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The Cave

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

ON the thirteenth of June grey countermines were begun from all the main grey works. The men worked continuously upon these, and in the night-time they strengthened the breaches made by the daily fierce cannonade. With the few hundred entrenching tools, with the improvised spades, the bayonet picks, with earth carried in camp-buckets, with all ingenious makeshifts, they bur-rowed and heaped continuously. But they laboured, now, somewhat weakly. They were so tired. The heat of that Southern land was frightful, and the confinement in the trenches was frightful. The thought began to sicken at those deep troughs in the earth. In the scanty sleep of officers and men they pressed upon the brain; they grew to seem trenches in the brains, troughs filled with dead thoughts, thoughts that still suffered. There was no relief from the trenches, no relief at all, except when a wound came — a bad wound — or fever came — serious fever with delirium — when the wounded or the fevered was borne with some risk from shells and minies to the hospital. Even in the hospital the trenches stayed in the brain. It came that, in the trenches, the tired, tired soldiers looked with something like envy upon the wounded or the fevered as he was borne away. "That fellow's going to get some sleep." — "Stop your nodding, Jimmy! — nodding same as if you were in church!" — "Captain's calling!" — "Go 'way! If you jerk your head back like that you 'Il break your neck." — "I would n't care," said Jimmy, "if it just meant sleeping on and on." — "It would n't. You'd be fighting again somewhere else in a jiffy! — O God! these trenches."

Officers and men were dead for sleep. Officers and men had never dreamed of such fatigue. Officers and men handled sword and musket with hands that were hard to keep ennerved and watched the foe with eyes over which the lids would droop. It was growing ghastly at Vicksburg, and the June sun beat down, beat down. In the infrequent times when the river was clear of smoke it lay glittering like diamonds and topazes, paining the weary eye. North and east and south the cloud rarely lifted. A thinner battle cloud overhung the seven-mile Confederate line. The grey could not spend powder as might the blue, nor did they have the blue's great horde of guns. But what with the blue and what with the grey all Vicksburg and its environs dwelled day after day, week after week, in a battle murk. The smoke was always there; the smell, the taste, were always there. The pitiless sun was no less hot for the ashen gauze through which it struck. Shorn of its beams, it rose and moved through the muddy blue, and set like a thick red-gold buckler, from behind which came lances of heat and madness. With the night there came drenching dews and the mist from the river. Heat and cold beat on the same men, cramped forever in the same trenches.

On the tenth day of the siege the eighteen thousand fighting men had been put on half-rations. Later these were greatly reduced. At first five ounces of poor corn or pea flour were issued daily; later the amount fell to three ounces. The mules in the place were slaughtered, but the meat gained in this way fed but a few. After mid-June the cats disappeared from the town. In the spring Vicksburg had had its fair vegetable gardens. Now every eatable root below or stalk or seed above the ground was gone. The small, unripe fruit, peach or quince or fig, the hard green berries, were gathered, stewed, and eaten. All things were eaten that could be eaten, but the men grew large-eyed, and their physical strength flagged. From almost the beginning the water had been bad. The men in the river batteries and the troops upon the right suffered most where all suffered much. The Federal shot and shell had slain, in the first days of the siege, a number of horses and mules. It being the first of the siege and starvation not yet above the horizon, these animals were dragged in the night to the river and thrown in. Now the cisterns were exhausted, the wells were insufficient. They were forced to draw by night the water from the edge of the river, filled with maggots as it was. They dug shallow wells in the hollows and dips of the land and placed sentinels over them to see that the water was not wasted. The water was there for drinking or for the slight cooking that went on; there was never any for washing. Some men forgot the feel of cleanliness; others set their lips and did without. Powder-grime and sweat; drenching rains that lined and floored every trench with miserable mire; fierce, beating suns that made the mire into a dust that stiffened the hair and choked the pores; effluvia, blood, refuse that could not be carted away, that there was not time to bury, — the trenches at Vicksburg and the slight camps behind grew like a bad dream, vague and sickening. Hunger that could not be fed dwelled in Vicksburg, weariness that could not find rest, in-sufficient sleep, dirt, thirst, wounds, disease. Fever was there hugely, fever and flux, exhaustion, debility, and also hyperexcitement; strange outbreaks of nature and strange sinkings together. Once there was a hint of cholera. Two surgeons stood over the man who had been lifted from the trench and now lay writhing on the earth under a roof of dried pine boughs.

"It looks mighty suspicious," said one in a weary voice, barely rising above a whisper. "That's why I called you. It would be the last stroke,"

The other nodded. "You're right there. I've seen it once before, off a ship at Tampa, but I'm not sure that this is it. There's a mock here of everything in the world that's awful, so it may be a mock of that, too."

"I've heard that chloroform is good. One part chloroform, three parts water, two —"

"Yes. There is n't any chloroform."

The man died, but, whatever it had been, that particular disease did not spread. Others did. They spread apace.

A grey mine was started from within the Third Louisiana Redan by sinking a vertical shaft and then digging outward a gallery under the Federal sap. Night and day the grey worked, and night and day worked the blue. The grey worked hungry, the blue worked fed. The grey worked heavy-lidded, with long, long shifts. The blue worked, rested and refreshed, with short shifts. The blue had every modern appliance for their work, the grey had not. The grey worked with desperation upon their inclined gallery; the blue drove steadily and apace toward the salient of the redan.

Now and then there were assaults where the enemy thought his cannon or his mines had made a practicable breach. These were driven back, and then the great guns belched flame and thundered.

The grey guns answered where answers were most strongly indicated; never had they had ammunition to spend on mere pleasure of defiance. Now here, now there, along the lines, leaping from place to place like lightning, musketry flamed and crackled. Always the blue minies kept up their singing, and always the many and deadly sharpshooters watched to pick off men and officers. The gunboats and the mortars from the Louisiana shore helped with a lavish hand the land guns. Day chiefly saw the bombardments, but there were nights when the region shook; when the bombs, exploding, reddened the sky; when, copper-hued, saffron-tinged, the clouds rolled over the place; when there was shriek and thunder, light and murk, glare and horror of the great city of Dis.

Désirée could not rest within the cave or on the bench among the ivy sprays. Hard-by was now a field hospital, and now each morning she left the ruined garden, mounted a little rise of ground, descended it, and found herself under a shed-like structure amid ghastly sights and sounds of suffering. Here she ministered as best she might. Like other Southern women she was familiar with plantation accidents. She knelt and helped with capable hands, prefer-ring to be there and occupied than to sit in the torn garden and hear upon the wind the sobbing and crying of this place. At night, lying upon her pallet, she sometimes stopped her ears against it. Sight horrified the brain, but hearing twisted the heartstrings. She never fancied that she distinguished Edward's voice; if he were hurt he would not cry aloud. But she trembled to hear the others crying, and though she loved life she would have died for them if she could have thereby stopped the crying.

Now and again she went into the town. It was a place now of thin-faced heroism, large-eyed endurance, seldom-speaking women, patient children. Hunger was in the town as well as at the lines, hunger and fever, hunger and fever! Mourning was there, too; not loud but deep. There were so many widows, so many orphans. There were sisters with a brother's death upon their hearts; there were betrothed girls who now would never marry. All were brave, with a dumb heroism. The past told. Aryan emigrants, women of the dark Teutonic forest, Pictish women, women of a Roman strain, Angle and Dane and Celt and Saxon, Gaul and Iberian and Hebrew, — yes, and women of Africa, — the wide past of famished sieges, of back to the wall, of utter sacrifice, came again to the town of Vicksburg upon the Mississippi River.

Désirée returned to Cape Jessamine. The ruined garden was ruined now, indeed, torn by shot and shell, sunbaked, withered, dead. Post, beam, and rafter of the burned house no longer stood like a hieroglyphic against the sky. An exploding shell had wrecked the last support and all had fallen. Désirée, passing close, one day, saw a snake among the warped timbers. The trees had lost all greenness. They, too, suffered deadly injury from the shells. The flowers were all withered. They could not bloom in that heavy and sulphurous air. The bed of mignonette grew yellow and thin and wan. It lost its odour. The birds were gone long Ago. One neither heard the buzz of bees nor saw a butterfly. It was as though a wizard's wand were waving away life and loveliness.

Désirée kept her beauty, but it grew beauty of the inner outward, beauty of a myriad complexities, subtleties, intensities. Memory was there and forecasting, and everything heightened. She had her Leonardo look; she went from hour to hour, not unsmiling, but the smile was remote from mirth and near to thought. Her physical being was clean, poised, and strong. She fared as scantily as all the others, but she did not perceptibly weaken. Or if the body weakened, she drew deep upon the innermost reserve and braced nerve and muscle with her will. The field hospital thought her tireless.

As she left the garden one day, a mine was sprung under the nearest salient and a breach made through which a blue wave at once undertook to pour. The grey meeting it, there followed three minutes of shock and roar, when the blue went back. It was an ugly breach, and while the grey cannon thundered it must be quickly mended. All the men possible fell to digging, while sand bags were brought and great bolsters of earth wrapped in old tenting. "Hurry!" said the captains. "Dig fast!"

Désirée went nearer and nearer. A man with a spade, making some headway with a hillock of earth, which, as he loosened, another scraped into a sack, fell dead, the brain pierced by a sharpshooter's bullet. The man with the sack made a "Tchk I" with his tongue, then turned to shout for another digger. His eyes fell on Désirée.

"What are you doing here, ma'am ? This ain't no place for a woman."

Désirée bent and took the spade from the dead man's grasp. "I am strong," she said, "and I like to dig. Hold the sack open."

She worked for an hour, until the breach was fully mended. At the last her fellow worker and she struck the dirt from their hands, and, straightening themselves, looked at each other.

"You do fine," he said. "I reckon you must have had some digging to do once."

"Yes, I had," she answered. "For a long time and much of it. I am coming again."

The next day there was a bombardment that shook earth and sky. When, in the late afternoon, it was over, the air rested thick as on the slopes of a volcano in action, dusk and thick and heavy with the sullen odour of strife. Through the false twilight, Désirée, now at the cave, saw looming figures, litter-bearers. She knew they would come in at the ruined gate, and they came. She met them by the fallen house. "I am not badly hurt," said Edward's voice. "Don't think it! And how blessed to have Cape Jessamine to come to —"

The time wore on toward late June. The month of roses, here, was a month of red flowers of death. Outward from the Third Louisiana Redan dug feverishly the grey miners driving a gallery beneath the Federal sap. Outward from the blue lines dug fast and far the blue sappers, making for the Third Louisiana Redan that crowned a narrow ridge. Within the redan, seeing the explosion approach, the grey built a second parapet some yards behind the first. On the twenty-fifth the explosion came. The salient was wrecked, six men who were digging a shaft were buried alive. Through the thick smoke and infernal din was pushed a blue charge, hurrahing. The grey were ready at the second parapet. The Sixth Missouri, held by Forney in reserve, poured into the injured works. "Yaaaaih!" they yelled; "Yaaaaih! Yaaaaihhhh! " and checked the blue with a deadly volley. Their colonel — Colonel Erwin — mounted the shattered parapet. He waved his sword. "Charge, men, charge!" A minie killed him, but his men poured over the parapet. There was fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Dark came, the blue holding ditch and slope of the outer, now ruined parapet, the grey masters of the inner works.

In the middle of the night the two Confederate mines beyond the stockade redan were exploded, filling up the Federal sap and parallels and destroying their sap rollers. There was also this night a transfer of guns, a Dahlgren gun being added to the battery facing the enemy's works on the Jackson road, and a ten-inch mortar mounted on the Warrenton road. Off and on, throughout this night, arose a fierce rattle of musketry, came an abortive blue attempt to storm the grey line. Half the grey men watched; the other half slept upon its arms.

Life in the town grew tense and vibrant. Also something high and clear came into it and a certain insouciance. The caves gave parties. There was no room to dance and there was nothing to eat; but parties the slight gatherings were called. In the hospitals the wounded ceased to blench at the crashing shells. The surgeons and nursing women went lightly between the pallets, nor turned their heads because a roof was struck. The large-eyed children played quietly in the cave mouths, or gathered about some woman who told them of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. The negro mammies crooned the babies to sleep. Officers and men passed through the streets, exhibiting a certain wan jauntiness. Commissariat and quartermasters said pleasant things about the squirrel's store with which they must feed an army, and the powder-horn and pouch of shot from which they must keep it in ammunition. The non-combatant citizens did their share toward keeping up the general spirits. Songs appeared, and there was a general and curious readiness to laugh. A Vicksburg newspaper faced with a thoughtful brow the giving-out of paper and a consequent suspension of issue. It did not want to suspend. It viewed a forlorn little wall-paper shop, and it went across and purchased the dusty stock. The next morning it came out with a backing of noble arabesque, of morning glories on trellises, of green and gold leaves and cabbage roses.

Down at Cape Jessamine undeniably there was happiness. Edward Cary's wound was not grave. It disabled, kept him lying, thin and pale, on the pallet which for light and air Désirée had dragged near to the cave entrance. But there was no fever. His superb, clean manhood told. The two of them kept bodily poise, and with it the mental. They were happy; a strange, personal happiness in the midst of menace and the gathering public woe. It was not selfishness; they would have laid aside bliss itself like a gold mantle and gone down to lazar rags and the cold and dark forever if they could thereby have rescued their world. That could not be; they were here on a raft together in the midst of the ocean; they could only serve themselves and each other. They had had few days and hours together. The lover's passion was yet upon them; each to the other was plainly aureoled. He lay with the veil of ivy drawn back so that he might see the battle cloud. She tended him, she prepared their scanty food, she brought water at nightfall from the little spring. Sometimes she left him to go help awhile in the field hospital. But he was as badly hurt as many there; with a clear conscience she might choose to tend this wounded soldier. She did so choose.

The hot days went by beneath the bowl of brass that was the sky. The murk came up to the cave, the steady thunder shook the ivy sprays. Désirée sat upon the earth beside the pallet. Sometimes they talked together, low-voiced; sometimes, in long silent spaces, they looked each on the aureoled other. He was most beautiful to her, and she to him. A faint splendour dwelled in the cave and over this part of the withered garden, a strange, transforming, golden light. They smelled the honeysuckle, they smelled the mignonette. They thought they heard the singing of the birds.

On the twenty-sixth the mortars upon the Louisiana side began again to throw huge shells into the town, while the gunboats opened a rapid and heavy firing upon the lower batteries. This continued. On the twenty-eighth the grey exploded a mine before the lunette on the Baldwin's Ferry road, where the Federal sap was within six yards of the ditch. At point after point now, the blue line held that near the grey. At places the respective parapets were fearfully close. There was fighting with hand grenades, there was tossing of fire-balls against the sap rollers behind which worked the blue miners.

Night attacks grew frequent; all the weakened grey soldiers lay on their arms; no one, day or night, could leave the trenches. The wounded, the fevered, the hunger-weakened, the sleepless — Vicksburg's defenders grew half wraith, half scarecrow.

In the dead night of the twenty-ninth, after five hours of a sultry and sullen stillness, every blue cannon appeared to open. From the Louisiana shore, from the river, from the land, north, east, and south, came the blast.

Désirée parted the mat of ivy and watched with Edward from the mouth of the cave.

"The twenty-ninth!" he said. "It is, I think, the beginning of the end. I doubt if we can hold out another week."

She sat on the earth beside him, her head against the pillow. Lip and ear must be near together; at any distance the blast carried the voice away. "The beginning of the end. . . . You think General Johnston will not come?"

"How can he ? I saw the force that he had. It is not possible. He is right in refusing to play the dare-devil or to sacrifice for naught. He should have been listened to in the beginning."

"And we cannot cut our way out?"

"Evacuate? How many could march ten miles? No. Troy 's down — Troy 's down!"

"Richmond is Troy."

"That is true. Then this is one of the small Asian towns."

Without the ivy sprays there was a red and awful light. They saw the world as by calcium. The stars were put out, but the flashes burnished the piled battle clouds. Bronze and copper and red gleamed the turreted fierce clouds. Below were now sharply shown, now hidden, the Vicksburg lines, the heaped, earthen front. Redan and redoubt and lunette and the long ragged rifle-pits between, — now they showed and now the smoke drove between.

"It repeats and repeats," said Edward. "Life's a labyrinth, and the clue broke at the beginning."

"Love is the clue."

"Love like ours? There must be many kinds of love."

"Yes. But love in all its degrees. From love of thought to love of the snake that I saw again to-day. Love in all its degrees casting out hate in all its degrees. Love that lives and lets live. Love that is wise."

"Is it always wise?"

"It can be made so. All other clues will break like packthread."

The light grew intenser. Houses in the town had been set afire. Air and earth shook, all the heavy, buried strings vibrated. Sound rolled against the ear like combers of a sea, deep, terrific, with a. ground swell, with sudden, wild accesses as when world navies are wrecked. The smell of powder smoke gathered, familiar, familiar, familiar! Marching feet were heard, going down to the lines — the City Guard probably, called to come and help.

"Packthread," said Edward. "All this to break like packthread and go out like flaming tow. . . . Love and Thought the sole weavers of relations. Love and Thought the related and the relation...."

The rapid and heavy cannonading stopped with the amber dawn. The Federal sappers were again under the Third Louisiana Redan. They worked behind a timber-and-wire screen against which in vain the grey threw hand grenades and fire balls. Lockett, the chief engineer, had a barrel, filled with a hundred and twenty-five pounds of powder and carrying a time fuse of fifteen seconds, rolled over the parapet toward the blue shelter. The explosion sent the timber screen in a thousand fragments into the air; behind it there came a shouting and running. All this day there was heavy firing from the river.

The morning of July first all division commanders received from General Pemberton a confidential note. It stated succinctly that apparently the siege of Vicksburg could not be raised and that sup-plies were exhausted. There remained an attempt at evacuation. The note asked for reports as to the condition of the troops and their ability to make the marches and endure the fatigues necessary to a successful issue. The major-generals put the note before the brigadiers, and the brigadiers before the colonels. There was but one answer. The morale of the men was good — yes! and again yes! But for the rest, for their physical condition, so hungry, so tired, so staggering from weakness .. .

This was in the morning. At one in the afternoon of this first of July the enemy exploded their great mine under the Third Louisiana Redan. The fuse was lit, the fuse burned, the spark reached fifteen hundred pounds of powder. There was an awful, a rending explosion. Earth, defences, guns, men and men and men were blown high into the air. The Sixth Missouri suffered here. There was made a crater twenty feet deep and fifty across. The Third Louisiana Redan was no more.

All day the second, a part of the day the third, the blue land batteries, the blue gunboats, the blue mortars bombarded Vicksburg. On the Fourth of July the place surrendered.

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