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Kirkland, Joseph. The Captain of Company K . Chicago: Dibble Publishing Co., 1891. [format: book], [genre: fiction]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
"OH, how sorry I shall be if he misses his train! What will he think of me? And how sorry I shall be if he doesn't miss it! -- goes away and doesn't think of me at all!"
Sally and her father stemmed the tide of humanity which slowly came down the platform. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, sweethearts, slowly dispersed to their homes; each home now, and perhaps forever, showing one vacant place at the fireside; each heart holding one image which can never grow old or change, except to fade slowly from memory if the soldier comes back no more.
When the crowd had gone, the station grown empty, and no Fargeon appeared, the minister and his daughter walked slowly homeward. They were silent; or if the good dominie talked, Sara took no part, not even that of listener. She gradually concluded that it was infinitely better that Will was not with them. "Better away wishing he were here than here wishing he were away." She had a revulsion of feeling. Her spirits had been low for twenty-four hours, and that is about the limit of sadness
at her age. Her thoughts wandered from Will and caught what her father was saying -- the close of some long monologue.
"Of the two horns of the dilemma, we will choose the least."
She burst out laughing.
"Why, daughter -- what is there to laugh at in my view of the case?"
"Oh, father -- I don't know -- I've been so wrought up that I laugh at nothing, I suppose. It just struck me -- the funny idea -- a dilemma -- with one horn larger than the other -- we taking the little one -- leaving him a poor, lopsided -- kind of unicorn."
Her laughter, bubbling up and over, interrupting her speech, was so catching that her father was fain to forgive her and join in the fun -- such as it was.
This untimely, undignified, unnatural hilarity lasted until after she got home, and did not pass without some mild disapproval -- the only kind Sara had ever to meet.
Her mother (addressing nobody in particular) remarked that some persons would feel differently on the departure of such a man on such an errand. But some other persons had always seemed to think that they knew best which side their bread was buttered on regarding Mr. Fargeon. This gave poor Sara a new attack -- her bread buttered on one side regarding Will Fargeon and the other side regarding somebody else! So she could only take refuge in her own room and let joyless cachinnation have its way, followed by a few tears after her face was buried in her pillow.
Letters between Cairo and "home" were many and pleasant during the early weeks and months of camp-life.
Photographs sped to and fro and made those acquainted who had never met face to face. Fargeon told his friends about the absurd though natural blunders into which the greenhorns fell, and how in all trouble Lieut. McClintock was the never-failing resource. Mac supplied every deficiency and remedied every defect; Mac made rough places smooth; Mac was the captain's right hand, his guide, philosopher, and friend. Mac's steady devotion to duty edified the many who were eager and willing to do well. Mac's hand fell like iron on a few who were disposed to break rules.
Listen to Mr. Penrose, reading out one of Captain Fargeon's letters:
"You see, my dears, Brother Fargeon excepts one. I am gratified to note that he does not forget the years through which he and I have fought in the Lord's war side by side."
Sally did not laugh. She only reddened a little; but Lydia, the irrepressible, was not so discreet. She burst out:
"Oh, Bunny!" protested Sally (Lydia had always been called "Bunny" and "Rabbity" because of two pearly teeth that showed below her short upper lip). "Dear Bunny, now please, please don't!"
"No, Sally; I will not ‘don't’ nor think of ‘don'ting!’ Father must be told whose face is dearest to Capt'n. Fargeon.
It's mine!" All laughed at this unexpected turn, and Lydia went on:
"But mercy my! Who cares for him? If it were Lieutenant McClintock! Mmmm! Why, Captain Fargeon himself says that the lieutenant is the finest man that ever lived. I guess he knows."
Mac was the subject of bitter rivalry between Lydia and her younger brother, and this dragging his name into the discussion prevented the question of "whose face" from being settled, for those two branched off into other matters -- whether Bunny was so mighty old as she thought for, and whether it had been "fair" for Bunny to shut her mouth when she had her photograph taken to send to camp, seeing that she never kept it shut at any other time -- and so forth, until Mr. Penrose put an end to the digression by going on with the letter.
These letters were all very well, in their way, but far as possible from satisfying to the soul of the repentant Sara. Oh, if Will could only "read between the lines" of her letters as she could between the lines of his! Then he would know how sorry she was for -- everything. Then a sigh, and a hope it would come out all right before long.
In camp reigned toil and drill and study and heat and impatience at what the volunteers thought was an unreasonable delay in setting them at work; and permeating all, the ever-present homesickness. Fargeon would have been really an unhappy man if it were not for his instinctive effort to keep up the spirits of the rank and file. This, and the comfortable presence of Mac, kept him cheerful at his task.
Suddenly, one day, after the usual sun-beaten drill, he
found as he took off his sword that it persisted in rattling as he hung it up, his teeth chattered in spite of himself; his hands grew blue and wrinkled with cold, notwithstanding the fierce heat; and his rude bed (a row of cracker-boxes), when he lay on it covered with blankets, shook as if it would go to pieces. He wished he could get hold of a huge anchor to hold things still, himself and everything about him. Ague, of course! He had seen it in others; now he could study it to the very best advantage, for, in spite of the external fierceness of both chill and fever, his mind was strong and well as ever, and even his body was slow to succumb.
Small use in studying it, however. He could not see through its mysterious, inscrutable why and wherefore. It did not last many days, and when he could call it "broken up," he yielded to the persuasions of the regimental surgeon and his brother officers, took leave of absence and carried his gripsack into the town of Cairo.
He found a room at the St. Charles Hotel, on the levee -- it was only a six-by-nine sky-parlor, but how palatial it seemed! A locked door, a glazed window, plastered walls, a half-carpeted floor, a furnished wash-stand, and, luxury of luxuries, a mattress bed, with a pillow and bedclothes; and (for the first time in so many weeks) a chance to undress himself and get between the sheets like a Christian.
He fairly reveled in the simple, plain little couch; luxuriated in it; explored all its corners with his long-hampered limbs, and rolled his face in the pillow like a strayed child restored to its mother's breast. After hours of sleep he heard the dinner gong sound, and was glad to hear it and disregard it in the greater enjoyment of the blessed mattress, pillow, and sheets.
His rest and recuperation went on for some days. The noisy, smoky bar and billiard room, full of soldiers drinking, smoking, talking, playing -- officers and privates together -- had no attractions for him, but he did much letter-writing, and there was always the blessed bed wherein he found refreshment even in lying awake. (His letters suppressed the fact of his illness.)
One morning he heard the usual tap at his door, and his second lieutenant, Barney Morphy, called out to ask how he was. He sprang up and began to dress.
"Oh, Barney, is that you? I'm all right now, thank you, and will go to camp with you shortly."
"By the way, Captain, here's a letter for you that came this morning."
The captain opened the door and seized the missive, and as he read it Morphy saw a smile steal over his face, and a flush of pleasure over so much of it as the kepi had preserved from a general brown tan too deep to show blushes.
"Oh, Barney, I beg pardon. We've got company coming. Our old friend Parson Penrose will be down to preach to the boys on Sunday."
"Ahem! Anybody coming with him, Captain?"
"Well -- yes. Part of his family may be along."
"Well, now, hadn't you better just keep your place here? Not come back to camp to stay until they go away -- the minister and the -- part of the family?"
Fargeon's heart leaped at the suggestion. Everything seemed to favor it. Officers from every regiment in the brigade had taken leave of absence in order to disport themselves at the hotel, some of them in a manner scarcely creditable to the service. But good sense -- or shall
we call it lover's instinct? -- prevailed, and he put aside the temptation.
"What!" he thought; "let Sara find me once more a civilian, staying at a hotel, idle and unsoldierly, wearing a uniform as a cow might wear a saddle, while a better man is commanding my company? Well -- hardly."
So he got back to his quarters in fine spirits, and even entered his tent with something like a home-coming feeling.
Was he walking on earth or on air? Within twelve hours he should see her! He pushed his eyelids to see if he was awake or only having another of those dreams. He was awake.
And the lovely Sara on her way to the meeting from which she hoped so much! How her eyes shone as she looked out of the car window on the great, grassy, sunlit, blue-gentian-spangled Grand Prairie! How the lids dropped when she recalled her gaze and found her face the cynosure of masculine eyes all unused to such visions! How she beamed with innocent triumph and with the happy anticipation of meeting -- all her friends of the Sixth! Yes; decidedly, she had never been so happy in all her life.
"Why, father, these men all have ‘39’ on their caps! Is it possible that thirty-eight other train-loads like this have gone out before?"
"Yes, daughter, thirty-nine with this, from Illinois alone."
"I wonder where all the men come from!"
"So do I. I've been wondering at it for a long time. But I fancy that the men of fighting age must be about all gone now."
What would the good dominie have thought if he had known that the stream would flow on until 175 such regiments should have been furnished by this young state alone?
One man in the car, though so placed that he could have looked at her without rudeness, never did glance in her direction in all the long, long day's ride. On the contrary, he seemed to avoid her eyes, and once, at least, she fancied that he held his cap beside his averted face on purpose to escape being seen by her. As he so held it, she saw above the visor the magic figure 6.
So here, among the thousand and forty-five of the Thirty-ninth, was a man of her "own" regiment! Her interest was piqued, and she called her father's attention to the presence of a soldier who knew their friends and whom she would like to talk with.
The minister, with the simple directness of his kind, went to the stranger and introduced himself; and the man obediently, though reluctantly, came forward.
His was a repulsive countenance, marred with a dreadful facial deformity which, because of the lowness of the sphere wherein he was born, had never been treated to remove or mitigate its ugliness.
Sally gave one startled glance and then looked away, unable to disguise her instinctive repugnance.
The man spoke in a broad Irish brogue, and his peculiarity interfered with his speech.
"Yes, lehdy, I know the caftain. Me nehm's Marrk Looney, and I'm the caftain's ordherly. He's the foinest gintleman in the sarvice. He is -- oah he is, he is." [This in a kind of hopeless monotone, the closing words nearly inaudible, a tone that would have been appropriate
to announce something the speaker knew to be true but despaired of making the world believe.]
"When did you see Capt'n. Fargeon?"
"A Winsday, lehdy. I got three days' lave an' wint uf to Chicagy huntin' things for the caftain's mess. Mebbe the caftain was expectin' your lehdyshif."
"Was he quite well?"
"Fehth he was not, lehdy; no moar was he bad. Jest a bit av a chill, wid the harrd livin' an' the harrd worrk. Ye may be sure the caftain'll be well to resave your lehdyshif. He will, oah he will, he will."
At this Sally's heart softened a little toward the uncouth specimen of humanity, and she managed to look in his face, where (never losing sight of the blemish) she could see a pair of sharp, observant eyes that might have been almost attractive but for an expression of habitual suspicion or shamefacedness. The birth blemish gave his whole face a sinister look, and even his smile was a leer.
They got to talking about the other officers.
"What makes Mr. McClintock better than the rest?"
"Well, lehdy, he was wid us in Mexico."
"Oh; you were in the Mexican war, were you?"
"I was, lehdy, I was, oah I was. I knew the liftin'nt there -- he was ortherly sargint of my company. If it hadn't been for the liftin'nt I doubt wud they have left me into K company at-all at-all."
"Why -- why not?"
"Well, lehdy --" he passed his hand lightly across his eyes) "fer raysons best known to thimsilves."
They had some further chat, and at parting she gave him her fair little hand and a dimpled smile that belied
the mixed feeling in her heart -- that it would be a relief to have him gone from her sight and hearing, and that she hoped he did not suspect it. [But he did.]
Once more Fargeon finds himself in his familiar place at evening dress-parade. The interregnum had made him half forget how childish it was, viewed in the light of common sense.
"ATTENTION -- BATTALION! Shoulder -- ARMS! Rear rank open order -- MARCH! -- HALT! Right -- DRESS! FRONT! Guides -- POSTS! Present -- ARMS! Sir, the parade is formed."
While one is learning it he is buoyed up with the notion that there is some mighty hidden power and meaning in it, to come out later. Then when it becomes a matter of dull, mechanical routine, behold! there is nothing in it, except a reminder to each of those 3,000 men that he is no longer a human being, but is turned into a mere cog in a machine.
Before the ceremony was half over Fargeon saw and recognized among the citizen on-lookers the face and figure of his dear Lady Disdain; that beloved vision that had been his daily thought and nightly dream for so many sweet, hopeless years.
As soon as possible he turned Company K over to Mac, joined the new-comers, gave his friends his greeting with enforced calmness, and explained to them the mysterious doings before them. Then he guided them to the camp, Sally's wonder and delight growing with every word and every step.
"Is this really your tent? Do you really sleep on that long, low, rocky mountain? Oh, what craggy ridges and
chasms! Why, there is one precipitous cliff right in the middle! What is that ledge for?"
"Oh, that's where one under-lying cracker-box sticks up higher than its neighbor. It just fits the small of my back. I shouldn' t know how to enjoy my night's rest without that -- shouldn't know I was asleep."
"And there's where you hang up your sword. Oh, why did yon take it off? It was so becoming!"
"It was becoming -- tiresome. We don't care to lug them around any more than we have to."
"I should think you'd never go without them. And here's your Bible, I see -- no, it's army regulations. Well, that is a kind of Bible in these days. And this is the corresponding hymn-book -- yes, Hardee's Tactics. ‘Shoulder arms! One time and two motions!’ What does that mean? How can there be two motions of one gun at one time? Perhaps the man has two guns, one in each hand. What a splendid idea! Every soldier ready to kill two of the enemy!"
The gay beauty was rattling on, all excitement and curiosity, when a message came from Colonel Puller, hoping the minister and his daughter would favor headquarters with a call.
"Oh, father!" she expostulated, "must we go? I don't believe they want to see me any more than I want to see them."
"What do you think, Brother Fargeon?"
Moved by a beseeching glance from Sally, Will answered:
"True enough!" cried Sally. "And besides, in Chicago it is customary for the gentleman to call on the lady before
he asks her to call on him. You go, father, and say that I am sick -- headache -- sunstroke -- frost-bite -- old age -- gout -- anything; only that I can't come."
Everybody might as well agree with Sara's views first as last. Her will was strong, her won't stronger.
When she and Will were left alone together my lady's mood changed; she laughed less and less, and became more disposed to listen than to talk.
"Oh, yes; mamma and all of us are very well, and everything goes on as prosperously as can be expected when our thoughts are far away. Now why do you stand up there leaning against that pole? Come, bring the campstool and sit by me -- there, between me and the door, so the light won't shine in my eyes -- the sunlight I mean." [If Fargeon had been very clear-sighted he would have seen that sunshine was not the only light her eyes loved.]
"Oh, yes; I am -- as happy as I deserve, I suppose."
"Yes; the old interests are still there, but -- somehow -- they haven't the old charm."
"To be sure. We are anxious, and we are a little lonesome -- at least some of us."
"Certainly. The soldiers' sacrifices are greater than ours. That's one thing that weighs on us."
"Oh, there's no danger of our forgetting you! If we tried we never could -- for an hour!"
And so on, little speeches and long silences. At last she broke down.
"Oh, Will! Can it be true -- that you are a soldier and going to battle?"
Then she laid her hand on his arm and bowed her head on it and cried, not even caring whether her hat was on straight or crooked! Her father returned and looked in unobserved, but discreetly walked on. [Even middle-aged clergymen have some sense!]
Her heart sank lower and lower, and she felt more and more desolate as the minutes passed. Will soothed her as well as he could, patted her hand and begged her not to distress herself. Then observing that instead of growing calmer she was beginning to sob a little, he asked her if he should not get her some water -- or call her father.
She recovered herself with an effort and answered, petulantly, "No! Of course not!" withdrew her hand suddenly, arose, rearranged her hat before the little glass hanging on the tent pole, smoothed her hair, dropped her veil and went out. She took her father's arm and walked away, Fargeon following awkwardly, wondering to himself, "What have I done now?"
Kirkland, Joseph. The Captain of Company K . Chicago: Dibble Publishing Co., 1891. [format: book], [genre: fiction]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=companyk.html