( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE two men were strong, magnificently formed negroes, one middle-aged, one young. "It ain't easy, marster," said the first. "River's on er rampage. Jes' er-look how she's swirlin' an' spittin' an' sayin' things! An' erbout every day now dar's er crevasse! Yankees make them befo' breakfast. When dishyer river tuhns sideways an' shakes down de land a boat ain' so safe as ef 't was er mountain-top."
"Dat's so!" said the other. "Hit's wuth twenty-five dollars, Confederate money."
Edward produced and held between thumb and forefinger one gold dollar.
Git the oars, Daniel!" said the elder negro. "Yes, sah, we certainly will git you ercross an' down the river the best we kin!"
Out pushed the boat into the yellow, sullen river. It was running swift and rough. Edward sat with his chin in his hand, his eyes upon the farther shore, bathed in a golden, shimmering, spring-time light. It was slow rowing across this stream, and the shore far off.
The Louisiana shore came softly nearer. It was a jewelled and spangled April shore, that sent out sweet breath from flowers with-out number. Viewed at a little distance it seemed a magic green curtain, rarely embroidered; but when it came nearer its beauty was seen to be shot with the sinister, the ghostly, even, vaguely, with the terrible. Hereabouts rose a great forest through which deep bayous crept to join the river, into which, too, the river ran an inlet or so like a Titan's finger. The boat with the two negroes and the soldier turned its head downstream, following the loops of the river and the scalloped shore. To-day, indeed, there seemed no proper shore. The shore had turned amphibian. White cypress, red cypress, magnolia, live-oak, in and out between them sucked the dark water. Vines and the wild festoons of the grey moss mirrored themselves within it; herons kept watch by rotting logs over dusk pools swept by the yellow jessamine; the water moccasin slipped beneath perfumed thickets, under a slow, tinted rain of petals. At intervals there opened vast vistas, an endless and mournful world of tall cypress trunks propping a roof that was jealous of the sun. In the river itself were islets, magically fair, Titania bowers, a loveliness of unfolding leaf, delicate and dreamlike enough to make the tears spring. It was past the middle of the day; heat and golden haze in the sun, coolness and cathedral gloom where the enormous woodland threw its shadow.
Now the negroes were silent and now they were talkative, passing abruptly from one mood to the other. Everything in their range of speech was dwelt upon with an equal volubility, interest, and emphasis. A ruined eagle's nest, a plunging fish-hawk, the slow-sailing buzzards, difficulties with the current, the last duel between gun-boats, the latest dash of a Confederate ram, the breaking levees, a protuberance on a bar of black slime and mud which, on the whole, they held to be a log, until with a sudden dull gleaming it slid into the water and proved to be a turtle—all things received an equal dole of laughter with flashing teeth, of amiable, vivid, childlike discussion. Sometimes they appealed to the white man, and he, friendly minded, at home with them, gave in a word the information or settled with two the dispute. "That's so! that's so!" each agreed. "I done see hit that-er-way, too! That's right, sir! Quarrelling is powerful foolish — jes' as foolish as gittin' drunk!"
Any swiftness of work was, in these parts, for the river alone. The boat moved slowly enough, here caught by an eddy, here travelling among snags and bars, doubling with the river, following the wave line of the water-logged shore. The sun's rays began to fall slantingly. Through the illimitable forest, down between the cypress trunks, came flights of golden arrows.
"We are not far from Cape Jessamine ?"
"No, marster. Not very far."
Silence fell again. They turned a horn of land, all delicate, flowering shrubs, and ran beneath a towering, verdurous bank that rained down odours. It laid, too, upon the river, a dark, far-reaching shadow.
The younger negro spoke with suddenness. "I belongs to Cape Jessamine."
Edward turned. "Do you ? — Why were you up the river and on the other side ?"
"Hit ain't safe any mo' at Cape Jessamine. But I ain't no runaway, sah. Miss Désirée done tol' us to go." He felt in his shirt, took out a piece of bandanna, and unwrapped from it a piece of paper which he held out to Edward. "Dar's my pass, all right, sah! She done toi' us to go, an' she say she don' know that she'll ever call us back. She say she mighty fond of us, too, but all things er-comin' down an' er-changin' an' er-changin'! Hit ain't never any more gwine be Iak hit was."
"How many have gone ?"
"Mos' everybody, sah. Yankees come an' tek de cattle an' de meal, an' dar wa'n't much to eat. An' ef er man or er yaller gal step in er rain puddle dey wuz took with er shakin'-fit, cryin' out dat de river was er-comin' l She say we better go. De Fusilier place — way back an' crosst the bayou where de river could n't never git — she done sont de women an' chilien dar, an' Madam Fusilier she say she tek care ob dem des ez long ez dar's anything in de smokehouse an' de meal ain' stolen —"
"The overseer — did he get well ?"
"No, sah. He hurt he hip, an' oie Brer Fever come er-long an' he died."
"Then who is at Cape Jessamine with — ?"
"Dar's her mammy, sah, who wouldn't go. An' 'Rasmus an' Mingo an' Simon. . . . Plantation beg Miss Désirée to come away, too, but she say `No,' we go, but she's got er responsibility — an' she doubt ef de river come anyway. Yes, sah. She say she got her post, but dat hit's all right for us to go, de meal givin' out an' all. An' she say she certain'y is fond of us, every one, an' she come down de great house porch steps an' shake hands all round —" He took the slip of paper and wrapped it carefully in the bandanna. "When de war's over I'se gwine right back."
Edward spoke to the older man. "How real is the danger ?"
"Of the river coverin' Cape Jessamine, sah? Well, they've cut a powerful heap of levees. It's lak this." He rested on his oars and demonstrated with his hands. "Cape Jessamine's got water mos' all around it anyhow. It comes suckin' in back here, suckin' and underminin'. The Mississippi's er powerful, big sapper an' miner — the biggest kind of er one! It might be workin' in the cellar like under Cape Jessamine this very minute. And then ergain it might not. Ain' nobody kin really tell. Though nowadays it's surely lucky to expect the worst. Yes, sah, the Mississippi's er bigger sapper an' miner than any they've got in the army!"
They went on, by the dense woodland, beneath the low sun. A cypress swamp ran back for miles. In this hour the vast, knotted knees, dimly seen, innumerable, covering all the earth, appeared like sleeping herds of an ancient monster. The wash of the water was like the breathing of such a host. All the country here was very low, and over it there began to be drawn a purple veil. It was as still as a dream. The boat passed between two islets covered with a white flower, and came into sight of a point of land.
"Cape Jessamine!" said the young negro.
It lay painfully fair, an emerald breadth with groups of trees, seen through the veil like a fading dream which the mind tries to hold, and tries in vain, it is so fair! There was magic in the atmosphere; to look down the river was to look upon a vision. Edward looked, bent forward, his eyes steady and wide.
"Row fast!" he said in his friendly voice. "I want to go back now."
They rowed fast, by monstrous white cypresses, under boughs hung with motionless banners of moss, by fallen trees, decaying logs, grotesquely twisted roots. The boat kept in the shadow, but the light was on Cape Jessamine. Presently they could see the lofty pillars of the house, half veiled in foliage, half bare to the sinking sun. They were now not half a mile away. The distance lessened... .
They were skirting a muddy shore, rowing amid a wild disorder of stumps that rose clear from the water, of dead and fallen trees, dead and far-flung vines. There came to the boat a slight rising and falling motion.
"What's dat ?" said the young negro.
His fellow turned and stared. "Lak er swell from er steamer, only there ain't any steamer on the Mississippi these days —" "O my Lawd, what dat sound ?"
The boat rocked violently. "Oh, Destruction, not there!" cried Edward Cary.
Cape Jessamine went down, down. They saw and heard; it was before their eyes; the bending pillars, the crashing walls, the trees that fell, the earth that vanished, the churned and horrible water. ... They saw the work of the river, the sapper who worked with a million hands. . . . Shrieking, the negroes drove the boat head into the muddy shore, leaped up and caught at the overhanging boughs. Their frail craft was stayed, resting behind a breakwater of dead limbs. "O God-er-moughty! O God-er-moughty!" wailed the young negro.
Edward stood like marble. It had been there celestially fair — his port and haven and the wealth it held. It was gone — gone like a mirage. The red sun sank and left the wild world a wide waste... . The darkness, which, in this latitude, followed at once, was unwelcome only because it closed the door on search, hopeless and impossible as would search have been in that cauldron of earth and water. The inner darkness was heavier than that which came up from the east. Through it all the long night throbbed like a dark star, now despair, now hope against hope.
They fastened the boat with a rope to a great projecting piece of Spanish bayonet. For a while, despite the sheltered spot into which they had driven, it rose and fell as though it were at sea, but this passed with the passing hours. At last the excited negroes fell quiet, at last they lay asleep, head pillowed on arms. As best he might Cary wore out the darkness.
It was not yet dawn when he roused the negroes. The boat lay quiet now; the river was over its disturbance of the evening be-fore. Since its origin deep in past ages the river had pulled down too many shores, swallowed too many strips of land to be long concerned over its latest work. Yellow and deep and terrible, on it ran, remorseless and unremembering. The boat on the edge of the swamp, in the circle of projecting root and snag, lay quiet. Above and around it hung lifeless from the boughs the grey moss. Bough and moss, there was made a vast tracery through which showed the primrose sky, cold, quiet, infinitely withdrawn. Looking down the stream, all that was missed was Cape Jessamine. The yellow water rolled over that.
"There was a bayou a mile or two back," said Edward. "The one on which stood 'Rasmus's house. It ran north and south and the road went across it. Can we get to that bayou ?"
"Yes, sah. Hit's haid ain' far from here. But we'd have to leave de boat."
"It is fastened and hidden. You will find it again."
The elder negro looked doubtful. "We's poor men, marster. Ain't anybody to look after us now —"
"I ain' er-carin' how poor I is," broke in the younger. "I'se gwine. Ef dey got warnin' dey might hab took to de bayou, crosst hit, an' went on to de Fusilier place. But hit don' look ter me lak de river give any warnin'."
"That's what we've got to see," said Edward. He touched the shoulder of the elder black. "You're a good man, like Daniel here! Leave the boat and come on."
In the deep wood, among the cypresses, the light was faint enough. The three crept over the purple brown hummocks, the roots like stiffened serpents. Now and again they plunged into water or black mire. Edward moved in silence, and though the negroes talked, their voices were subdued to the place. It was slow, slow going, walking among traps. An hour passed. The cypresses fell away and cane and flowering vines topped by giant magnolias took their place.
"Haid of bayou," said Daniel.
They found an old dugout half full of water, bailed it out, and began to pole down the narrow, winding water, that ran two miles in the wood behind the lost Cape Jessamine.
"If she had even an hour —" said Edward.
"Miss Désirée des' er-sa'nter er-long," said Daniel, "but what she wan' ter do, hit gets done lak er bolt ob lightnin' runnin' down de sky! Dar' ain' any tellin'. Ef she saw hit er-comin' she sholy mek 'em move —"
On either hand the perfumed walls came close. Far overhead the trees mingled their leaves and through the lace roof the early light came stilly down. The water was clear brown. Each turn brought a vista, faintly lit, tapering into mist, through which showed like smoked pearl mere shapes of trees. They went on and on, to a low and liquid sound. A white crane stood to watch them, ghostly in its place. Isolation brooded; all was as still as the border of the world.
Turning with the turning water they found another reach with pearl grey trees. A boat came toward them out of the mist, a dug-out like their own, with a figure, standing, poling. In the greyness and the distance it was not immediately to be made out; then, as the boat came nearer, they saw that it was a woman, and another minute told her name.
The young negro broke into a happy babbling. "Miss Désirée ain' gwine let de river drown her! — no, nurr her mammy, nurr Mingo, nurr Simon, nurr 'Rasmus! She got mo' sence dan de river. `Ho!' she say, `you of river! You can tek my house, but you can't tek me! I des walk out lak de terrapin an' leave you de shell!'
She came out of the mist into the morning light, into the emerald and gold. She rowed bareheaded, standing straight, slender, and fine as Artemis. The elder negro dipped the oar strongly, the distance lessened with swiftness. When she saw Edward, she gave the singing cry he knew as though he had known it always. . . .
'Rasmus's cabin, it seemed, had been rebuilt. Here were mammy and 'Rasmus himself and Mingo and Simon, and a little bag of meal and a little, little coffee. Everybody had breakfast while the birds sang and the trees waved, and the honey bees were busy with all the flowers of the Southern spring. Later, there was held a council between General Cary and General Gaillard, sitting gravely opposite each other, he on a cypress stump and she on a fallen pine. The Fusilier place ? Yes, the servants had best go there. Mammy, at any rate, must go. She was old and feeble, a little childish — and Madam Fusilier was a true saint who gave herself to the servants. Five miles down the road lived an old man who had a mule and a cart. Désirée had an idea that they had not been taken. The Fusilier place was fourteen miles away. They might get mammy there before night.
"And you ?"
"I will take her there, of course."
"Madam Fusilier will insist upon caring for you, too."
"Undoubtedly. But I do not wish to stay at the Fusilier place. It is in the back country. News never comes there. You could not hear even the firing on the river. It is a cloister, and she is old and always on her knees. I would beat against the cage until I died or beat it down."
"Désirée, would you come with me? We could marry at Natchez, and the women are not leaving Vicksburg. . . . Oh, I cannot tell if I am giving you good counsel!"
"It is a counsel of happiness."
"And of danger —"
"I will take the danger. . . . Oh, that is so much better than the Fusilier place!"
Two days later they left the friendly boatmen on the Mississippi side. An old family carriage which they overtook, creeping along the spring-time road, in it a lady, her little girl, and a maid, gave them a long lift upon the way. At the last they came into Natchez in an ambulance sent up from Port Hudson, in friendly company with a soldier with a bandaged leg and a soldier with a bandaged head and arm. In Natchez they were married.
Three days passed and they entered Vicksburg. His furlough would expire the next morning. She knew people in this town, old friends of her mother's, she said. She and Edward found the house and all was well. Her mother's friends kissed her, laughed and cried and kissed her again, and then they shook hands warmly with her husband, and then they gave the two a cool high room behind a cascade of roses, and sent them cake and sangaree.
As the evening fell, they sat together by the window, in the fair stillness, and relief of a place all their own.
"The town is full of rumours," he said. "There is news of a bombardment of Charleston, and we have had a success in Tennessee, a great raid of Forrest's. Longstreet is being attacked south of the James. The armies on the Rappahannock appear to be making ready —"
"And here ?"
"There is a feeling that we are on the eve of events. Grant is starting some movement, but what it is has not yet developed.
There will be fighting presently —" He put out his hand and drew within the room a bough of the Seven Sisters rose. "Look, how they are shaded! Pale pink, rose, crimson."
He had letters from home which he presently took up from the table, opened, and read aloud. They were sprinkled with gracious references to his happiness and messages of love for Désirée at Cape Jessamine.
"Oh, Cape Jessamine — oh, Cape Jessamine!"
"This is from Molly. ` Will you be able to see her before the war is over ? They say it will be over this summer.'"
"Molly is the little one ? And I am here! We see each other, though the war is not over. Oh, there is no cup that has not the pearl dropped in —"
" If you think this rose light comes only from the roses —"
The dusk deepened to night, the night of the sixteenth of April, 1863. A perfumed wind blew through the town, the stars shone, the place lay deep in sleep, only the sentries walking their beat. From river battery to river battery, patrolling the Mississippi, went pickets in rowboats. They dipped their oars softly, looking up and down and across the stream. Toward the middle of the night they drew together in a cluster, and now they looked upstream. Then they separated and went in different directions, rowing no longer with slow strokes, but with all their strength of arm. The most made for the nearest shore battery, but others shot across to the small settlement of De Soto on the Louisiana bank. That which they did here was to fire a number of frame buildings near the water's edge. Up soared the red pillars, illuminating the river. Across the water a signal shot boomed from the upper batteries. Up and down the bugles were heard. Lights sprung out, the wind filled with sound. Down the Mississippi, into the glare thrown by the burning houses came at full speed Porter's ironclads, meaning this time to get by. The Benton, Lafayette, and Tuscumbia, the gun-boats Carondelet, Pittsburg, Louisville, Mound City, the ram General Price, the transports Forest Queen and Silver Wave and Henry Clay — one by one they showed in the night that was now red. The transports were protected by bulwarks of cotton bales, by coal barges lashed to their sides. From the smokestacks of all rushed black clouds with sparks of fire. Go ahead ! Go ahead !
Vicksburg, that was to dispute the ownership of the Mississippi, had with which to do it twenty-eight guns. She was hardly a Gibraltar — Vicksburg; hardly ironclad and invulnerable, hardly fitted with ordnance sufficient for her purpose. The twenty-eight guns upon the bluffs above the river might be greatly served, they might work tirelessly and overtime, but it remained that they were but twenty-eight. Now in the midnight of the sixteenth of April, they opened mouth. At once the blue ironclads answered.
The excited town came out of doors. On the whole it was better to see the shells than to hear them where you sat in dark rooms. The women had a horror of being caught within falling walls, beneath a roof that was on fire; they, too, preferred to meet death and terror in the open. Not that they believed that death was coming to many to-night, or that they could have been called terrified. Vicksburg was growing used to bombardments. The women gathered the children and came out into the streets and gardens. There had been that evening a party and a dance. The signal gun boomed hard upon its close; young girls and matrons had reached home, but had not yet undressed. They came out of doors again in their filmy ball gowns, with flowers in their hair. As the guns opened mouth, as the blue shells rose into the night, each a swift, brilliant horror, the caves were suggested, but the women of Vicksburg did not like the caves and only meant to use them when the rain was furious. Not all came out of doors. The young wife of a major-general was afraid of the night air for her baby, and stayed quietly by its cradle, and others kept by the bedridden. Vicksburg, no more than any other Southern town, lacked its sick and wounded.
The signal shot had awakened Désirée and Edward. Before he was dressed there came the sound of the beaten drum in the streets. below.
"The long roll!" he said. "I must hurry. The regiment is camped by the river."
He bent over her, took her in his arms. "Good-bye, love! good-bye, love!"
"Good-bye, love; good-bye, good-bye!"
He was gone. With a sob in her throat she fell back, lay for a moment outstretched on the bed, face down, her hands locked above her head. The house shook, a light came in the window, there were.
hurried voices through the house and in the garden below. She rose and dressed, braiding her long hair with flying fingers, her eyes upon the red light in the sky. When she had done she looked around her once, then went out, closing the door behind her, and ran down into the garden.