THE ROAD TO VIDALIA
The river ran several thousand miles, from a land of snow and fir trees and brief summers to a land of long, long summers, cane and orange. The river was wide. It dealt in loops and a tortuous course, and for the most part it was yellow and turbid and strong of current. There were sandbars in the river, there were jewelled islands; there were parallel swamps, lakes, and bayous. From the border of these, and out of the water, rose tall trees, starred over, in their season, with satiny cups or disks, flowers of their own or vast flowering vines, networks of languid bloom. The Spanish moss, too, swayed from the trees, and about their knees shivered the canebrakes. Of a remarkable personality throughout, in its last thousand miles the river grew unique. Now it ran between bluffs of coloured clay, and now it flowed above the level of the surrounding country. You did not go down to the river: you went up to the river, the river caged like a tiger behind the levees. Time of flood was the tiger’s time. Down went the levee—widened in an instant the ragged crevasse—out came the beast!—
December, along the stretch of the Mississippi under consideration, was of a weather nearly like a Virginian late autumn. In the river towns and in the plantation gardens roses yet bloomed. In the fields the cotton should have been gathered, carried—all the silver stuff—in wagons, or in baskets on the heads of negroes, to the gin-houses. This December it was not so. It was the December of 1862. Life, as it used to be, had disintegrated. Life, as it was, left the fields untended and the harvest ungathered. Why pick cotton when there was nowhere to send it? The fields stayed white.
2The stately, leisurely steamers, the swan-like white packets, were gone from the river; gone were the barges, the flatboats and freight boats; gone were the ferries. No more at night did there come looming—from up the stream, from down the stream—the giant shapes, friendly, myriad-lighted. No more did swung torches reveal the long wharves, while the deep whistle blew, and the smokestack sent out sparks, and the negro roustabouts sang as they made her fast. No more did the planter come aboard, and the planter’s daughter; no more was there music of stringed instruments, nor the aroma of the fine cigar, nor sweet drawling voices. The planter was at the front; and the planter’s daughter had too much upon her hands to leave the plantation, even if there had been a place to go to. As it happened there was none.
Farragut, dressed in blue, ruled the river upward from the Gulf and New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Porter, dressed in blue, ruled it downward from Cairo to Grand Lake. Their steam frigates, corvettes, and sloops-of-war, their ironclads, tinclads, gunboats, and rams flew the Stars and Stripes. Between Grand Lake and Baton Rouge the river was Confederate, unconquered yet, beneath the Stars and Bars. They flew from land and water defences at Vicksburg, from the batteries up the Yazoo, from Natchez and the works on the Red River, and the entrenchments at Port Hudson. They flew from the few, few remaining grey craft of war, from the transports, the cotton-clads, the Vicksburg, the De Soto, the gunboat Grand Duke, the ram Webb. Tawny and strong ran the Mississippi, by the Stars and Stripes, by the Stars and Bars.
It had rained and rained. All the swamps were up, the bayous overflowing. The tiger, too, was out; now here, now there. That other tiger, War, was abroad, and he aided in breaking levees. On the Mississippi side, on the Louisiana side, bottom lands were brimming. Cottonwood, red gum, china trees, cypress and pine stood up, drenched and dismal, from amber sheets and eddies, specked with foam. The clouds hung dark and low. There was a small, chill, mournful wind. The roads, trampled and scored by eighteen months of war, were little, if any, better than no roads.
A detachment of grey infantry and a section of artillery, coming up on the Louisiana side from the Red River with intent to cross at 3Vidalia and proceed from Natchez to Vicksburg, found them so. In part the detail was from a regiment of A.P. Hill’s, transferred the preceding month from Fredericksburg in Virginia to Vicksburg in Mississippi, sent immediately from Vicksburg toward Red River, it being rumoured that Farragut meant a great attack there, and almost immediately summoned back, Secret Service having determined that Grant at Oxford meant a descent upon Vicksburg. The detachment was making a forced march and making it through a Slough of Despond. The no-roads were bottomless; the two guns mired and mired; the straining horses could do little, however good their will. Infantry had to help, put a shoulder to wheel and caisson. Infantry was too tired to say much, but what it said was heartfelt,—“Got the right name for these States when they called them Gulf States! If we could only telegraph to China they might pull that gun out on that side!”—“O God! for the Valley Pike!”—“Don’t say things like that! Homesickness would be the last straw. If anybody’s homesick, don’t, for the Lord’s sake, let on!… Get up, Patsy! Get up, Pansy! Get up, Sorrel!”… “Look-a-here, Artillery! If it’s just the same to you, we wish you’d call that horse something else! You see it kind of brings a picture up…. This identical minute ‘Old Jack’s’ riding Little Sorrel up and down before Burnside at Fredericksburg, and we’re not there to see!… Oh, it ain’t your fault! You can’t help being Mississippi and Louisiana and bringing us down to help! You are all right and you fight like hell, and you’ve got your own quality, and we like you first-rate! If we weren’t Army of Northern Virginia, we surely would choose to be Army of Tennessee and the Southwest—so there’s no need for you to get wrathy!… Only we would be obliged to you if you’d change the name of that horse!”
The clouds broke in a bitter downpour. “Ooooh-h! Country’s turned over and river’s on top! Get up, Patsy! Get up, Pansy! Get up—This ain’t a mud-hole, it’s a bayou! God knows, if I lived in this country I’d tear all that long, waving, black moss out of the trees! It gives me the horrors.”—“Get on, men! get on!”—“Captain, we can’t!”
Pioneers came back. “It’s a bayou—but there’s a corduroy bridge, not more than a foot under water.”
Infantry crossed, the two guns crossed. Beyond the arm of the 4bayou the earth was mere quaking morass. The men cut canes, armfuls and armfuls of canes, threw the bundles down, and made some sort of roadbed. Over it came those patient, famished, piteous soldiers, the horses, and behind them, heavily, heavily through the thickened mire, guns and caissons. Gun and wheel and caisson were all plastered with mud, not an inch of bright metal showing. The horses, too, were all masked and splashed. The men were in no better case, wet through, covered from head to foot with mud and mire, the worn, worn uniforms worsened yet by thorn and briar from the tangled forest. The water dripped from the rifles, stock and barrel, the water dripped from the furled and covered colours. The men’s shoes were very bad; only a few had overcoats. The clouds were leaden, the rain streamed, the comfortless day was drawing down. The detachment came into a narrow, somewhat firmer road set on either hand with tall cypresses and water oaks, from every limb of which hung the grey moss, long, crêpe-like, swaying in the chill and fretting wind. “For the Lord’s sake,” said Virginia in Louisiana, “sing something!”
A man in the colour guard started “Roll, Jordan, roll”—
The line protested. “Don’t sing about a river! There’s river enough in ours now!—That darkey, back there, said the levees were breaking.”
“Don’t sing that either! We’re nine hundred miles from the Blue Ridge and Canaan Land…. Sech a fool to sing about mountains and home!”
“Well,” said Colour Guard, “that was what I was thinking about. If anybody knows a cheerful hymn, I’ll be glad if he’ll line it out—”
“Don’t sing a hymn,” said the men. “Sing something gay. Edward Cary, you sing something.”
“All right,” said Edward. “What do you want?”
“Anything that’ll light a fire in the rain! Sing us something funny. Sing us a story.”
The cypress wood ended. They came out into vast cotton-fields where the drowning bolls, great melancholy snowflakes, clung to the bushes, idle as weeds, careless of famine in mill-towns oversea. The water stood between the rows, rows that ran endlessly, cut from sight at last by a whirling and formless grey vapour.
The land was as flat as Holland, but the rank forest, the growth about the wandering arms of bayous breathed of another clime. The rain came down as in the rainy season, the wind was mounting, the wings of the dusk flapping nearer.
“Get on, men, get on! We’re miles from Vidalia.”
“Look out, Artillery! There’s water under those logs!”
The horses and the first gun got across the rotting logs roofing black water, infantry helping, tugging, pushing, beating down the cane.
“Shades of night, where are we anyhow? Cane rattling and the moss waving and water bubbling—is it just another damned bayou or the river?… And all the flat ground and the strange trees…. My head is turning round.”
“It’s Bayou Jessamine,” volunteered an artilleryman. He spoke in a drawling voice. “We aren’t far from the river, or the river isn’t far from us, for I think the river’s out. It appears to me that you Virginians grumble a lot. There isn’t anything the matter with this country. It’s as good a country as God’s got. Barksdale’s men and the Washington Artillery are always writing back that Virginia 6can’t hold a candle to it…. Whoa, there, Whitefoot! Whoa, Dick!”
The second gun had come upon the raft of logs. A log slipped, a wheel went down, gun and caisson tilted—artillery and infantry surged to the aid of the endangered piece. A second log slipped, the wheel beneath the caisson went down, the loaded metal chest jerked forward, striking forehead and shoulder of one of the aiding infantrymen. The blow was heavy and stretched the soldier senseless, half in the black water, half across the treacherous logs. Amid ejaculations, oaths, shouted orders, guns and caisson were righted, the horses urged forward, the piece drawn clear of the bayou. Down came the rain as though the floodgates of heaven were opened; nearer and nearer flapped the dusk….
Edward Cary, coming to himself, thought, on the crest of a low wave of consciousness, of Greenwood in Virginia and of the shepherds and shepherdesses in the drawing-room paper. He seemed to see his grandfather’s portrait, and he thought that the young man in the picture had put out a hand and drawn him from the bayou. Then he sank into the trough of the sea and all again was black. The next wave was higher. He saw with distinctness that he was in a firelit cabin, and that an old negro was battling with a door which the wind would not let shut. The hollow caught him again, but proved a momentary prison. He opened his eyes fully and presently spoke to the two soldiers who hugged the fire before which he was lying.
“You two fellows in a cloud of steam, did we lose the gun?”
The two turned, gratified and congratulatory. “No, no, we didn’t lose it! Glad you’ve waked up, Edward! Caisson struck you, knocked you into the bayou, y’ know! Fished you out and brought you on till we came to this cabin. Company had to march away. Couldn’t wait—dark coming and the Mississippi gnawing holes out of the land like a rat out of a cheese! The boys have been gone twenty minutes. Powerful glad you’ve come back to us! We’d have missed you like sixty! Captain says he hopes you can march!”
Edward sat up, then lay down again upon the pallet. “I’ve got a singing head,” he said dreamily. “What’s involved in my staying here?”
His comrades laughed, they were so glad to hear him talking. 7“Told Kirk you couldn’t march yet awhile! You got an awful blow. Only, we can’t stay with you—that’s involved! Captain’s bent on making Vidalia. Orders are to bring you on if you can march, and if you can’t to double-quick it ourselves and catch up! Says Grant’s going to invest Vicksburg and he can’t spare even Kirk and me. You’re to come on as quick as you can, and rejoin wherever we are. Says nobody ever had a better headpiece than you, and that you’ll walk in somewhere that isn’t at the end of the procession!”
The night descended. Edward lay half asleep upon the pallet, in the light of the pine knots with which the negro fed the fire. The rushing in his head was going, the nausea passing, the warmth was sweet, bed was sweet, rest, rest, rest was sweet! The old negro went to and fro, or sat upon a bench beside the glowing hearth.
After his kind he communed with himself half aloud, a slow stream of comment and interrogation. Before long he took from some mysterious press a little corn meal and a small piece of bacon. The meal he stirred with water and made into thin pones, which he baked upon a rusty piece of tin laid on a bed of coals. Then he found a broken knife and cut a few rashers of bacon and fried them in an ancient skillet. The cabin filled with a savoury odor! Edward turned on the pallet. “Uncle, are you cooking for two?”
The meal, his first that day, restored him to himself. By now it took much to kill or permanently disable a Confederate soldier. Life forever out of doors, the sky for roof, the earth for bed, spare and simple diet, body trained and exercised, senses cleared and nerves braced by danger grown the element in which he moved and had his being, hope rising clear from much reason for despair, ideality intact in the midst of grimmest realities, a mind made up, cognizant of great issues and the need of men—the Confederate soldier had no intention of dying before his time. Nowadays it took a bullet through heart or head to give a man his quietus. The toppling caisson and the bayou had failed to give Edward Cary his.
The young white man and the old negro shared scrupulously between them the not over-great amount of corn bread and bacon. The negro placed Edward’s portion before him on a wooden stool and took his own to the bench beside the hearth. The wind blew, the rain dashed against the hut, the flames leaped from resinous pine knot to pine knot.
8Supper finished, talk began. “How far from the river are we?”
“Ef you’ll tell ’Rasmus, sah, ’Rasmus’ll tell you! En rights hit oughter be two miles, but I’s got er kind ob notion dat de ribber’s done crope nigher.”
Edward listened to the wind and rain. “What’s to hinder it from coming nigher yet?”
The young man got up, somewhat unsteadily, from the pallet, and with his hand against the wall moved to the door, opened it, and looked out. He shivered, then laughed. “Noah must have seen something like it when he looked out of the Ark!” He closed the door with difficulty.
Behind him, the negro continued to speak. “Leastways, dar’s only de Cape Jessamine levee.”
“De Gaillard place, sah.”
With a stick he drew lines in the ashes. “Bayou heah. Ribber heah. De Cun’l in between—only right now he way from home fightin’ de Yankees—he en’ Marse Louis. De Gaillard place—Cape Jessamine. Hope dat levee won’t break!”
Edward came back to the fire. “Do you belong to the place?”
“No, sah, I’se free. Ol’ marster freed me. But I goes dar mos’ every day en’ takes advice en’ draws my rations. No, sah, I don’ ’zactly belong, but dey’re my white folks. De Gaillards’s de finest kind dar is. Dar ain’t no finer.”
Old man and young man, dark-skinned and light, African and Aryan, the two rested by the fire. The negro sat, half doubled, his hands between his knees, his eyes upon the floor by the door. Now he was silent, now he muttered and murmured. The glare from the pine knots beat upon his grey pate, upon his shirt, open over his chest, and upon his gnarled and knotted hands. Over against him half reclined the other, very torn and muddy, unshaven, gaunt, and hollow-eyed, yet, indescribably, carrying his rags as though they were purple, showing through fatigue, deprivation, and injury something tireless, uninjured, and undeprived. He kept now a somewhat languid silence, idle in the warmth, his thoughts away from the Mississippi and the night of storm. With the first light he would quit the cabin and press on after his company. He thought 9of the armies of the Far South, of the Army of Tennessee, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, and he thought of the fighting in Virginia, of the Army of Northern Virginia, the army he had quitted but a few weeks before. He, too, that afternoon, had felt homesick for it, lying there behind the hills to the south of Fredericksburg, waiting for Burnside to cross the Rappahannock!… The soldier must go where he is sent! He thought of his own people, of his father, of Fauquier Cary, of Greenwood, and his sisters there. He should find at Vicksburg a letter from Judith. From the thought of Judith he moved to that of Richard Cleave…. Presently, with an impatient sigh, he shook himself free. Better think, to-night, of something else than tragedies and mysteries! He thought of roses and old songs, and deep forests and sunny childhood spaces. He put attention to sleep, diffused his mind and hovered in mere warmth, odors, and hues of memory and imagination. He set faint silver bells to ringing, then, amid slow alternating waves of red and purple, a master violin to playing. Lulled, lulled in the firelight, his eyelids drooped. He drew sleeper’s breath.
“De water’s comin’ under de doah! De water’s comin’ under de doah!”
The violin played the strain for a moment, then it appeared that a string broke. Edward sat up. “What’s the matter?—Ha, the levee broke, did it?”
“Hit ain’t de river, hit am de bayou! De bayou’s comin’ out, en’ ef you don’ min’, sah, we’s obleeged ter move!”
Edward rose, stretching himself. “Move where?”
“Ter Cape Jessamine, sah. Bayou can’t git dat far, en’ dey sho’ ain’t gwine let de river come out ef dey kin help hit!”
The floor was ankle deep in yellow water. Suddenly the door blew open. There entered streaming rain and a hiss of wind. The negro, gathering into a bundle his meagre wardrobe and bedding, shook his head and made haste. Edward took his rifle and ragged hat. The water deepened and put the fire out. The two men emerged from the cabin into a widening lake, seething and eddying between the dark trees. Behind them the hut tilted a little upon its rude foundation. The negro looked back. “Liked dat house, en’ now hit’s er-gwine, too! Bayou never come out lak dat befo’ dishyer war!”
Out of the knee-deep water at last, they struck into something that to the feet felt like a road. On either hand towering cypresses10made the intense night intenser. It was intense, and yet out of the bosom of the clouds, athwart the slant rain, came at times effects of light. One saw and one did not see; there was a sense of dim revelations, cloudy purposes of earth, air, and water, given and then withdrawn before they could be read. But there was one thing heard plainly, and that was the voice of the Mississippi River.
They were going toward it, Edward found. Once, in the transient and mysterious lightening of the atmosphere, he thought that he saw it gleaming before them. The impression was lost, but it returned. He saw that they were at the base of a tongue of land, set with gigantic trees, running out into the gleaming that was the river. The two were now upon slightly rising ground, and they had the sweep of the night before them.
“Fo’ Gawd!” said the negro; “look at de torches on de levee! River’s mekkin’ dem wuhk fer dey livin’ to-night at Cape Jessamine!”
Categories: English Literature