| A STUDY IN THE PRESENT TENSE
A breezy day and a sunny landscape. An open country
to right and left and forward; behind, a wood. In the edge of this
the open but not venturing into it, long lines of troops, halted.
The wood is alive with them, and full of confused noises—the
occasional rattle of wheels as a battery of artillery goes into
position to cover the advance; the hum and murmur of the soldiers
talking; a sound of innumerable feet in the dry leaves that strew
the interspaces among the trees; hoarse commands of officers. Detached
groups of horsemen are well in front—not altogether exposed—many
of them intently regarding the crest of a hill a mile away in the
direction of the interrupted advance. For this powerful army, moving
in battle order through a forest, has met with a formidable obstacle—the
open country. The crest of that gentle hill a mile away has a sinister
look; it says, Beware! Along it runs a stone wall extending to
left and right a great distance. Behind the wall is a hedge; behind
the hedge are seen the tops of trees in rather straggling order.
Among the trees—what? It is necessary to know.
Yesterday, and for many days and nights previously, we were fighting
somewhere; always there was cannonading, with occasional keen rattlings
of musketry, mingled with cheers, our own or the enemy's, we seldom
knew, attesting some temporary advantage. This morning at daybreak
the enemy was gone. We have moved forward across his earthworks,
across which we have so often vainly attempted to move before, through
the debris of his abandoned camps, among the graves of his fallen,
into the woods beyond.
How curiously we had regarded everything! how odd it all had seemed!
Nothing had appeared quite familiar; the most commonplace objects—an
old saddle, a splintered wheel, a forgotten canteen—everything
had related something of the mysterious personality of those strange
men who had been killing us. The soldier never becomes wholly familiar
with the conception of his foes as men like himself; he cannot divest
himself of the feeling that they are another order of beings, differently
conditioned, in an environment not altogether of the earth. The smallest
vestiges of them rivet his attention and engage his interest. He
thinks of them as inaccessible; and, catching an unexpected glimpse
of them, they appear farther away, and therefore larger, than they
really are—like objects in a fog. He is somewhat in awe of
From the edge of the wood leading up the acclivity are the tracks
of horses and wheels—the wheels of cannon. The yellow grass
is beaten down by the feet of infantry. Clearly they have passed
this way in thousands; they have not withdrawn by the country roads.
This is significant—it is the difference between retiring and
That group of horsemen is our commander, his staff and escort. He
is facing the distant crest, holding his field-glass against his
eyes with both hands, his elbows needlessly elevated. It is a fashion;
it seems to dignify the act; we are all addicted to it. Suddenly
he lowers the glass and says a few words to those about him. Two
or three aides detach themselves from the group and canter away into
the woods, along the lines in each direction. We did not hear his
words, but we know them: "Tell General X. to send forward the
skirmish line." Those of us who have been out of place resume
our positions; the men resting at ease straighten themselves and
the ranks are re-formed without a command. Some of us staff officers
dismount and look at our saddle girths; those already on the ground
Galloping rapidly along in the edge of the open ground comes a young
officer on a snow-white horse. His saddle blanket is scarlet. What
a fool! No one who has ever been in action but remembers how naturally
every rifle turns toward the man on a white horse; no one but has
observed how a bit of red enrages the bull of battle. That such colors
are fashionable in military life must be accepted as the most astonishing
of all the phenomena of human vanity. They would seem to have been
devised to increase the death-rate.
This young officer is in full uniform, as if on parade. He is all
agleam with bullion—a blue-and-gold edition of the Poetry of
War. A wave of derisive laughter runs abreast of him all along the
line. But how handsome he is!—with what careless grace he sits
He reins up within a respectful distance of the corps commander and
salutes. The old soldier nods familiarly; he evidently knows him.
A brief colloquy between them is going on; the young man seems to
be preferring some request which the elder one is indisposed to grant.
Let us ride a little nearer. Ah! too late—it is ended. The
young officer salutes again, wheels his horse, and rides straight
toward the crest of the hill!
A thin line of skirmishers, the men deployed at six paces or so apart,
now pushes from the wood into the open. The commander speaks to his
bugler, who claps his instrument to his lips. Tra-la-la! Tra-la-la! The skirmishers halt in their tracks.
Meantime the young horseman has advanced a hundred yards. He is riding
at a walk, straight up the long slope, with never a turn of the head.
How glorious! Gods! what would we not give to be in his place—with
his soul! He does not draw his sabre; his right hand hangs easily
at his side. The breeze catches the plume in his hat and flutters
it smartly. The sunshine rests upon his shoulder-straps, lovingly,
like a visible benediction. Straight on he rides. Ten thousand pairs
of eyes are fixed upon him with an intensity that he can hardly fail
to feel; ten thousand hearts keep quick time to the inaudible hoof-beats
of his snowy steed. He is not alone—he draws all souls after
him. But we remember that we laughed! On and on, straight for the
hedge-lined wall, he rides. Not a look backward. O, if he would but
turn—if he could but see the love, the adoration, the atonement!
Not a word is spoken; the populous depths of the forest still murmur
with their unseen and unseeing swarm, but all along the fringe is
silence. The burly commander is an equestrian statue of himself.
The mounted staff officers, their field glasses up, are motionless
all. The line of battle in the edge of the wood stands at a new kind
of "attention," each man in the attitude in which he was
caught by the consciousness of what is going on. All these hardened
and impenitent man-killers, to whom death in its awfulest forms is
a fact familiar to their every-day observation; who sleep on hills
trembling with the thunder of great guns, dine in the midst of streaming
missiles, and play at cards among the dead faces of their dearest
friends—all are watching with suspended breath and beating
hearts the outcome of an act involving the life of one man. Such
is the magnetism of courage and devotion.
If now you should turn your head you would see a simultaneous movement
among the spectators—a start, as if they had received an electric
shock—and looking forward again to the now distant horseman
you would see that he has in that instant altered his direction and
is riding at an angle to his former course. The spectators suppose
the sudden deflection to be caused by a shot, perhaps a wound; but
take this field-glass and you will observe that he is riding toward
a break in the wall and hedge. He means, if not killed, to ride through
and overlook the country beyond.
You are not to forget the nature of this man's act; it is not permitted
to you to think of it as an instance of bravado, nor, on the other
hand, a needless sacrifice of self. If the enemy has not retreated
he is in force on that ridge. The investigator will encounter nothing
less than a line-of-battle; there is no need of pickets, videttes,
skirmishers, to give warning of our approach; our attacking lines
will be visible, conspicuous, exposed to an artillery fire that will
shave the ground the moment they break from cover, and for half the
distance to a sheet of rifle bullets in which nothing can live. In
short, if the enemy is there, it would be madness to attack him in
front; he must be manoeuvred out by the immemorial plan of threatening
his line of communication, as necessary to his existence as to the
diver at the bottom of the sea his air tube. But how ascertain if
the enemy is there? There is but one way,—somebody must go
and see. The natural and customary thing to do is to send forward
a line of skirmishers. But in this case they will answer in the affirmative
with all their lives; the enemy, crouching in double ranks behind
the stone wall and in cover of the hedge, will wait until it is possible
to count each assailant's teeth. At the first volley a half of the
questioning line will fall, the other half before it can accomplish
the predestined retreat. What a price to pay for gratified curiosity!
At what a dear rate an army must sometimes purchase knowledge! "Let
me pay all," says this gallant man—this military Christ!
There is no hope except the hope against hope that the crest is clear.
True, he might prefer capture to death. So long as he advances, the
line will not fire—why should it? He can safely ride into the
hostile ranks and become a prisoner of war. But this would defeat
his object. It would not answer our question; it is necessary either
that he return unharmed or be shot to death before our eyes. Only
so shall we know how to act. If captured—why, that might have
been done by a half-dozen stragglers.
Now begins an extraordinary contest of intellect between a man and
an army. Our horseman, now within a quarter of a mile of the crest,
suddenly wheels to the left and gallops in a direction parallel to
it. He has caught sight of his antagonist; he knows all. Some slight
advantage of ground has enabled him to overlook a part of the line.
If he were here he could tell us in words. But that is now hopeless;
he must make the best use of the few minutes of life remaining to
him, by compelling the enemy himself to tell us as much and as plainly
as possible—which, naturally, that discreet power is reluctant
to do. Not a rifleman in those crouching ranks, not a cannoneer at
those masked and shotted guns, but knows the needs of the situation,
the imperative duty of forbearance. Besides, there has been time
enough to forbid them all to fire. True, a single rifle-shot might
drop him and be no great disclosure. But firing is infectious—and
see how rapidly he moves, with never a pause except as he whirls
his horse about to take a new direction, never directly backward
toward us, never directly forward toward his executioners. All this
is visible through the glass; it seems occurring within pistol-shot;
we see all but the enemy, whose presence, whose thoughts, whose motives
we infer. To the unaided eye there is nothing but a black figure
on a white horse, tracing slow zigzags against the slope of a distant
hill—so slowly they seem almost to creep.
Now—the glass again—he has tired of his failure, or sees
his error, or has gone mad; he is dashing directly forward at the
wall, as if to take it at a leap, hedge and all! One moment only
and he wheels right about and is speeding like the wind straight
down the slope—toward his friends, toward his death! Instantly
the wall is topped with a fierce roll of smoke for a distance of
hundreds of yards to right and left. This is as instantly dissipated
by the wind, and before the rattle of the rifles reaches us he is
down. No, he recovers his seat; he has but pulled his horse upon
its haunches. They are up and away! A tremendous cheer bursts from
our ranks, relieving the insupportable tension of our feelings. And
the horse and its rider? Yes, they are up and away. Away, indeed—they
are making directly to our left, parallel to the now steadily blazing
and smoking wall. The rattle of the musketry is continuous, and every
bullet's target is that courageous heart.
Suddenly a great bank of white smoke pushes upward from behind the
wall. Another and another—a dozen roll up before the thunder
of the explosions and the humming of the missiles reach our ears
and the missiles themselves come bounding through clouds of dust
into our covert, knocking over here and there a man and causing a
temporary distraction, a passing thought of self.
The dust drifts away. Incredible!—that enchanted horse and
rider have passed a ravine and are climbing another slope to unveil
another conspiracy of silence, to thwart the will of another armed
host. Another moment and that crest too is in eruption. The horse
rears and strikes the air with its forefeet. They are down at last.
But look again —the man has detached himself from the dead
animal. He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right
hand straight above his head. His face is toward us. Now he lowers
his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade
of the sabre describing a downward curve. It is a sign to us, to
the world, to posterity. It is a hero's salute to death and history.
Again the spell is broken; our men attempt to cheer; they are choking
with emotion; they utter hoarse, discordant cries; they clutch their
weapons and press tumultuously forward into the open. The skirmishers,
without orders, against orders, are going forward at a keen run,
like hounds unleashed. Our cannon speak and the enemy's now open
in full chorus; to right and left as far as we can see, the distant
crest, seeming now so near, erects its towers of cloud and the great
shot pitch roaring down among our moving masses. Flag after flag
of ours emerges from the wood, line after line sweeps forth, catching
the sunlight on its burnished arms. The rear battalions alone are
in obedience; they preserve their proper distance from the insurgent
The commander has not moved. He now removes his field-glass from
his eyes and glances to the right and left. He sees the human current
flowing on either side of him and his huddled escort, like tide waves
parted by a rock. Not a sign of feeling in his face; he is thinking.
Again he directs his eyes forward; they slowly traverse that malign
and awful crest. He addresses a calm word to his bugler. Tra-la-la!
Tra-la-la! The injunction has an imperiousness which enforces it.
It is repeated by all the bugles of all the sub-ordinate commanders;
the sharp metallic notes assert themselves above the hum of the advance
and penetrate the sound of the cannon. To halt is to withdraw. The
colors move slowly back; the lines face about and sullenly follow,
bearing their wounded; the skirmishers return, gathering up the dead.
Ah, those many, many needless dead! That great soul whose beautiful
body is lying over yonder, so conspicuous against the sere hillside—could
it not have been spared the bitter consciousness of a vain devotion?
Would one exception have marred too much the pitiless perfection
of the divine, eternal plan?