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Prison X

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE stockade enclosed a half-acre of bare earth, trodden hard. The prison was a huge old brick building with a few narrow, grated windows. It had been built to store the inanimate, and now it was crowded with the animate. The inanimate made few demands save those of space and security. The animate might demand, but they did not receive. They had space — after all, each prisoner could move a very little way without jostling another prisoner—and they were kept securely. The gratings were thick, the guards were many, the stockade was high, and there was a Dead Line. As for other requests, for light and air and an approach to sanitation, for a little privacy, for less musty food and more of it, for better water, for utensils and bedding — the inanimate had made no such requests, and the animate requested in vain. What had been good enough for good Northern manufactured goods was good enough for Southern rebels. Everybody knew that Northern prisoners were starving, dying in Southern prisons. "`Exchange, then!' Well, I kind of wish myself that we'd exchange."

There were three floors in the prison, and a number of partitions had been driven across the large, echoing shell. Officers' quarters were the first floor, and officers' quarters were rudely divided into a hot, dark, evil-smelling central hall, and a number of hot, narrow, close, and poorly-lighted rooms in which to sleep and wake. Hall and rooms were hot because it was warm summer-time, and they were so crowded, and there was admitted so little air. In the winter-time they were cold, cold! The prisoners who had been here longest had tried both elements; in the winter-time they pined for summer and in the summer-time they longed for winter. This building was but one of several warehouses converted into places of storage for the animate. There were, in all, in this place, twelve hundred Con-federate officers and six thousand Confederate privates.

Twilight was the worst time. Earlier there was all the sunshine that could enter the small windows, and once a day there was exercise in the small sunbaked yard. As soon as it was totally dark a few smoky lamps were lighted and for an hour there was "recreation" in the various central halls. But twilight — twilight was bad! It was the hopeless hour, the hour of home visions, the hour of longing, the hour of nostalgia. It was the hour when men could and did weep in shadowy places. The star that twinkled through the window mocked, and the breeze from the south mocked. The bats that wheeled above the prison yard were Despondency's imps. Melancholy had free entrance; she could and did pass the sentries. Hope deferred was always there. At twilight all hearts sickened.

With the smoky lamps came, on the part of most, — not of all, but of most, — a deliberate taking-up again of life, even of prison life. Heroism reλntered the weary prison. Courage and cheerfulness took the stage, the first a grim and steadfast warrior, the last falsetto enough at times, and then again suddenly, divinely genuine. At times there were brisk gaiety, unfeigned laughter, a quite rollicking joviality. Twilight was over — twilight was over for this time !

Supper was over, too, — soon over! A small cake of meal, more or less musty, a bit of "salt horse," — the meal was not prolonged. It was brought into the hall in a great kettle and sundry pans. The prisoners had each a tin plate, with an ancient knife and fork. There was no table; they sat on benches or old boxes, or tailor fashion on the floor. They had a way of pleasing their fancies with elaborate menus — like the Barmecide in the "Arabian Nights." Only the menus never, never materialized! To-night, in a mess of thirty, a colonel of A. P. Hill's, captured at Fredericksburg, laid out the table. "Mountain mutton, gentlemen, raised in Hampshire! Delicately broiled, served with watercress. No man must take less than two helpings! Brook trout, likewise, speckled beauties, taken this afternoon! There was a pool and a waterfall and some birch trees, and I went in swimming. Light rolls, gentlemen, and wheat muffins, and, I think, waffles! Coffee, gentlemen, — don't cheer! — Mocha, with sugar. The urn full and plenty more in the kitchen. Something green, gentlemen, — lettuce, I think, with cucumber and onion sliced thin and a little oil and vinegar. — Don't cheer! This mess has all the early vegetables and all the garden fruit it needs, and is not scorbutic! — Gentlemen, a dessert will follow — a little trifling jelly or cream, and I think a dish of raspberries."

The "salt horse" was eaten, the thin cake of old, old meal, the small and watery potato apiece. The mess arose. "For what we have received may one day the enemy be thankful! Amen!"

It was a festal night. They had a prison paper — The Pen — issued once a week. Foolscap paper was at a premium as was pen and ink. Therefore there was but one copy. It was read on Monday night by the gathering in division such and such a number. Tuesday night it passed to another division and another social hour. Wednesday night to another, and so on. The privates had their paper, too, and late in the week there were exchanges. This was Monday night and the hall of the editorial staff.

The smoky lamps burned dim in the close and heated air. At times these officers were able to secure tobacco for those who smoked, but more often not. This present week it was not, and the hall missed this disinfectant. There were a few long benches, a dozen stools, some boxes and barrels. Those who could not find seats sat on the floor, or lounged against the darkened walls. They had a table beneath one of the lamps, and a space was kept clear for the performers of the evening. There was to be a debate and other features.

The chairman of the evening arose. "Gentlemen, we will open es usual with Dixie —"

"I wish I was in de land of cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten!
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land'
In Dixie Land, whar I was born in,
Early on one frosty morning,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land!
Den I wish I was in Dixie,
Hooray, hooray!
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand,
To live an' die in Dixie!
Away, away, away down South in Dixie;
Away, away, away down South in Dixie —"

Two hundred men sang it loudly. Bearded, gaunt, unkempt, large-eyed, in unsoldierly rags, they stood and sang Dixie — sang it fiercely, with all their pent power, with all their wild longing. It rolled and echoed through the building; it seemed to beat with violence at the walls, so that it might get out beneath the stars. It died at last. The prisoners in Division 3 turned again to the chair-man. "Gentlemen, the editors of The Pen crave your indulgence. The latest news by grapevine and underground is just in! The presses are working overtime in order that presently it may be served to you hot —"

"The War is over!"

"We are to be exchanged!"

"England has declared —"

"We have met the enemy and he is ours!"

"We have received a consignment of tobacco."

"The rats have cried Hold, enough! A signal victory has been achieved —"

"No; the bedbugs —"

"The commandant has been called up higher."

"Is — is it an exchange ?"

The chairman put that hope out with prompt kindness. "No, no, Captain! I wish it were. That would be the next best thing to news of a big victory, would n't it! But, see, they approach! Way for the noble editors! Way for The Pen that has — ahem! — swallowed the sword!"

The Junior Editor, having the biggest voice and being used to commanding Partisan Rangers, was the chosen reader. He stood forward. "Gentlemen, let me have your attention! — Can't that lamp be turned up ? — Thank you, Colonel!


Light (mental) and Liberty (To the Dead Line)

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