a gate down the street, looked, came running, stumbling, panting. He was bare headed, in corduroy knickers unbuckled at the knees, but in his face was the same ageless devotion that had made a splendor of the mere boys who marched out in ‘64 and ‘65. He saluted Jimmy. Jimmy spoke, and the two of them, curiously dignified, very earnest, marched out before the scatter of old people and stood at attention, their serious faces toward Woodlawn and the undecked graves.
From a box-elder down the street climbed another boy; one popped out of a crabapple orchard; a dozen others from drowsy distances. They scurried like suddenly disturbed ants. They could be heard calling, clattering into houses. They came out again in Scout uniforms; they raced down the street and fell into line.
They stood with clean backs rigid, eyes forward, waiting to obey orders. As he looked at them, Mr. Gale knew that some day Wakamin would again have a soul.
Jimmy Martin came marching up to Mr. Gale. His voice was plaintive and reedy, but it was electric as he reported: “The Boy Scouts are ready, sir.”
“‘Tention!” shouted Mr. Gale.
The old men’s backs had been straightening, the rheumy redness of disappointment had gone from their eyes. They lined out behind the boys. Even the Wakamin stableman seemed to feel inspiration. He sprang from his car, helped Mrs. Tiffany in, and wheeled the car to join the procession. From nowhere, from everywhere, a crowd had come, and stood on the sidewalk, rustling with faint cheering. Two women hastened to add flowers to those in Mrs. Tiffany’s basket. The benumbed town had awakened to energy and eagerness and hope.
To the clergyman Mr. Gale suggested, “Do you suppose that just for once this Yankee fife-and-drum corps could play ‘Dixie’?” Instantly the clergyman-drummer and the banker-fifer flashed into “Way Down South in the Land of Cotton.” The color-bearer raised the flag.
Mr. Gale roared, “Forward! M—”
There was a high wail from Mrs. Tiffany: “Wait! Land o’ goodness! What’s Decoration Day without one single sword, and you menfolks never thinking —”
She ran into her house. She came out bearing in her two hands, as though it were an altar vessel, the saber of Captain Tiffany.
“Mr. Gale, will you carry a Northerner’s sword?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, I won’t!”
He buckled on the sword belt, and cried, “This isn’t a Northerner’s sword any more, nor a Southerner’s, ma’am. It’s an American’s! Forward! March!”