Bread Cast On Water
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
PRISON X had a catechism which it taught all the newly arrived. Question. Where are we ? Answer. In the North. Q. Do we find the North interesting ?
Ans. We do not.
Q. Where is the country of our preference ?
Ans. South of the Potomac.
Q. Do we find this prison pleasing ?
Ans. We do not.
Q. Have we an object in life ?
Ans. We have. Q. What is it ? Ans. To get out. Q. Again ?
Ans. To get out. Q. Again ?
Ans. To get out and stay out.
Q. Both are difficult ?
Ans. Both are difficult.
Q. Have all apparent ways been tried ?
Ans. All apparent ways have been tried.
Q. Uprisings, tunnels, sawing window bars, bribing guards, taking a corpse's place, etc., have all been tried ?
Ans. They have all been tried.
Q. And they have failed ?
Ans. They have failed.
Q. What is to be done ?
Ans. I do not know.
Q. Have you an object in life ?
Ans. I have an object in life.
Q. What is it ?
Ans. To get out and stay out.
Q. To get South ?
Ans. To get South.
Maury Stafford was not a newcomer, but the substance of this catechism was graved in his mind and daily life and actions. He had passed the stage of violently beating against the bars, and had passed the stage of melancholia, and the stage of listlessly sitting in what fleck of sunshine might be found in winter, or hand's breadth of shade in summer. He had settled into the steady stage, the second wind. He knew well enough that, though it might last the longest, this stage, too, would expire. When it did, it might not come again. He had seen it expire in others and it had not come again. He had seen the dead moon of hope that followed, the mere continuance of breathing in a life of shards and weeds. He had seen the brain grow sick in the hands of the will; he had seen the wrists of the will broken across. . . . He meant to make the steady stage last, last, last! outlast his last day in Prison X.
The August day was hot almost the hottest, said the papers, on record. Prison X was careful now not to have too many prisoners at once in the prison yard. But to-day the heat seemed to breed humanity; at any rate, there came an order that a fair number of rebels at once might go out into the air. In the officers' yard as many as fifty were permitted to gather at a time. The small, sunbaked, sordid place looked west. At this hour of the morning it was in the prison's shadow, and cooler than it would be later in the day.
Some of the grey prisoners walked up and down, up and down; others sat alone, or in twos and threes, in the shadow of the wall. There was talk, but not loud talking. There was no briskness in the yard, no crisp bubbling of word and action. Languor reigned, and all the desirable lay without the walls. One tree-top showed above them, just the bushy head of an airy, mocking giant.
At ten, the yard being filled, there came in through the gate, where were double guards, three or four officers in blue and a Catholic priest. The yard knew the inspecting officers, and bestirred itself to only a perfunctory recognition perfunctory, not listless; it being a point of honour not to look listless or broken in presence of the opposing colour. One of these blue officers the yard liked very well, a bluff and manly fellow, with a frown for the very many things he could not alter and a helping hand with the few that he could. The grey made a subtle difference to show here in their greeting.
For the priest they had never seen him before; and as novelty in prison is thrice novelty, the various groups welcomed with an interested gaze the stout-built, rusty-black figure with a strong face, rosy and likable. "Holy Virgin!" said the priest. "If the South is any warmer than this, sure ye 'll be after thanking the Saints and us for bringing you North! Are there any sons of the Church in sound of my voice ?"
There was one a lieutenant in the last stages of consumption. He sat in the sun with a red spot in each cheek and eyes bright as a bird's. The well-liked blue officer brought the priest to this boy. He was but nineteen, and evidently had not a month to live. "Good morning, Lieutenant !" said the officer. "Father Tierney's a cordial in himself ! And if, being a Catholic, you'd like "
"Were he twenty times a Ribil," said Father Tierney, sotto voce, "he's a sick human crathure and a dying man."
"Then I'll leave you with him for a little," said the officer, and walked away.
"Peace go with you!" said Father Tierney. "My poor son, if you've done any harm in the flesh, the Lord having taken away the flesh will take away that, too. You are not one of those who " Father Tierney spoke for thirty seconds in a lowered voice.
"No," said the lieutenant, "I used to try, but I gave it up when I saw that I was going to get out anyhow. But a lot of us are still trying There's one over there that's trying, I'm certain. He's been awful good to me. If he could if you could now "
"The man standing in the shadow of the wall? "
The man standing in the shadow of the wall was only a stride or two away. The blue officers had their backs turned; the grey prison-ers were listlessly minding their own business; guards and sentries had their eyes on their superiors. The sun blazed down, the green tree-top just nodded.
"Good morning, my son," said Father Tierney.
"Good morning, Father."
Father Tierney took off his hat and with it fanned his rosy, open face. "Holy Virgin! 'T is warmer here in the District than it is in Maryland Maryland being my home, my son."
"Which half of Maryland, Father?"
"The `Maryland, my Maryland' half, my son."
"That," said Stafford, "is the half that I like best. It is the nearest to Virginia."
"What," said Father Tierney, "if ye had a wishing-cap, would ye wish for?"
"Gold and a blue suit, Father."
"A uniform, ye mane?"
"No. A hospital steward's suit. Blue linen. I've got it worked out."
"My son," said Father Tierney, in a brisk, full voice, "ye've a look of mortal fever! The Saints know it does n't become us to boast! But I was born with a bit of a medical faculty sticking sthraight out and looking grave. Let me lay my finger on your pulse."
Stafford's palm closed upon something hard and round and yellow. His eyes met the priest's eyes.
"It's a weary number of soul miles ye 'll have been travelling, my friend," thought the priest. "There's something in you that's been lightning branded, but it's putting out green shoots again."
The blue officer was seen approaching. Father Tierney turned with heartiness to meet him. "That poor lad yonder, Captain, he's not long for this sinful world! If you've no objection I'd like to come again That's thrue! That's thrue enough! `Who'd mercy have must mercy show.' Captain, darlint, it's hot enough to melt rock! Between the time I left Ireland and came to America, and that's twinty years ago, I went a pilgrimage to Italy. Having seen Rome I wint to Venice. There's a big palace there where the Doges lived, and up under the palace roof with just a bit of lead like a coffin lid between you and the core of the blessed sun in heaven there 's the prisons they call piombi. Now you usually think of cold when you think of prisons, but I gather that heat's more maddening "
Prison X was as capricious as any other despot. The next day was as hot a day, but only so many might go into the air at once. Many, waiting their turn in the black, stifling hall, got no other gleam than that afforded by the grudged opening and the swift closing of the outer door. The next day again the heat held and the despot's ill humour held. At long intervals the door opened, but before a score had passed, it closed with a grating sound.
The fourth morning Stafford found himself again in the sun and shadow of this yard. The earth was harder-baked, the blue sky more fiercely metallic, the bushy head of the one tree seen over the wall more decisively mocking. With it all there was a dizziness in the air. He knew that he had been buoyed by the second wind. As he came out from the gloom into the glare a doubt wound like a snake into his brain. He feared the wind that it would not last it was so very sickening out here.
He took the shade of the wall, pressed his shoulder against the bricks and closed his eyes. For a minute or more the spirit sank, then the will put its lips to some deep reservoir and drank. Stafford opened his eyes and stood from the wall. Second wind or third wind, it held steady.
The consumptive lieutenant was not in the yard. He had had a hemorrhage and was now in the hospital watching Death come a stride a day. The yard held a fair number of men, listless in the heat, walking slowly, standing, or seated, with hands about the knees and bowed heads, on the parched, untidy ground. The guards at the small gate, a gate which opened on another yard, not free to prison-ers, with beyond it the true, heavy gate the guards suffered with the heat, held their rifles languidly. The moments went on, a line of winged creatures now with broken wings, creeping, not flying, an ant-line of slow moments, each with its burden of lassitude, ennui, enfeebled hope. The one tree-top was all green and gold and shining fair and heavenly cool, but it was set in Paradise, and from Paradise, like Abraham, it only looked across the gulf, a gulf in which it acquiesced. And so it was a mocking tree, more fiend than angel.
The figures of the sentries at the gate grew energized; they tautened, stood at salute. Into the yard came on inspection a group of officers, among them the one whom the prisoners held to be human. With them came Father Tierney.
"The top of the morning to ye, children!" said Father Tierney. "Sure it's a red cock feather the morning 's wearing!" He came nearer. "Where's the lieutenant that was coughing himself away, poor deluded lad!"
He looked about him, then came over to the wall, a big, rusty-black figure, standing so close that he made another wall for shadow. His eyes and Stafford's met.
"The lieutenant, poor lad!" demanded Father Tierney, his strong, rich voice rolling through the yard, " it 's the hospital he's in?"
"Yes," said Stafford. "He had a bad hemorrhage and they took him yesterday."
"Tell me," said Father Tierney, "a bit about him, and I'll write it to his parents. Parents especially mothers have the same kind of heartbreak on both sides of the line."
The officers passed on. The thirty-odd grey prisoners walked or sat or stood as before. Stafford was a little in shadow, and the priest's bulky form, squared before him, cut off the more crowded part of the enclosure.
Father Tierney, discoursing of parents, dropped his voice with suddenness. "It's the smallest possible bundle. You're sure you can hide it under your coat ?"
"And his father 's a ribil fighting with Johnston and his mother in Kentucky .Holy Powers!" said Father Tierney, "the heat in this place 's fearful and I once had sunsthroke Quick !It's giddy enough Have you got it ? I'm feeling this minute!" He straightened himself, wandered to a neighbouring stone, and, sitting down, called to the nearest guard who came up. "Is there a cup of water handy, my son? I had a sunsthroke once and this yard's Gehenna today, no less! ".
Two days later, just at sunset, a hospital steward passed through the hall of the officers' side of Prison X, nodded to the sentries at the door, crossed the yard, was let pass the small gate, crossed the court beyond, pretty well occupied as it was with blue soldiers, and approached the heavy, final gate. An official of some description was ahead of him, and he had for a moment to wait. The gate opened, the man in front passed through; there came a moment's vision of a green tree against a rosy sky the tree whose head showed above the prison wall. The hospital steward stepped forward. He had the word it had been bought with a gold-piece of considerable denomination. He gave it; the gate creaked open, he passed out.
The sunset looked a fabulous glory; the one tree had the sublimity of the pathless forest.
At dark he found the priest's lodging and, waiting for him, a suit of civilian clothes. He proposed to get to the river that night, swim it, and find dawn and the Virginian shore. "Whist!" said Father Tierney. "You'll be afther attacking a fretful porcupine! Put out your hand, and you'll touch a pathrol. They're thicker on the river bank than blue flies. No, no! you thravel by road till you're twinty-five miles from here. You'll come to a hamlet called and there you'll find a carpenter shop and a negro named Taylor. He's a faithful freedman and well thought of by the powers that be. You stop and ask for a drink of water, and thin you say in a whisper across the gourd, `Benedict Tierney and a boat across.' You'll get it. It's risky by the road, thrue enough, but divil a bit of risk would there be if you wint shtraight down to the river! The hedgehog would shoot as many quills at you as was necessary."
"Whether I get clear away or not, you have put me under an obligation, Father, which "
"Whist, my son, I'm Southern, I tell ye! Drink your wine, and God be good to the whole of us!"
The night was still and starry, dry and warm. Stafford walked in company yet of the second wind. Bliss, bliss, bliss, to be out of Prison X! He went like a child, wary as a man, but like a child in mere whiteness of thought and sensuousness of being. The stars he looked up at them as a boy might look his first night out of doors. Bright they were and far away, and the flesh crept toward them with a pleasure in the movement and a sadness for the distance. The slumberous masses of the trees, the dim distinction of the horizon, the sound of hidden water, the flicker of fireflies, the odour of the fields, the dust of the glimmering road all had keenness, sonority, freshness of first encounters. For a long time he was not conscious of fatigue. Even when he knew at last that he was piteously tired, night and the world kept their vividness.
Between two and three o'clock some slight traffic began upon the road. A farm-gate opened to let out a great empty wagon and a half-grown boy with a whip over his shoulder. The horses turned their heads westward. Stafford, rising from a rock-pile, asked a lift, and the boy gave it. All rattled westward over the macadam road. The boy talked of the battle of last month the great battle in Pennsylvania.
"Did n't we give them hell oh, didn't we give them hell ? They say we killed twenty thousand!"
"Twenty thousand. . . . It is not, after all, strange that we deduced a hell. . . . How fresh the morning smells!"
Horses, wagon, and boy were but going from one farm to another. Two miles farther on Stafford thanked the youngster and left this convoy. Light was gathering in the east. He was now met or over-taken and passed by a fair number of conveyances. In some there were soldiers; others held clusters of loudly talking or laughing men. A company of troopers passed, giants in the half-light. He concluded that he must be near an encampment, and as he walked he debated the propriety of turning from the road and making his way through woods or behind the screen of hills. Men on horseback, in passing, spoke to him. At last, as the cocks were crowing, he did turn from the road. The lane in which he found himself wound narrowly between dow-heavy berry-bushes and an arch of locust trees. Branch and twig and leaf of these made a wonderful fretted arch through which to view the carnation morning sky. Ripe berries hung upon the bushes. Stafford was hungry and he gathered these and ate. A bird began to sing, sweet, sweet! Holding by the stem of a young persimmon he planted his foot in the moist earth of the bank, and climbed upward to where the berries grew thickest. Briar and elder and young locust closed around him. Above the bird sang piercingly, and behind it showed the purple sky. The dewy coolness was divine. His head was swimming a little with fatigue and hunger, but he was light-hearted, with a curious, untroubled sense of identity with the purple sky, the locust tree, the singing bird, even with the spray of berries his hand was closing on.
The bird stopped singing and flew away. A horse neighed, the lane filled with the sound of feet. Stafford saw between the bushes the blue moving forms. He crouched amid the dimness of elder and blackberry, not knowing if he were well hidden, but hoping for the best. The company, pickets relieved and moving toward an encampment, had well-nigh passed when one keen-eyed man observed some slight movement, some overbending of the wayside growth. With his rifle barrel he parted the green curtain.
This encampment was an outstretched finger of the encampment of a great force preparing to cross the Potomac. It appeared, too, that there had been recently an outcry as to grey spies. Stafford proffered his story a Marylander who had been to the city and was quietly proceeding home. He had turned into the lane thinking it a short cut the berries had tempted him, being hungry he had simply stood where he had climbed, waiting until he could plunge into the lane again; behold the whole affair!
He might have won through, but in the guardhouse where he was searched they found a small, worn wallet whose contents damned him. Standing among the berry-bushes, his hand had gone to this with the thought that he had best throw it away before danger swooped and then he had refrained, and immediately it was too late. The sergeant looked it through, shook his head, and called a lieutenant. The lieutenant took the papers in a bronzed hand, ran them over, and read a letter dated two years back, written from Greenwood in Virginia and signed Judith Cary. He folded it and returned it to the wallet which he kept.
"Of course you know," he said in an agreeable voice, "that this is your death-warrant. I wonder at you for such monumental carelessness! Or, perhaps, it was n't carelessness."
"No," said Stafford, "it was n't carelessness. But I am not a spy. Yesterday I escaped from Prison X."
"Tell that," said the lieutenant, "to the marines. Sergeant, we move before noon, and jobs of this sort must be put behind us! There's a drumhead court sitting now. Bring him across."
The tree was an oak with one great bough stretching like a warped beam across a cart track. Stafford divined it when he and the blue squad were yet three hundred yards away. It topped a slight rise and it thrust that arm out so starkly against the sky. He knew it for what it was. The world and the freshness of the world were as vividly with him as during any hour of the preceding vivid twelve. Every sense was vigorously functioning; the whole range of perception was lit; length and breadth and depth, he felt an intimacy of knowledge, a sure interpenetration. He saw wholly every little dog-wood tree, every stalk of the long grass by the roadside; the cadence of the earth was his, and the taste of existence was in his mouth. He had a steady sense of the deep that was flowing into the mould of life and then out of the mould of life. He felt eternal. The tree and that stark limb bred in him no fear.
A party of cavalry came up behind the foot soldiers.
"Where are you going?" asked the officer at the head.
"To hang a spy," answered the lieutenant. "On the tree yonder." "Yes?" said the officer. "Not the pleasantest of work, but at times necessary. It's a lovely morning."
"Isn't it? The heat's broken at last."
The troopers continued to ride alongside, and so all mounted the little rise and came together upon the round of dry sward beneath the tree. A curt order or two left the blue soldiers drawn up at one side of this ring, and the prisoner with the provost guard in the centre, beneath the tree. Stafford glanced down at the rope that was now about his neck. It lay curled there like a tawny serpent, visible, real, real as the bough up to which, too, he glancedreal, and yet profoundly of no tremendous importance. He had a curious fleeting impression as of a fourth dimension, as of the bough above arching a portal, on the other side of which lay utter security. Upon the way thither he had been perfectly silent, and he felt no inclination now toward speech or any demonstration. He stood and waited, and he was not conscious of either quickening or retarding in Time's quiet footfall.
The cavalry officer, in the course of a checkered existence, had witnessed a plenty of military executions so many, in fact, that Pity and Horror had long since shrugged their shoulders and gone off to sleep. They had left a certain professional curiosity; a degree of connoisseurship in how men met death. He now pushed his horse through the scrub to the edge of the ring. The action brought him within twenty feet of the small group in the centre, and, upon the blue soldiers standing back a little, face to face with the bareheaded prisoner. The officer looked, then swung himself from the saddle, and, with spurs and sabre jingling, strode into the trodden ground. "A moment, Lieutenant, if you please! I have somewhere seen your prisoner though where "
He came closer. Stafford, worn to emaciation, dressed in rough civilian clothes, with the rope about his bared neck, returned his gaze. Memory stepped between them with a hand to each. The air darkened, grew filled with thunder, jagged lightning, and whistling rain, the parched earth was quagmire, the dusty trees Virginia cedars with twisted roots, wet, murmuring in a harsh wind. There was heard the rattle of Stonewall Jackson's musketry, and, above the thunder, Pelham's guns.
"Ox Hill!" exclaimed Marchmont with an oath.
Stafford's eyelids just quivered. "Ox Hill," he repeated.
Suddenly, with the thunder of Pelham's guns, the bough above was no longer the arch of a portal. It was an oak bough with the end of a rope thrown across it. Life streamed back upon him. The clarity, the silver calm, the crystal quality went from things. He staggered slightly, and the blood drummed in his ears.
Marchmont was speaking rapidly to the lieutenant and the provost officer. "How do you know that he is a spy? Said he was an escaped prisoner escaped from Prison X? Could n't you wait to find out? Believe it? Yes, I believe it. He's a Southern officer he did me the best of turns once day when I thought I was a prisoner myself day of Chantilly. Yes. Colonel Francis Marchmont. Marchmont Invincibles. Remand him, eh? until we telegraph to the Commandant at X. No use treating him as a spy if he is n't a spy, eh? Remember once in Italy when that game was nearly played on myself. You will wait, Lieutenant, until I send an orderly back with a note to your general ? Know him well think I can arrange matters. Thanks! Here, Roberts!"
Roberts galloped off. The group beneath the tree, the soldiers drawn up at one side, the troopers and their colonel stayed as they were, waiting. The bright sands ran on, the breeze in the oak whispered like a dryad, the bees buzzed, there came an odour of the pine. Stafford's hand and lip were yet stained with the berries. He stood, the tawny cirque about his neck, waiting with the rest.
Roberts returned. He bore a folded piece of writing which he delivered to Marchmont. The latter read, then showed it to the lieutenant, who spoke to the sergeant of the provost guard. Two not unkindly hands loosened the circle of rope and lifted it clear from the prisoner. Marchmont came across with outstretched hand.
"Major Stafford, I thought I could manage it! As soon as the matter is verified from X I shall see if I cannot personally arrange an exchange. I am pretty sure that I can do that, too."
His teeth gleamed beneath his yellow mustache. "I have n't at the moment a flask such as you raised me from the dead with! Jove! the fine steel rain and the guns with the thunder, and Caliph pressed hard, and it was peine forte et dure -"
"It was a travelled road," said Stafford; "presently some one else would have come by and released you. But this is not a travelled road and I was very near to death." He looked at his berry-stained hands. "I don't think I cared in the least about death itself. It seemed, standing here, a perfectly unreal pasteboard arch, a piece of stage furniture. But I have a piece of work to do on this side of it . .. and so, on the whole, I am glad you came by." He laughed a little. "That has a mighty ungracious sound, has it not ? I should thank you more heartily and I do!"
A month from this day he stood upon Virginia earth, duly ex-changed. He had been put across at Williamsport. Marchmont had pressed upon him a loan of money and a horse. For a week he had been, in effect, Marchmont's guest. A strange liking had developed between the two. . . . But now he was alone, and in Virginia, Virginia that he had left more than a year ago when the army crossed into Maryland and there followed the battle of Sharpsburg. He was alone, riding through a wood slowly, his hands relaxed upon the saddlebow, lost in thought.
About him was the silence of the warm September wood. It was a wood of small pines, scarred and torn, as were now all the woods of this land by the heavy hand and heel of a giant war. That was a general war, but to each man, too, his own war. Stafford's had been a long war, long and sultry, stabbed with fierce lightnings. He had scars enough within, stains of a rough and passionate weather, marks of a lava flow. But to-day, riding through the September wood, he felt that the war was over. He was drawing still from that deeper stratum of being, from the colder, purer well. His mind had changed, and without any inner heroics he was prepared to act upon that change. He had never been weak of will.
In Winchester, when he entered it at sunset, he found a small grey command, and on the pillared porch of the hotel and in the bare general room various officers who came and went or sat at the table writing. Stafford, taking his place also at this long and heavy board and asking for pen and ink, fell into talk, while he waited, with an infantry captain sitting opposite. Where was General Lee and the main army?
"Along the Rapidan, watching Meade on the other side. Where have you been," said the captain, "that you did n't know that ?" "I have been in prison. On the Rapidan."
"Yes. But Longstreet, with Hood and McLaws, has been ordered to Tennessee to support Bragg. There'll be a great battle down there."
"Then there's inactivity at the moment with us?"
"Yes. Marse Robert 's just resting his men and watching Meade. Nobody exactly knows what the next move will be."
A negro boy brought the writing-materials for which Stafford had asked. He left the captain's conversation and fell to writing. He wrote three letters. One was to General Lee, whom he knew personally, one to the general commanding his own brigade, and one to Warwick Cary. When he came to the envelope for the last-named letter he glanced across to the captain, also writing. "The Golden Brigade, General Cary Warwick Cary? Do you know if it is with Longstreet or by the Rapidan ?"
"By the Rapidan, I think. But Warwick Cary was killed at Gettysburg."
Stafford drew in his breath. "I had not heard that! I am sorry, sorry. . . . I begin to think how little I have heard. I have been in Prison X since Sharpsburg. . . . General Cary killed!"
"Yes. At the head of his men in a great charge. But the brigade is by the Rapidan."
"It was not the brigade I was thinking of," said the other.
He sat for a moment with his hand shading his eyes, then he slowly tore into pieces the letter to Warwick Cary. The remaining two letters he saw placed in the mail-bag for army headquarters. The next morning early he rode out of Winchester, out upon the Valley Pike. Before him lay Kernstown; beyond Kernstown stretched beneath the September mist the long, great war-road with its thronging memories. He touched his horse and for several days travelled southward through the blackened Valley of Virginia.