RSS Feed

“The Little Regiment” by Stephen Crane

 Stephen Crane2 (1871-1900)

The Little Regiment ~ A Classic American Short Story by Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

I

The fog made the clothes of the men of the column in the roadway seem of a luminous quality. It imparted to the   heavy infantry overcoats a new colour, a kind of blue which was so pale that   a regiment might have been merely a long, low shadow in the mist. However, a   muttering, one part grumble, three parts joke, hovered in the air above the   thick ranks, and blended in an undertoned roar, which was the voice of the   column.

The town on the southern shore of the   little river loomed spectrally, a faint etching upon the grey cloud-masses   which were shifting with oily languor. A long row of guns upon the northern   bank had been pitiless in their hatred, but a little battered belfry could be   dimly seen still pointing with invincible resolution toward the heavens.

The enclouded air vibrated with noises   made by hidden colossal things. The infantry tramplings, the heavy rumbling   of the artillery, made the earth speak of gigantic preparation. Guns on   distant heights thundered from time to time with sudden, nervous roar, as if   unable to endure in silence a knowledge of hostile troops massing, other guns   going to position. These sounds, near and remote, defined an immense battle-   ground, described the tremendous width of the stage of the prospective drama.   The voices of the guns, slightly casual, unexcited in their challenges and   warnings, could not destroy the unutterable eloquence of the word in the air,   a meaning of impending struggle which made the breath halt at the lips.

The column in the roadway was ankle-deep   in mud. The men swore piously at the rain which drizzled upon them,   compelling them to stand always very erect in fear of the drops that would   sweep in under their coat- collars. The fog was as cold as wet cloths. The   men stuffed their hands deep in their pockets, and huddled their muskets in   their arms. The machinery of orders had rooted these soldiers deeply into the   mud, precisely as almighty nature roots mullein stalks.

They listened and speculated when a   tumult of fighting came from the dim town across the river. When the noise   lulled for a time they resumed their descriptions of the mud and graphically   exaggerated the number of hours they had been kept waiting. The general   commanding their division rode along the ranks, and they cheered admiringly,   affectionately, crying out to him gleeful prophecies of the coming battle.   Each man scanned him with a peculiarly keen personal interest, and afterward   spoke of him with unquestioning devotion and confidence, narrating anecdotes   which were mainly untrue.

When the jokers lifted the shrill voices   which invariably belonged to them, flinging witticisms at their comrades, a   loud laugh would sweep from rank to rank, and soldiers who had not heard   would lean forward and demand repetition. When were borne past them some   wounded men with grey and blood-smeared faces, and eyes that rolled in that   helpless beseeching for assistance from the sky which comes with supreme   pain, the soldiers in the mud watched intently, and from time to time asked   of the bearers an account of the affair. Frequently they bragged of their   corps, their division, their brigade, their regiment. Anon they referred to   the mud and the cold drizzle. Upon this threshold of a wild scene of death   they, in short, defied the proportion of events with that splendour of   heedlessness which belongs only to veterans.

“Like a lot of wooden   soldiers,” swore Billie Dempster, moving his feet in the thick mass, and   casting a vindictive glance indefinitely: “standing in the mud for a   hundred years.”

“Oh, shut up!” murmured his   brother Dan. The manner of his words implied that this fraternal voice near   him was an indescribable bore.

“Why should I shut up?”   demanded Billie.

“Because you’re a fool,” cried   Dan, taking no time to debate it; “the biggest fool in the   regiment.”

There was but one man between them, and   he was habituated. These insults from brother to brother had swept across his   chest, flown past his face, many times during two long campaigns. Upon this   occasion he simply grinned first at one, then at the other.

The way of these brothers was not an   unknown topic in regimental gossip. They had enlisted simultaneously, with   each sneering loudly at the other for doing it. They left their little town,   and went forward with the flag, exchanging protestations of undying   suspicion. In the camp life they so openly despised each other that, when   entertaining quarrels were lacking, their companions often contrived   situations calculated to bring forth display of this fraternal dislike.

Both were large-limbed, strong young   men, and often fought with friends in camp unless one was near to interfere   with the other. This latter happened rather frequently, because Dan,   preposterously willing for any manner of combat, had a very great horror of   seeing Billie in a fight; and Billie, almost odiously ready himself, simply   refused to see Dan stripped to his shirt and with his fists aloft. This sat   queerly upon them, and made them the objects of plots.

When Dan jumped through a ring of eager   soldiers and dragged forth his raving brother by the arm, a thing often   predicted would almost come to pass. When Billie performed the same office   for Dan, the prediction would again miss fulfilment by an inch. But indeed   they never fought together, although they were perpetually upon the verge.

They expressed longing for such   conflict. As a matter of truth, they had at one time made full arrangement   for it, but even with the encouragement and interest of half of the regiment   they somehow failed to achieve collision.

If Dan became a victim of police duty,   no jeering was so destructive to the feelings as Billie’s comment. If Billie   got a call to appear at the headquarters, none would so genially prophesy his   complete undoing as Dan. Small misfortunes to one were, in truth, invariably   greeted with hilarity by the other, who seemed to see in them great   re-enforcement of his opinion.

As soldiers, they expressed each for   each a scorn intense and blasting. After a certain battle, Billie was   promoted to corporal. When Dan was told of it, he seemed smitten dumb with   astonishment and patriotic indignation. He stared in silence, while the dark   blood rushed to Billie’s forehead, and he shifted his weight from foot to   foot. Dan at last found his tongue, and said: “Well, I’m durned!”   If he had heard that an army mule had been appointed to the post of corps   commander, his tone could not have had more derision in it. Afterward, he   adopted a fervid insubordination, an almost religious reluctance to obey the   new corporal’s orders, which came near to developing the desired strife.

It is here finally to be recorded also   that Dan, most ferociously profane in speech, very rarely swore in the   presence of his brother; and that Billie, whose oaths came from his lips with   the grace of falling pebbles, was seldom known to express himself in this   manner when near his brother Dan.

At last the afternoon contained a   suggestion of evening. Metallic cries rang suddenly from end to end of the   column. They inspired at once a quick, business-like adjustment. The long   thing stirred in the mud. The men had hushed, and were looking across the   river. A moment later the shadowy mass of pale blue figures was moving   steadily toward the stream. There could be heard from the town a clash of   swift fighting and cheering. The noise of the shooting coming through the   heavy air had its sharpness taken from it, and sounded in thuds.

There was a halt upon the bank above the   pontoons. When the column went winding down the incline, and streamed out   upon the bridge, the fog had faded to a great degree, and in the clearer dusk   the guns on a distant ridge were enabled to perceive the crossing. The long   whirling outcries of the shells came into the air above the men. An   occasional solid shot struck the surface of the river, and dashed into view a   sudden vertical jet. The distance was subtly illuminated by the lightning   from the deep- booming guns. One by one the batteries on the northern shore   aroused, the innumerable guns bellowing in angry oration at the distant   ridge. The rolling thunder crashed and reverberated as a wild surf sounds on   a still night, and to this music the column marched across the pontoons.

The waters of the grim river curled away   in a smile from the ends of the great boats, and slid swiftly beneath the   planking. The dark, riddled walls of the town upreared before the troops, and   from a region hidden by these hammered and tumbled houses came incessantly   the yells and firings of a prolonged and close skirmish.

When Dan had called his brother a fool,   his voice had been so decisive, so brightly assured, that many men had   laughed, considering it to be great humour under the circumstances. The   incident happened to rankle deep in Billie. It was not any strange thing that   his brother had called him a fool. In fact, he often called him a fool with   exactly the same amount of cheerful and prompt conviction, and before large   audiences, too. Billie wondered in his own mind why he took such profound   offence in this case; but, at any rate, as he slid down the bank and on to   the bridge with his regiment, he was searching his knowledge for something   that would pierce Dan’s blithesome spirit. But he could contrive nothing at   this time, and his impotency made the glance which he was once able to give   his brother still more malignant.

The guns far and near were roaring a   fearful and grand introduction for this column which was marching upon the   stage of death. Billie felt it, but only in a numb way. His heart was cased   in that curious dissonant metal which covers a man’s emotions at such times.   The terrible voices from the hills told him that in this wide conflict his   life was an insignificant fact, and that his death would be an insignificant   fact. They portended the whirlwind to which he would be as necessary as a   butterfly’s waved wing. The solemnity, the sadness of it came near enough to   make him wonder why he was neither solemn nor sad. When his mind vaguely   adjusted events according to their importance to him, it appeared that the   uppermost thing was the fact that upon the eve of battle, and before many   comrades, his brother had called him a fool.

Dan was in a particularly happy mood.   “Hurray! Look at ’em shoot,” he said, when the long witches’ croon   of the shells came into the air. It enraged Billie when he felt the little   thorn in him, and saw at the same time that his brother had completely   forgotten it.

The column went from the bridge into   more mud. At this southern end there was a chaos of hoarse directions and   commands. Darkness was coming upon the earth, and regiments were being hurried   up the slippery bank. As Billie floundered in the black mud, amid the   swearing, sliding crowd, he suddenly resolved that, in the absence of other   means of hurting Dan, he would avoid looking at him, refrain from speaking to   him, pay absolutely no heed to his existence; and this done skilfully would,   he imagined, soon reduce his brother to a poignant sensitiveness.

At the top of the bank the column again   halted and rearranged itself, as a man after a climb rearranges his clothing.   Presently the great steel-backed brigade, an infinitely graceful thing in the   rhythm and ease of its veteran movement, swung up a little narrow, slanting   street.

Evening had come so swiftly that the   fighting on the remote borders of the town was indicated by thin flashes of   flame. Some building was on fire, and its reflection upon the clouds was an   oval of delicate pink.

II

All demeanour of rural serenity had been   wrenched violently from the little town by the guns and by the waves of men   which had surged through it. The hand of war laid upon this village had in an   instant changed it to a thing of remnants. It resembled the place of a   monstrous shaking of the earth itself. The windows, now mere unsightly holes,   made the tumbled and blackened dwellings seem skeletons. Doors lay splintered   to fragments. Chimneys had flung their bricks everywhere. The artillery fire   had not neglected the rows of gentle shade-trees which had lined the streets.   Branches and heavy trunks cluttered the mud in driftwood tangles, while a few   shattered forms had contrived to remain dejectedly, mournfully upright. They   expressed an innocence, a helplessness, which perforce created a pity for   their happening into this caldron of battle. Furthermore, there was under   foot a vast collection of odd things reminiscent of the charge, the fight,   the retreat. There were boxes and barrels filled with earth, behind which   riflemen had lain snugly, and in these little trenches were the dead in blue   with the dead in grey, the poses eloquent of the struggles for possession of   the town, until the history of the whole conflict was written plainly in the   streets.

And yet the spirit of this little city,   its quaint individuality, poised in the air above the ruins, defying the   guns, the sweeping volleys; holding in contempt those avaricious blazes which   had attacked many dwellings. The hard earthen sidewalks proclaimed the games   that had been played there during long lazy days, in the careful, shadows of   the trees. “General Merchandise,” in faint letters upon a long   board, had to be read with a slanted glance, for the sign dangled by one end;   but the porch of the old store was a palpable legend of wide-hatted men,   smoking.

This subtle essence, this soul of the   life that had been, brushed like invisible wings the thoughts of the men in   the swift columns that came up from the river.

In the darkness a loud and endless   humming arose from the great blue crowds bivouacked in the streets. From time   to time a sharp spatter of firing from far picket lines entered this bass   chorus. The smell from the smouldering ruins floated on the cold night   breeze.

Dan, seated ruefully upon the doorstep   of a shot-pierced house, was proclaiming the campaign badly managed. Orders   had been issued forbidding camp-fires.

Suddenly he ceased his oration, and   scanning the group of his comrades, said: “Where’s Billie? Do you   know?”

“Gone on picket.”

“Get out! Has he?” said Dan.   “No business to go on picket. Why don’t some of them other corporals   take their turn?”

A bearded private was smoking his pipe   of confiscated tobacco, seated comfortably upon a horse-hair trunk which he   had dragged from the house. He observed: “Was his turn.”

“No such thing,” cried Dan. He   and the man on the horse-hair trunk held discussion in which Dan stoutly   maintained that if his brother had been sent on picket it was an injustice.   He ceased his argument when another soldier, upon whose arms could faintly be   seen the two stripes of a corporal, entered the circle. “Humph,”   said Dan, “where you been?”

The corporal made no answer. Presently   Dan said: “Billie, where you been?”

His brother did not seem to hear these   inquiries. He glanced at the house which towered above them, and remarked   casually to the man on the horse-hair trunk: “Funny, ain’t it? After the   pelting this town got, you’d think there wouldn’t be one brick left on   another.”

“Oh,” said Dan, glowering at   his brother’s back. “Getting mighty smart, ain’t you?”

The absence of camp-fires allowed the   evening to make apparent its quality of faint silver light in which the blue   clothes of the throng became black, and the faces became white expanses, void   of expression. There was considerable excitement a short distance from the   group around the doorstep. A soldier had chanced upon a hoop-skirt, and   arrayed in it he was performing a dance amid the applause of his companions.   Billie and a greater part of the men immediately poured over there to witness   the exhibition.

“What’s the matter with   Billie?” demanded Dan of the man upon the horse- hair trunk.

“How do I know?” rejoined the   other in mild resentment. He arose and walked away. When he returned he said   briefly, in a weather-wise tone, that it would rain during the night.

Dan took a seat upon one end of the   horse-hair trunk. He was facing the crowd around the dancer, which in its   hilarity swung this way and that way. At times he imagined that he could   recognise his brother’s face.

He and the man on the other end of the   trunk thoughtfully talked of the army’s position. To their minds, infantry   and artillery were in a most precarious jumble in the streets of the town;   but they did not grow nervous over it, for they were used to having the army   appear in a precarious jumble to their minds. They had learned to accept such   puzzling situations as a consequence of their position in the ranks, and were   now usually in possession of a simple but perfectly immovable faith that   somebody understood the jumble. Even if they had been convinced that the army   was a headless monster, they would merely have nodded with the veteran’s   singular cynicism. It was none of their business as soldiers. Their duty was   to grab sleep and food when occasion permitted, and cheerfully fight wherever   their feet were planted until more orders came. This was a task sufficiently   absorbing.

They spoke of other corps, and this talk   being confidential, their voices dropped to tones of awe. “The   Ninth”–“The First”–“The Fifth”– “The   Sixth”–“The Third”–the simple numerals rang with eloquence,   each having a meaning which was to float through many years as no intangible   arithmetical mist, but as pregnant with individuality as the names of cities.

Of their own corps they spoke with a   deep veneration, an idolatry, a supreme confidence which apparently would not   blanch to see it match against everything.

It was as if their respect for other   corps was due partly to a wonder that organisations not blessed with their   own famous numeral could take such an interest in war. They could prove that   their division was the best in the corps, and that their brigade was the best   in the division. And their regiment–it was plain that no fortune of life was   equal to the chance which caused a man to be born, so to speak, into this   command, the keystone of the defending arch.

At times Dan covered with insults the   character of a vague, unnamed general to whose petulance and busy-body spirit   he ascribed the order which made hot coffee impossible.

Dan said that victory was certain in the   coming battle. The other man seemed rather dubious. He remarked upon the   fortified line of hills, which had impressed him even from the other side of   the river. “Shucks,” said Dan. “Why, we—-” He pictured   a splendid overflowing of these hills by the sea of men in blue. During the   period of this conversation Dan’s glance searched the merry throng about the   dancer. Above the babble of voices in the street a far-away thunder could   sometimes be heard–evidently from the very edge of the horizon–the   boom-boom of restless guns.

III

Ultimately the night deepened to the   tone of black velvet. The outlines of the fireless camp were like the faint   drawings upon ancient tapestry. The glint of a rifle, the, shine of a button,   might have been of threads of silver and gold sewn upon the fabric of the   night. There was little presented to the vision, but to a sense more subtle   there was discernible in the atmosphere something like a pulse; a mystic   beating which would have told a stranger of the presence of a giant   thing–the slumbering mass of regiments and batteries.

With tires forbidden, the floor of a dry   old kitchen was thought to be a good exchange for the cold earth of December,   even if a shell had exploded in it, and knocked it so out of shape that when   a man lay curled in his blanket his last waking thought was likely to be of   the wall that bellied out above him, as if strongly anxious to topple upon   the score of soldiers.

Billie looked at the bricks ever about   to descend in a shower upon his face, listened to the industrious pickets   plying their rifles on the border of the town, imagined some measure of the   din of the coming battle, thought of Dan and Dan’s chagrin, and rolling over   in his blanket went to sleep with satisfaction.

At an unknown hour he was aroused by the   creaking of boards. Lifting himself upon his elbow, he saw a sergeant   prowling among the sleeping forms. The sergeant carried a candle in an old   brass candlestick. He would have resembled some old farmer on an unusual   midnight tour if it were not for the significance of his gleaming buttons and   striped sleeves.

Billie blinked stupidly at the light   until his mind returned from the journeys of slumber. The sergeant stooped   among the unconscious soldiers, holding the candle close, and peering into   each face.

“Hello, Haines,” said Billie.   “Relief?”

“Hello, Billie,” said the   sergeant. “Special duty.”

“Dan got to go?”

“Jameson, Hunter, McCormack, D.   Dempster. Yes. Where is he?”

“Over there by the winder,”   said Billie, gesturing. “What is it for, Haines?”

“You don’t think I know, do   you?” demanded the sergeant. He began to pipe sharply but cheerily at   men upon the floor. “Come, Mac, get up here. Here’s a special for you.   Wake up, Jameson. Come along, Dannie, me boy.”

Each man at once took this call to duty   as a personal affront. They pulled themselves out of their blankets, rubbed   their eyes, and swore at whoever was responsible. “Them’s orders,”   cried the sergeant. “Come! Get out of here.” An undetailed head   with dishevelled hair thrust out from a blanket, and a sleepy voice said:   “Shut up, Haines, and go home.”

When the detail clanked out of the   kitchen, all but one of the remaining men seemed to be again asleep. Billie,   leaning on his elbow, was gazing into darkness. When the footsteps died to   silence, he curled himself into his blanket.

At the first cool lavender lights of   daybreak he aroused again, and scanned his recumbent companions. Seeing a   wakeful one he asked: “Is Dan back yet?”

The man said: “Hain’t seen   ‘im.”

Billie put both hands behind his head,   and scowled into the air. “Can’t see the use of these cussed details in   the night-time,” he muttered in his most unreasonable tones. “Darn   nuisances. Why can’t they—-” He grumbled at length and graphically.

When Dan entered with the squad,   however, Billie was convincingly asleep.

IV

The regiment trotted in double time   along the street, and the colonel seemed to quarrel over the right of way   with many artillery officers. Batteries were waiting in the mud, and the men   of them, exasperated by the bustle of this ambitious infantry, shook their   fists from saddle and caisson, exchanging all manner of taunts and jests. The   slanted guns continued to look reflectively at the ground.

On the outskirts of the crumbled town a   fringe of blue figures were firing into the fog. The regiment swung out into   skirmish lines, and the fringe of blue figures departed, turning their backs   and going joyfully around the flank.

The bullets began a low moan off toward   a ridge which loomed faintly in the heavy mist. When the swift crescendo had   reached its climax, the missiles zipped just overhead, as if piercing an   invisible curtain. A battery on the hill was crashing with such tumult that   it was as if the guns had quarrelled and had fallen pell-mell and snarling   upon each other. The shells howled on their journey toward the town. From   short- range distance there came a spatter of musketry, sweeping along an   invisible line, and making faint sheets of orange light.

Some in the new skirmish lines were   beginning to fire at various shadows discerned in the vapour, forms of men   suddenly revealed by some humour of the laggard masses of clouds. The crackle   of musketry began to dominate the purring of the hostile bullets. Dan, in the   front rank, held his rifle poised, and looked into the fog keenly, coldly,   with the air of a sportsman. His nerves were so steady that it was as if they   had been drawn from his body, leaving him merely a muscular machine; but his   numb heart was somehow beating to the pealing march of the fight.

The waving skirmish line went backward   and forward, ran this way and that way. Men got lost in the fog, and men were   found again. Once they got too close to the formidable ridge, and the thing   burst out as if repulsing a general attack. Once another blue regiment was   apprehended on the very edge of firing into them. Once a friendly battery   began an elaborate and scientific process of extermination. Always as busy as   brokers, the men slid here and there over the plain, fighting their foes,   escaping from their friends, leaving a history of many movements in the wet   yellow turf, cursing the atmosphere, blazing away every time they could   identify the enemy.

In one mystic changing of the fog as if   the fingers of spirits were drawing aside these draperies, a small group of   the grey skirmishers, silent, statuesque, were suddenly disclosed to Dan and   those about him. So vivid and near were they that there was something uncanny   in the revelation.

There might have been a second of mutual   staring. Then each rifle in each group was at the shoulder. As Dan’s glance   flashed along the barrel of his weapon, the figure of a man suddenly loomed   as if the musket had been a telescope. The short black beard, the slouch hat,   the pose of the man as he sighted to shoot, made a quick picture in Dan’s   mind. The same moment, it would seem, he pulled his own trigger, and the man,   smitten, lurched forward, while his exploding rifle made a slanting crimson   streak in the air, and the slouch hat fell before the body. The billows of   the fog, governed by singular impulses, rolled between.

“You got that feller sure   enough,” said a comrade to Dan. Dan looked at him absent-mindedly.

V

When the next morning calmly displayed   another fog, the men of the regiment exchanged eloquent comments; but they   did not abuse it at length, because the streets of the town now contained   enough galloping aides to make three troops of cavalry, and they knew that   they had come to the verge of the great fight.

Dan conversed with the man who had once   possessed a horse-hair trunk; but they did not mention the line of hills   which had furnished them in more careless moments with an agreeable topic.   They avoided it now as condemned men do the subject of death, and yet the   thought of it stayed in their eyes as they looked at each other and talked   gravely of other things.

The expectant regiment heaved a long   sigh of relief when the sharp call: “Fall in,” repeated   indefinitely, arose in the streets. It was inevitable that a bloody battle   was to be fought, and they wanted to get it off their minds. They were,   however, doomed again to spend a long period planted firmly in the mud. They   craned their necks, and wondered where some of the other regiments were   going.

At last the mists rolled carelessly   away. Nature made at this time all provisions to enable foes to see each   other, and immediately the roar of guns resounded from every hill. The   endless cracking of the skirmishers swelled to rolling crashes of musketry.   Shells screamed with panther- like noises at the houses. Dan looked at the   man of the horse-hair trunk, and the man said: “Well, here she   comes!”

The tenor voices of younger officers and   the deep and hoarse voices of the older ones rang in the streets. These cries   pricked like spurs. The masses of men vibrated from the suddenness with which   they were plunged into the situation of troops about to fight. That the   orders were long- expected did not concern the emotion.

Simultaneous movement was imparted to   all these thick bodies of men and horses that lay in the town. Regiment after   regiment swung rapidly into the streets that faced the sinister ridge.

This exodus was theatrical. The little   sober-hued village had been like the cloak which disguises the king of drama.   It was now put aside, and an army, splendid thing of steel and blue, stood   forth in the sunlight.

Even the soldiers in the heavy columns   drew deep breaths at the sight, more majestic than they had dreamed. The   heights of the enemy’s position were crowded with men who resembled people   come to witness some mighty pageant. But as the column moved steadily to   their positions, the guns, matter-of-fact warriors, doubled their number, and   shells burst with red thrilling tumult on the crowded plain. One came into   the ranks of the regiment, and after the smoke and the wrath of it had faded,   leaving motionless figures, every one stormed according to the limits of his   vocabulary, for veterans detest being killed when they are not busy.

The regiment sometimes looked sideways   at its brigade companions composed of men who had never been in battle; but   no frozen blood could withstand the heat of the splendour of this army before   the eyes on the plain, these lines so long that the flanks were little   streaks, this mass of men of one intention. The recruits carried themselves   heedlessly. At the rear was an idle battery, and three artillerymen in a   foolish row on a caisson nudged each other and grinned at the recruits.   “You’ll catch it pretty soon,” they called out. They were   impersonally gleeful, as if they themselves were not also likely to catch it   pretty soon. But with this picture of an army in their hearts, the new men   perhaps felt the devotion which the drops may feel for the wave; they were of   its power and glory; they smiled jauntily at the foolish row of gunners, and   told them to go to blazes.

The column trotted across some little   bridges, and spread quickly into lines of battle. Before them was a bit of   plain, and back of the plain was the ridge. There was no time left for   considerations. The men were staring at the plain, mightily wondering how it   would feel to be out there, when a brigade in advance yelled and charged. The   hill was all grey smoke and fire-points.

That fierce elation in the terrors of   war, catching a man’s heart and making it burn with such ardour that he   becomes capable of dying, flashed in the faces of the men like coloured   lights, and made them resemble leashed animals, eager, ferocious, daunting at   nothing. The line was really in its first leap before the wild, hoarse crying   of the orders.

The greed for close quarters, which is   the emotion of a bayonet charge, came then into the minds of the men and   developed until it was a madness. The field, with its faded grass of a   Southern winter, seemed to this fury miles in width.

High, slow-moving masses of smoke, with   an odour of burning cotton, engulfed the line until the men might have been   swimmers. Before them the ridge, the shore of this grey sea, was outlined,   crossed, and recrossed by sheets of flame. The howl of the battle arose to   the noise of innumerable wind demons.

The line, galloping, scrambling,   plunging like a herd of wounded horses, went over a field that was sown with   corpses, the records of other charges.

Directly in front of the black-faced,   whooping Dan, carousing in this onward sweep like a new kind of fiend, a   wounded man appeared, raising his shattered body, and staring at this rush of   men down upon him. It seemed to occur to him that he was to be trampled; he   made a desperate, piteous effort to escape; then finally huddled in a waiting   heap. Dan and the soldier near him widened the interval between them without   looking down, without appearing to heed the wounded man. This little clump of   blue seemed to reel past them as boulders reel past a train.

Bursting through a smoke-wave, the   scampering, unformed bunches came upon the wreck of the brigade that had   preceded them, a floundering mass stopped afar from the hill by the swirling   volleys.

It was as if a necromancer had suddenly   shown them a picture of the fate which awaited them; but the line with   muscular spasm hurled itself over this wreckage and onward, until men were   stumbling amid the relics of other assaults, the point where the fire from   the ridge consumed.

The men, panting, perspiring, with   crazed faces, tried to push against it; but it was as if they had come to a   wall. The wave halted, shuddered in an agony from the quick struggle of its   two desires, then toppled, and broke into a fragmentary thing which has no   name.

Veterans could now at last be   distinguished from recruits. The new regiments were instantly gone, lost,   scattered, as if they never had been. But the sweeping failure of the charge,   the battle, could not make the veterans forget their business. With a last   throe, the band of maniacs drew itself up and blazed a volley at the hill,   insignificant to those iron entrenchments, but nevertheless expressing that   singular final despair which enables men coolly to defy the walls of a city   of death.

After this episode the men renamed their   command. They called it the Little Regiment.

VI

“I seen Dan shoot a feller   yesterday. Yes, sir. I’m sure it was him that done it. And maybe he thinks   about that feller now, and wonders if he tumbled down just about the same   way. Them things come up in a man’s mind.”

Bivouac fires upon the sidewalks, in the   streets, in the yards, threw high their wavering reflections, which examined,   like slim, red fingers, the dingy, scarred walls and the piles of tumbled   brick. The droning of voices again arose from great blue crowds.

The odour of frying bacon, the fragrance   from countless little coffee- pails floated among the ruins. The rifles,   stacked in the shadows, emitted flashes of steely light. Wherever a flag lay   horizontally from one stack to another was the bed of an eagle which had led   men into the mystic smoke.

The men about a particular fire were   engaged in holding in check their jovial spirits. They moved whispering   around the blaze, although they looked at it with a certain fine contentment,   like labourers after a day’s hard work.

There was one who sat apart. They did   not address him save in tones suddenly changed. They did not regard him   directly, but always in little sidelong glances.

At last a soldier from a distant fire   came into this circle of light. He studied for a time the man who sat apart.   Then he hesitatingly stepped closer, and said: “Got any news, Dan?”

“No,” said Dan.

The new-comer shifted his feet. He   looked at the fire, at the sky, at the other men, at Dan. His face expressed   a curious despair; his tongue was plainly in rebellion. Finally, however, he   contrived to say: “Well, there’s some chance yet, Dan. Lots of the   wounded are still lying out there, you know. There’s some chance yet.”

“Yes,” said Dan.

The soldier shifted his feet again, and   looked miserably into the air. After another struggle he said: “Well,   there’s some chance yet, Dan.” He moved hastily away.

One of the men of the squad, perhaps   encouraged by this example, now approached the still figure. “No news   yet, hey?” he said, after coughing behind his hand.

“No,” said Dan.

“Well,” said the man,   “I’ve been thinking of how he was fretting about you the night you went   on special duty. You recollect? Well, sir, I was surprised. He couldn’t say   enough about it. I swan, I don’t believe he slep’ a wink after you left, but   just lay awake cussing special duty and worrying. I was surprised. But there   he lay cussing. He—-”

Dan made a curious sound, as if a stone   had wedged in his throat. He said: “Shut up, will you?”

Afterward the men would not allow this   moody contemplation of the fire to be interrupted.

“Oh, let him alone, can’t   you?”

“Come away from there, Casey!”

“Say, can’t you leave him be?”

They moved with reverence about the   immovable figure, with its countenance of mask-like invulnerability.

VII

After the red round eye of the sun had   stared long at the little plain and its burden, darkness, a sable mercy, came   heavily upon it, and the wan hands of the dead were no longer seen in strange   frozen gestures.

The heights in front of the plain shone   with tiny camp-fires, and from the town in the rear, small shimmerings   ascended from the blazes of the bivouac. The plain was a black expanse upon   which, from time to time, dots of light, lanterns, floated slowly here and   there. These fields were long steeped in grim mystery.

Suddenly, upon one dark spot, there was   a resurrection. A strange thing had been groaning there, prostrate. Then it   suddenly dragged itself to a sitting posture, and became a man.

The man stared stupidly for a moment at   the lights on the hill, then turned and contemplated the faint colouring over   the town. For some moments he remained thus, staring with dull eyes, his face   unemotional, wooden.

Finally he looked around him at the   corpses dimly to be seen. No change flashed into his face upon viewing these   men. They seemed to suggest merely that his information concerning himself   was not too complete. He ran his fingers over his arms and chest, bearing   always the air of an idiot upon a bench at an almshouse door.

Finding no wound in his arms nor in his   chest, he raised his hand to his head, and the fingers came away with some   dark liquid upon them. Holding these fingers close to his eyes, he scanned   them in the same stupid fashion, while his body gently swayed.

The soldier rolled his eyes again toward   the town. When he arose, his clothing peeled from the frozen ground like wet   paper. Hearing the sound of it, he seemed to see reason for deliberation. He   paused and looked at the ground, then at his trousers, then at the ground.

Finally he went slowly off toward the   faint reflection, holding his hands palm outward before him, and walking in   the manner of a blind man.

VIII

The immovable Dan again sat unaddressed   in the midst of comrades, who did not joke aloud. The dampness of the usual   morning fog seemed to make the little camp-fires furious.

Suddenly a cry arose in the streets, a   shout of amazement and delight. The men making breakfast at the fire looked   up quickly. They broke forth in clamorous exclamation: “Well! Of all   things! Dan! Dan! Look who’s coming! Oh, Dan!”

Dan the silent raised his eyes and saw a   man, with a bandage of the size of a helmet about his head, receiving a   furious demonstration from the company. He was shaking hands, and explaining,   and haranguing to a high degree.

Dan started. His face of bronze flushed   to his temples. He seemed about to leap from the ground, but then suddenly he   sank back, and resumed his impassive gazing.

The men were in a flurry. They looked   from one to the other. “Dan! Look! See who’s coming!” some cried   again. “Dan! Look!”

He scowled at last, and moved his   shoulders sullenly. “Well, don’t I know it?”

But they could not be convinced that his   eyes were in service. “Dan, why can’t you look! See who’s coming!”

He made a gesture then of irritation and   rage. “Curse it! Don’t I know it?”

The man with a bandage of the size of a   helmet moved forward, always shaking hands and explaining. At times his   glance wandered to Dan, who saw with his eyes riveted.

After a series of shiftings, it occurred   naturally that the man with the bandage was very near to the man who saw the   flames. He paused, and there was a little silence. Finally he said:   “Hello, Dan.”

“Hello, Billie.”

The End

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: