Little Pumpkin—vine Creek
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE log cabin looked out upon a wooded world, a world that rolled and shimmered, gold-green, blue-green, violet-green, to horizons of bright summer sky. In the distance, veiled with light, sprang Lost Mountain and the cone of Kennesaw. Far or near there were hamlets—Powder Spring, Burnt Hickory, Roxanna —north, there was the village of Allatoona, and south, that of Dallas; but from the log cabin all were sunk in a sea of emerald. New Hope Church was somewhere near, but its opening, too, was hardly more than guessed at. But Pumpkin-Vine Creek might be seen in its meanderings, and the rippling daughter stream that the soldiers called "Little Pumpkin-Vine" flashed by the hill on which stood the cabin.
It was a one-room-and-a-lean-to, broken-down, deserted, log-and-clay thing. Whoever had lived in it had flown, leaving ashes on the hearth, and a hop-vine flowering over a tiny porch. A monster pine tree, scaled like a serpent, sent its brown shaft a hundred feet in air. Upon the sandy hilltop grew pennyroyal. Pine and pennyroyal, the intense sunshine drew out their strength. All the air was dryness and warmth and a pleasant odour.
Steadying himself by the lintel Edward Cary rose from the log that made the doorstep. A stick leaned against the wall. He took this, and proceeded, slow-paced, to make his way to the pine tree and the low brink of the hill above the creek. The transit occupied some minutes, but at last he reached the pine, tired but happy. There was a wonderful purple-brown carpet beneath. He half sat, half reclined upon it, and leaning forward watched Désirée on her knees before a little shallow bay of the creek. It was washerwoman's day. There were stepping-stones in the clear brown water, and she was across the stream, her head downbent, very intently scrubbing.
"O saw ye bonny Lesley," —
sang Edward, —
"As she gaed o'er the Border?
Désirée straightened herself. "How did you come there ? I left you asleep. Ah, a wicked patient — a malingerer!"
"The cabin was cold, so I came out into the sun."
She rose from her knees, took up the small heap of her washing, and, stepping lightly from stone to stone, came to his side of the water. Here, in a square of absolute gold, she spread the washing out to dry. Her sleeves were rolled up to her shoulders, her thick and beautiful hair hung braided to her knee, she looked in that quaint place like an enchanted princess out of a rosy fairy tale.
"0 my Luve's like a red, red rose," —
sang Edward, —
"That's newly sprung in June:
Désirée turned, came up the pennyroyal bank, and sat beside him on the pine-needle carpet. Bending, he pressed his lips on her bare arm.
"As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
In the distance they heard the sound of axes against the trees. Breastworks and rifle-pits were in the making over there. Light curls of smoke told where were camp-fires. Not far away the creek was crossed by a wood road. Now a score of horses with three guardian men came down to the ford to drink. Somewhere a bugle sounded. Brown and black and grey, the horses pricked their ears; then, satisfied that it was not battery bugle, dropped again to the cool 'water. Out of the forest across Little Pumpkin-Vine came a steady, dreamy humming — voices of the Army of Tennessee, en-camped here, encamped there, in this region south of the Etowah.
"I should like to die on a day like this," said Désirée. " Just such a day — and life so strong and sweet! To touch, taste, smell, hear, see, feel, and know it all — and then to go, carrying the flavour with you!"
"With which to set up housekeeping again ?"
"With which to set up housekeeping again — in a larger, better house."
"But with old comrades?"
She let the pine needles stream through her hands. "Certainly with old comrades. Father . . . Louis . . . People who used to come to Cape Jessamine, people I have known elsewhere. . . . All people, in fact, and all in better, larger houses . . . all old comrades" — she turned and kissed him — "and one lover."
"In a better, nobler house," said Edward. "But don't die, Désirée — not yet — not yet —"
The creek murmured, the wind whispered, the wild bees hummed above the flowers. Somewhere down the stream was an army forge. Clink ! clink ! went hammer against iron. On some hidden road, too, guns were passing — you heard the rumble and the whinnying of the horses. In another direction wagons were parked; there was a sense, through vague openings in a leafy world, of the white, bubble-like tops. More horses came to the ford to be watered. The sun grew brighter and brighter, climbing the sky, the pine and penny-royal more pungently alive, the voices in the wide woods distincter, less like a dreamy wash of the sea. The hazel bushes across the stream parted and two men appeared with water-buckets. They dipped for their mess, adjusted their heavy wet burdens and went away, sociably talking.
"'T was while we was fighting at Cassville. Jake thought he was killed, but he was n't! Funny fellow, but you can't help liking him!"
"That's so! He's got converted. Converted last meeting. Says he don't know but one prayer and was kind of surprised he re-membered that. Says it now before every little fight we go into. Says —
"`Now I lay me down to sleep,
"Sho! Everybody remembers that! Taught it to us most be-fore we could talk!
"'Now I lay me down to sleep,
The hazel bushes closed and the voices died like a ripple out of water. The light grew more golden, the shadows shorter. Late May in Georgia was more hot than a Northern midsummer, but to-day a crisp breeze made the heat of no moment. The air was very dry, life-giving. A soldier with a fishing-pole made his appearance. He came along beneath the bank and the pine tree, chose a deepish pool and a rock to sit on, placed a tin cup with bait beside the latter, and had baited his hook and cast the line before he observed his neighbours. He rose and saluted, then made a movement to take up his bait-cup and proceed downstream.
"No, no!" said Edward. "Fish ahead! But are there any fish there ? "
The fisherman sat down upon the rock. "I'm not really expecting any. But catching fish is not all there is in fishing."
"Quite true," said Edward, and lay back upon the purple-brown carpet. Désirée sat with her hands about her knee, her eyes upon a vast castle of cloud, rising pearl-bright, into the azure sky.
The fisherman fished, but caught nothing. "I expect," he said, "that there is good fishing in the Etowah. Looked so the day we crossed it."
"That was a hard crossing," said Désirée.
"Hard enough!" answered the fisherman. "But Old Joe got us across. I am not one of the grumblers."
"There wasn't much grumbling."
"That's so! Army of Tennessee's a right fine body of men."
He cast again. "It's quieter than Sleepy Hollow this morning! There was a considerable rumpus yesterday. They say, too, that General Wheeler got in on their rear and beat a brigade and captured two hundred and fifty wagons. I reckon we'll hear raindrops on the roof before night!"
"I should n't be surprised."
"These pesky little battles," said the fisherman. "I've stopped counting them — Thought I had a bite!"
"Many a little makes a mickle."
"That's true! We've been fighting for a month, and we're walking round to-day like a game-cock looking at his spurs. Army of Tennessee and Joseph E. Johnston."
He bent his eyes upon his pole. The wind sung in the pine tree, clink ! clink ! went the forge downstream. The pearly cloud castle rose higher. Off on the left, where was Hardee's corps, a bugle trilled as sweetly as a bird. There were a million forest odours, with the pine, played upon by the sunshine, for dominant. The dry pure air was life-giving.
"I gather," said the fisherman, "that there are, on our side, two theories as to the conduct of this war. The one wants great crashing battles that shall force the foe to cry, `Hold, enough!' — `Fight him on sight, and without regard to odds.' The other says, 'We have n't got many men, and when they're gone, we have no more. There's only one set of chessmen in this establishment. So spare your men. We've got a Goliath to fight. Well, don't rush at him! — Fence with him; maybe you'll prove the better fencer. Don't strike just to be striking; strike when you see an advantage to follow! You can't thrash him outright; he's too big. But you may wear him out. Giants sometimes lack a giant patience. This one has a considerable clamour for peace behind him at home. Save your men, strike only when there's sense in striking, and take Time into your councils! You may not win this way, but you certainly won't the other way.' The first 's the Administration and a considerable part of the press, and the last's Joseph E. Johnston."
"There was a general named Fabius,' " said Edward. - "You're a good observer."
"I'm a better observer than I am a fisherman," said the disciple of Walton.
Désirée stepped down the bank into the square of gold and gathered up her washing. With it over one arm she returned and gave her hands to Edward. They said good-day to the fisherman, and went away, up the slight hill, Edward doing well with his stick and an arm over her shoulder. They laughed like children in the sunshine.
They had what she called "tisane" for dinner — "tisane" with hard-tack crumbled in. A drummer-boy, straying by, was given his share. They sat on billets of wood underneath the hop-vine, ate and drank and were happy. The boy was fourteen and small for his age. He had a shock of sunburnt hair and a happy, freckled face, and he said that he hoped the war would never stop. When every crumb and drop was gone, he volunteered to "wash up," and went whistling down to Little Pumpkin-Vine with the tin cups and spoons and small, black kettle.
Other soldiers strayed past the cabin. An orderly appeared, sent by officers' mess of the th Virginia. He bore, together with enquiries and messages, tomorrow's rations. A picket detail went marching over the hilltop. About three o'clock came a clattering of horses' hoofs. The hill was a fair post of observation, and here was the commanding general with his staff. All stopped beneath the pine; Johnston pointed with his hand, now here, now there; his chief of staff beside him nodding comprehension.
Then the General, dismounting, came over to the cabin. "No, no! don't stand!" he said to Edward. "I only want to ask Mrs. Cary for a cup of water. How is the wound today ?"
"Very much better, sir. I'll report for duty presently."
"Don't hurry," said Johnston, with kindness. "It's a mistake to get well too quickly," He had much warm magnetism, tenderness with illness, an affectionate deference always toward women. He took the cup of water from Désirée, thanked her, and said that evidently the campaign had not harmed her. "Women always were the best soldiers."
General Mackall had ridden up. "There's many a true word said in jest," he remarked.
"I didn't say it in jest, sir," said Johnston. He mounted and gathered up the reins, an erect and soldierly figure. "General Hood," he said, "is moving from Allatoona, and I have ordered Hardee's corps back from the Dallas and Atlanta road. There may come a general battle on this ground. If it arrives, my dear," — he spoke to Désirée, — "you apply for an ambulance and leave this cabin!"
Off he rode in the golden light. At sunset came marching by the -th Virginia, going toward New Hope Church. The road ran behind the cabin. Désirée helped Edward out to it, and they stood in a little patch of sunflowers and greeted the regiment. The regiment to a man greeted back. The colonel stopped his horse and talked, the captains smiled and nodded, the men gave the two a cheer. It was one of the friendly, sunshiny moments of war. The regiment was like a dear and good family; everywhere in and out ran the invisible threads of kindliness. The regiment passed, the rhythmic beat of feet dying from this stretch of the road. Désirée and Edward went back to the cabin through the languorous, South-ern dusk, with the lanterns of the fire-flies beginning, and the large moths sailing by. There was a moon, and all night, in the wood behind the cabin, a mocking-bird was singing.
The next day and the next and the next there was fighting — not "a great, crashing battle," but stubborn fighting. It waxed furious enough where Hooker struck. Stewart's division of Hood's at New Hope Church, and where, on the twenty-eighth, CIeburne and Wheeler met and forced back Palmer and Howard; but when calm came again only a couple of thousand of each colour lay dead or wounded around New Hope Church.
The calm fell on Sunday. Edward and Désirée, sitting beneath the pine tree, marked the cannons' diminuendo. It was a hot and heavy day and the dead and wounded were on their hearts. Yet to them, too, it was fearfully an everyday matter. The time to visualize what will fall under the harrow of war is before the harrow is set in motion. Afterwards comes in Inevitableness with iron lips, and Fatalism with unscrutinizing gaze, and Use with filmed eyes, and Instinct with her cry, "Do not look too closely, seeing one must keep one's senses!" and Old Habit with her motto, "True children do as their fathers did." — And so at last, on both sides, from the general to the drummer-boy, from the civil ruler to the woman scraping lint, no one looks very closely at what falls beneath the harrow. Madness lies that way, and in war one must be very sane. No one escaped the taint of not looking, not even the two beneath the pine tree.
Off in the horizon clouds were piling up. Presently there was heard a mutter of thunder. Edward and Désirée watched the sky darken and the big pine begin to sway. In the distance there was yet an occasional boom of cannon. "That is toward Dallas," said Edward. "Earth thunder and heaven thunder."
The lightning flashed. The earth voices began to lose out, the aërial ones to gather strength. A wind lifted the dust and the small dry débris of grass and herb. The old pine cones came shaking down. The thunder began to peal. Désirée rose. "We must go indoors. It has the right of way now — the old, old storm."
As they reached the cabin the thunder grew loud above them.
The dust of the earth went by in a whirlwind. Rain was falling, in heavy pellets like lead, but as yet it had not lightened the oppression. The two leaned against the doorway and watched. A blinding flash, a sound as of falling battlements of the sky, and the pine tree was blasted before them.