What Answer?


9. Chapter IX

"The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley.


They didn't find Jim in the camp of his regiment, so went up to head-quarters to institute inquiries.

"Given?" a little thought and investigation. "Oh! Given is out on picket duty."


The direction indicated. "Thanks! we'll find him."

Having commenced the search, Surrey was determined to end it ere he turned back, and his two friends bore him company. As they came down the road, they saw in the distance a great stalwart fellow, red-shirted and conspicuous, evidently absorbed in some singular task,--what they did not perceive, till, coming to closer quarters, they discovered, perched by his side, a tin cup filled with soap-suds, a pipe in his mouth, and that by the help of the two he was regaling himself with the pastime of blowing bubbles.

"I'll wager that's Jim," said Surrey, before he saw his face.

"It's like him, certainly: from what I've heard of him, I think he would die outright if he couldn't amuse himself in some shape."

"Why, the fellow must be a curiosity worth coming here to see."

"Pretty nearly."

Surrey walked on a little in advance, and tapped him on the shoulder. Down came the pipe, up went the hand in a respectful military salute, but before it was finished he saw who was before him.

"Wow!" he exclaimed, "if it ain't Mr. Willie Surrey. My! Ain't I glad to see you? How do you do? The sight of you is as good as a month's pay."

"Come, Given, don't stun me with compliments," cried Surrey, laughing and putting out his hand to grasp the big, red paw that came to meet it, and shake it heartily. "If I'd known you were over here, I'd have found you before, though my regiment hasn't been down here long."

Jim at that looked sharply at the "eagles," and then over the alert, graceful person, finishing his inspection with an approving nod, and the emphatic declaration, "Well, if I know what's what, and I rayther reckon I do, you're about the right figger for an officer, and on the whole I'd sooner pull off my cap to you than any other fellow I've seen round,"--bringing his hand once more to the salute.

"Why, Jim, you have turned courtier; army life is spoiling you," protested the inspected one; protesting,--yet pleased, as any one might have been, at the evidently sincere admiration.

"Nary time," Jim strenuously denied; and, these little courtesies being ended, they talked about enlistment, and home, and camp, and a score of things that interested officer and man alike. In the midst of the confab a dust was seen up the road, coming nearer, and presently out of it appeared a family carriage somewhat dilapidated and worse for wear, but still quite magnificent; enthroned on the back seat a fullblown F.F.V. with rather more than the ordinary measure of superciliousness belonging to his race; driven, of course, by his colored servant. Jim made for the middle of the road, and, holding his bayonet in such wise as to threaten at one charge horse, negro, and chivalry, roared out, "Tickets!"

At such an extraordinary and unceremonious demand the knight flushed angrily, frowned, made an expressive gesture with his lips and his nose which suggestively indicated that there was something offensive in the air between the wind and his gentility, ending the pantomime by finding a pass and handing it over to his "nigger," then--not deigning to speak--motioned him and it to the threatening figure. As this black man came forward, Brooks, looking at him a moment, cried excitedly, "By Jove! it's Sam."

"No? Hunt's Sam?"

"Yes, the very same; and I suppose that's his cantankerous old master."

Surrey ran forward to Jim, for the three had fallen back when the carriage came near, and said a few sentences to him quickly and earnestly.

"All right, Colonel! just as you please," he replied. "You leave it to me; I'll fix him." Then, turning to Sam, who stood waiting, demanded, "Well, have you got it?"

"Yes, massa."

"Fork over,"--and looking at it a moment pronounced "All right! Move on!" elucidating the remark by a jerk at the coat-collar of the unsuspecting Sam, which sent him whirling up the road at a fine but uncomfortable rate of speed.

"Now, sir, what do you want?" addressing the astounded chevalier, who sat speechlessly observant of this unlooked-for proceeding.

"Want?" cried the irate Virginian, his anger loosening his tongue, "want? I want to go on, of course; that was my pass."

"Was it now? I want to know! that's singular! Why didn't you offer it yourself then?"

"Because I thought my nigger a fitter person to parley with a Lincoln vandal," loftily responded his eminence.

"That's kind of you, I'm sure. Sorry I can't oblige you in return,--very; but you'll just have to turn tail and drive back again. That bit of paper says 'Pass the bearer,' and the bearer's already passed. You can't get two men through this picket on one man's pass, not if one is a nigger and t'other a skunk; so, sir, face about, march!"

This was an unprepared-for dilemma. Mr. V. looked at the face of the "Lincoln vandal," but saw there no sign of relenting; then into the distance whither he was anxiously desirous to tend; glanced reflectively at the bayonet in the centre and the narrow space on either side the road; and finally called to his black man to come back.

Sam approached with reluctance, and fell back with alacrity when the glittering steel was brandished towards his own breast.

"Where's your pass, sirrah?" demanded Jim, with asperity.

"Here, massa," said the chattel, presenting the same one which had already been examined.

"Won't do," said Jim. "Can't come that game over this child. That passes you to Fairfax,--can't get any one from Fairfax on that ticket. Come," flourishing the shooting-stick once more, "move along"; which Sam proceeded to do with extraordinary readiness.

"Now, sir," turning to the again speechless chevalier, "if you stay here any longer, I shall take you under arrest to head-quarters: consequently, you'd better accept the advice of a disinterested friend, and make tracks, lively."

By this time the scion of a latter-day chivalry seemed to comprehend the situation, seized his lines, wheeled about, and went off at a spanking trot over the "sacred soil,"--Jim shouting after him, "I say, Mr. F.F.V. if you meet any 'Lincoln vandals,' just give them my respects, will you?" to which as the knight gave no answer, we are left in doubt to this day whether Given's commission was ever executed.

"There! my mind's relieved on that point," announced Jim, wiping his face with one hand and shaking the other after the retreating dust. "Mean old scoot! I'll teach him to insult one of our boys,--'Lincoln vandals' indeed! I'd like to have whanged him!" with a final shake and a final explosion, cooling off as rapidly as he had heated, and continuing the interrupted conversation with recovered temper and sangfroid.

He was delighted at meeting Surrey, and Surrey was equally glad to see once more his old favorite, for Jim and he had been great friends when he was a little boy and had watched the big boy at work in his father's foundry,--a favoritism which, spite of years and changes, and wide distinctions of social position, had never altered nor cooled, and which showed itself now in many a pleasant shape and fashion so long as they were near together.

They aided and abetted one another in more ways than one. Jim at Surrey's request, and by a plan of his proposing, succeeded in getting Sam's wife away from her home,--not from any liking for the expedition, or interest in either of the "niggers," as he stoutly asserted, but solely to please the Colonel. If that, indeed, were his only purpose, he succeeded to a charm, for when Surrey saw the two reunited, safe from the awful clutch of slavery, supplied with ample means for the journey and the settlement thereafter, and on their way to a good Northern home, he was more than pleased,--he was rejoiced, and said, "Thank God!" with all his heart, and reverently, as he watched them away.

Before the summer ended Jim was down with what he called "a scratch"; a pretty ugly wound, the surgeon thought it, and the Colonel remembered and looked after him with unflagging interest and zeal. Many a book and paper, many a cooling drink and bit of fruit delicious to the parched throat and fevered lips, found their way to the little table by his side. Surrey was never too busy by reason of his duties, or among his own sick and wounded men, to find time for a chat, or a scrap of reading, or to write a letter for the prostrate and helpless fellow, who suffered without complaining, as, indeed, they did all about him, only relieving himself now and then by a suppressed growl.

And so, with occasional episodes of individual interest, with marches and fightings, with extremes of heat and cold, of triumph and defeat, the long months wore away. These men were soldiers, each in his place in the great war with the record of which all the world is familiar, a tale written in blood, and flame, and tears,--terrible, yet heroic; ghastly, yet sublime. As soldiers in such a conflict, they did their duty and noble endeavor,--Jim, a nameless private in the ranks,--Surrey, not braver perchance, but so conspicuous with all the elements which fit for splendid command, so fortunate in opportunities for their display, so eminent in seizing them and using them to their fullest extent, regardless of danger and death, as to make his name known and honored by all who watched the progress of the fight, read its record with interest, and knew its heroes and leaders with pride and love.

In the winter of '63 Jim's regiment was ordered away to South Carolina; and he who at parting looked with keen regret on the face of the man who had been so faithful and well tried a friend, would have looked upon it with something deeper and sadder, could he at the same time have gazed a little way into the future, and seen what it held in store for him.

Four months after he marched away, Surrey's brigade was in that awful fight and carnage of Chancellorsville, where men fought like gods to counteract the blunders, and retrieve the disaster, induced by a stunned and helpless brain. There was he stricken down, at the head of his command, covered with dust and smoke; twice wounded, yet refusing to leave the field,--his head bound with a handkerchief, his eyes blazing like stars beneath its stained folds, his voice cheering on his men; three horses shot under him; on foot then; contending for every inch of the ground he was compelled to yield; giving way only as he was forced at the point of the bayonet; his men eager to emulate him, to follow him into the jaws of death, to fall by his side,--thus was he prostrated; not dead, as they thought and feared when they seized him and bore him at last from the field, but insensible, bleeding with frightful abundance, his right arm shattered to fragments; not dead, yet at death's door--and looking in.

May blossoms had dropped, and June harvests were ripe on all the fields, ere he could take advantage of the unsolicited leave, and go home. Home--for which his heart longed!

He was not, however, in too great haste to stop by the way, to pause in Washington, and do what he had sooner intended to accomplish,--solicit, as a special favor to himself, as an honor justly won by the man for whom he entreated it, a promotion for Jim. "It is impossible now," he was informed, "but the case should be noted and remembered. If anything could certainly secure the man an advance, it was the advocacy of General Surrey"; and so, not quite content, but still satisfied that Jim's time was in the near future, he went on his way.

As the cars approached Philadelphia his heart beat so fast that it almost stifled him, and he leaned against the window heavily for air and support. It was useless to reason with himself, vain to call good judgment to his counsels and summon wisdom to his aid. This was her home. Somewhere in this city to which he was so rapidly hastening, she was moving up and down, had her being, was living and loving. After these long years his eyes so ached to see her, his heart was so hungry for her presence, that it seemed to him as though the sheer longing would call her out of her retreat, on to the streets through which he must pass, across his path, into the sight of his eyes and reach of his hand. He had thought that he felt all this before. He found, as the space diminished between them,--as, perchance, she was but a stone's throw from his side,--that the pain, and the longing, and the intolerable desire to behold her once again, increased a hundred-fold.

Eager as he had been a little while before to reach his home, he was content to remain quietly here now. He laughed at himself as he stepped into a carriage, and, tired as he was,--for his amputated arm, not yet thoroughly healed, made him weak and worn,--drove through all the afternoon and evening, across miles and miles of heated, wearisome stones, possessed by the idea that somewhere, somehow, he should see her, he would find her before his quest was done.

After that last painful rebuff, he did not dare to go to her home, could he find it, till he had secured from her, in some fashion, a word or sign. "This," he said, "is certainly doubly absurd, since she does not live in the city; but she is here to-day, I know,--she must be here"; and persisted in his endeavor,--persisted, naturally, in vain; and went to bed, at last, exhausted; determined that to-morrow should find him on his journey farther north, whatever wish might plead for delay, yet with a final cry for her from the depths of his soul, as he stretched out his solitary arm, ere sinking to restless sleep, and dreams of battle and death--sleep unrefreshing, and dreams ill-omened; as he thought, again and again, rousing himself from their hold, and looking out to the night, impatient for the break of day.

When day broke he was unable to rise with its dawn. The effect of all this tension on his already overtaxed nerves was to induce a fever in the unhealed arm, which, though not painful, was yet sufficient to hold him close prisoner for several days; a delay which chafed him, and which filled his family at home with an intolerable anxiety, not that they knew its cause,--that would have been a relief,--but that they conjectured another, to them infinitely worse than sickness or suffering, bad and sorrowful as were these.