By Howard Fast
Maybe this story never really happened but, in all humility, we feel that it gives a likeness of Mr. Lincoln that he would not have been ashamed of
MRS. JAMES ALEX was as pretty as a picture. She was twenty-four years old and she had blue eyes and brown hair and a Cupid's-bow mouth. Before she married James Alex, she had been a Carrington of Bridgeport, and she had the haughty polish that goes with the Carringtons of Bridgeport.
That was the sentry's impression as he watched her enter his man's world. Manlike, he sought for one word to encompass a woman, and here the word was "sulky."
Mrs. Alex tried not to see the sentry. She was a little afraid and a good deal embarrassed. She had already passed a trooper who was stripped to his waist, squatting on his heels and picking things from his shirt. When the sentry grinned at her, a boyish grin out of a freckled face, her cheeks went red with anger and annoyance.
Mrs. Alex looked straight ahead and held her head high.
The sentry, a huge Irishman, said, "Now who would you be looking for, missus?"
He was eying her rudely and calmly, from her trim ankles to her poised Carrington head. She had come out of a world where men did not look at women like that, yet she could not think of slapping that huge red face. She blushed like a girl.
"I want to see Captain Alex," she said. The grin became even broader.
"I'm his wife!" she told the Irishman tartly.
The grin worked out of the red face, and the sentry studied her carefully, as if he were speculating inwardly upon his captain's taste in women.
A trooper came by, leading two splendid bay horses. He twisted his head to look at her, and the horses pranced and reined back. They were grand horses, and perhaps one belonged to her husband. There was romance in this world of men: She could forgive the sentry now; he belonged to her husband, just as the horse did.
"Do you want me to send for him, missus?" the sentry asked. "I can't be leaving my post, but I'll have a man call him.
"No, I want to go to him myself."
All the length of her journey was for this: the admiring, envious glances of her friends, to whom she had read his letters, the newspaper accounts of his bravery, all of which she had carefully cut out and pasted into her scrapbook; the romance which she had lived for a year at home, and which she was seeing at firsthand only now.
"Now I ain't supposed to pass anyone into camp," the sentry said.
"I'm his wife," she said, walking past the sentry, her Carrington manner retrieved. She had not come all the way from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to argue with a sentry.
"In the big, brown tent," the sentry called after her, grinning.
She approached the tent eagerly, only slightly apprehensive. She carried a basket of fruit and little cakes which she had baked herself; and that was to surprise him and to show she had not wasted her time entirely, a young wife alone.
The camp fascinated her, to see the things she had read about for so long come to life, the lines of picketed horses, the round, pointed tents, romance, color a man's world, his world. The horses were his horses, and the curious pipe-smoking troopers, bearded and in dirty gray undershirts, were his men. She was already composing stories to tell when she returned. She would organize groups to roll bandages, and when they sat together in the evenings, she would bring the whole thing to life. She might even deliver several lectures to raise funds for the wounded.
WHEN she lifted the tent flap, she recognized her husband at once, although his back was to her. His broad shoulders were unmistakable; he sat bent over a spindly camp table, studying a map that lay before him. He had lost weight, and his black hair was streaked with gray.
She thought to herself: Gray at the temples, dignified, such a fine figure. The Carringtons could not understand her marriage to a man who was nothing at all, only Mr. James Alex. But when he came back, a hero, and they began to entertain, her parents would change their minds.
Without turning his head, her husband snapped, "Is that you, Peasely? Damn it to hell, I can't make anything of this! We're at half strength! The men need a week's rest! Now they want us to ride?"
She stood there, smiling proudly. The phrase for him was "hard-bitten, hard-riding cavalryman." She hardly knew this husband of hers; they were only married a week when he went south to the front.
"Peasely, are you playing games?" he roared. He swung around, saw her his face became blank, his jaw fell. Shaking his head, he stared idiotically, his dark mustache quivering. He had a long, dark, handsome face, but her first impression was of dryness, lines, pouches under his eyes.
She came toward him, putting down the basket and holding out her hands.
"Ellen," he said. "Is it you, Ellen, or am I dreaming?"
"If you're dreaming, darling, it's a good dream, isn't it?" she asked him. She had expected to go into his arms immediately, but this was too much of a stranger and she waited.
He gripped her hands, and she felt his fingers bite into her flesh. He held her away from him, smiling foolishly, staring at her, searching every detail of her so like the big Irish sentry, looking at her the same way.
"Aren't you glad to see me, Jimmy?" she asked.
He nodded foolishly. "Yes," he said unsteadily, "yes, by God, of course. Only it's so damned impossible. I'm sorry, dear you get into the habit of swearing down here. How did you get here?"
"By train " She was nettled that he had not taken her in his arms or kissed her. "The general is father's old friend. He's proud of you the general, I mean. He says you're a fire-eater. I'm proud of you, too." She was almost in tears by now.
"I haven't kissed you!" His frayed mustache tickled her face. She closed her eyes, frightened; she was a woman married two full years, yet he was a stranger.
"Sit here,'' he said to her. "Let me look at you." He threw back the flaps of the tent, and the sunlight poured in. She was as beautiful as he had remembered. He himself was big, dirty, and awkward.
"Little girl," he said. They were foolish, inane words but all he could think of.
"I don't feel like a little girl." She was pleased again. "I'm the wife of the famous Captain James Alex. I baked some cakes for you, and they're in that basket. I shocked Mother so, being in the kitchen all day. It isn't so hot here as she said it would be."
"Not so hot." He smiled. He hadn't heard her words, only the lilt of her voice. And then he asked her, "Why did you come?"
"Why? Isn't my place with my husband?" She began to pout.
"Yes, only when are you planning to leave?"
"Do you want me to go?" Her eyes were becoming moist.
"No, of course not. I'm glad you're here. Ellen, can't you see how I feel, just sitting here and watching you? But this is no place for a woman. We're in for trouble."
"I want to bear your trouble." She did, a little of it, just enough to take back with her.
A MAN bulked into the tent opening and stood still, his eyes on her. "Peasely, this is my wife," Alex snapped. "Lieutenant Peasely."
The lieutenant tried not to stare at her. "Glad to meet you, ma'am." He wrenched his eyes away and saluted. "Have the men parade, sir?"
"When do we move?"
"Any destination, sir?"
"Sealed orders," Alex muttered irritably. "Oh, damn it, Peasely, get out of here!"
The lieutenant left hurriedly. Captain Alex said, without looking at his wife, "Don't you see, you have to go home, Ellen? Why did that fool let you come here?"
By "that fool" he meant the general, whom she remembered as a nice old man with a white beard. He had spoken very well of Captain Alex, and she didn't think that he should be called a fool. But those were only vagrant thoughts as her blue eyes began to dissolve into tears. She was not wanted here.
"You don't want me, you never wanted me!"
"No, no, try to understand, Ellen. We're a cavalry unit, a scouting feeler for the army back there. We move under sealed orders, thirty, fifty miles a day. Something's ready to break wide open, perhaps a great battle. Rumor has it that the President himself was down here, and they're getting him out of the way. Lee is south of us, but nobody seems to know exactly where. You can't stay with me. We move out of here tonight."
"But where? Tell me where?"
"I don't know, and if I did, I couldn't tell you, darling. Try to understand."
"You can't tell me," she pouted. He was wholly a stranger to her now. Suddenly, she was afraid, with nothing to support her, not even the knowledge that she was a Carrington. She wanted to be back in Bridgeport, where the war existed only in the newspapers.
"Darling, I don't want to hurt you," Alex pleaded. "I'm not my own master. I'm given orders, and I must carry them out. Someday all this will be over. Until then I'll take you to the train. There's a special train leaving at three, and perhaps I can get you onto it. That will give us an hour."
There was no spirit left in her. She was able to nod, but when he came to kiss her, she drew away, in spite of herself. She could picture the long trip homeward, the dull hours on hot trains. They would ask her about her husband, and she would have to lie. And someday he would come back to live with her a hard, cold stranger.
"I've hurt you," he said.
"Eat the cakes," she said helplessly. "They're nice. You didn't know that I could bake, did you?" "I didn't," he said.
When the hour had passed, he took her to the train. She had pictured him as saying goodby to her from his horse, bending over the saddle to kiss her, but instead he sat beside her in the hack, a quiet, tired man. She allowed him to kiss her goodby, but her lips were tense and cold.
"Ellen," he said. "I'm sorry that it had to be this way. But all I could think of was to get you out of here."
"Don't hate me, Ellen" he said desperately. "I'm doing my job; that's all I can do."
"Yes, yes!" She wanted to get away.
There was only one coach on the train, and a baggage car. They were raising steam, and the trumpet-shaped funnel of the awkward, wood-burning locomotive belched black smoke. A guard of soldiers stood in front of the single coach, and the officer in command seemed reluctant to allow Mrs. Alex aboard.
"I have a pass for her," Captain Alex insisted.
"This is a special train."
"I know. Look at my pass, it's countersigned by the general."
"My orders are to let no one aboard this train."
"You mean I can't go?" Mrs. Alex cried in alarm.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry."
THE officer snapped to attention. A passenger had stepped onto the platform of the coach, a tall, angular, bearded man, with a shawl over his bony shoulders. He still held in his hand a book which he had been reading in the coach when the argument came to his ears.
"What's the trouble, Captain?" he asked Alex.
Alex saluted. Everyone soldiers, officers, loungers were staring at the tall man now. To Mrs. Alex, he seemed vaguely familiar, but she didn't think anyone so plain-looking, so shabbily dressed, could be of importance.
"I'm sorry, sir," Alex said. "I didn't know this was your train. My wife has a pass for the first Washington express. I wanted to see her out of here safely."
"I think that can be arranged." The tall man nodded, bowing at Mrs. Alex with very homely courtesy, "Your wife won't mind riding alone in a coach with a total stranger?"
"I'm sure thank you, sir," Alex stammered.
The officer of the guard was signing her pass. Some of the soldiers went into the baggage car, while others clambered onto the pile of wood in the tender. Captain Alex tried to kiss his wife, but she drew away from him and went into the coach. She glanced back as the train started to move and saw him standing on the platform. The utter dejection in his limp stance made him look like a man already old. Mrs. Alex had a feeling of cold despair: There was no real escape; the strange, spiritless person was her husband.
She was trembling as she went into the coach. It was huge, hollow, empty, stuffy, hot. The windows were closed; the plush seats raised a layer of dust as the car rocked from side to side. The only other passenger was at the other end of the car, his long knees jackknifed up, the book on his knees. As she approached, he stood up. And now she recognized him.
He smiled to put her at her ease, and that awkward, heavy-lipped smile released the torrent in her. She forgot what a Carrington does or does not do, and she collapsed onto the dusty plush and sobbed.
The tall stranger stood, uneasy, holding the book open at the place where he had been reading. He bent over and said "If I could ease your mind in any way you know, we must all, at some time, leave those we love."
She sat up and stared at him. She had never liked him; her father had voted against him, making it plain to her that this man now standing over her was a very inferior person.
"I hate him!" she cried. "I hate him' I hate him!" She meant both the tall man and her husband. After that she settled into the plush with the stony dignity of a Carrington.
THE tall man looked at her for a moment or two, and it was hard to tell what his homely, big-featured face reflected. Then he turned, walked slowly back to his seat, and resumed his book.
The train rattled on, the two passengers sitting at opposite ends of the coach in silence the one reading his book, the other with hands clasped on the stiff folds of her skirt.
Mrs. Alex was thinking of her homecoming, which was just the beginning of a ghastly torture to be inflicted upon her for as many years as the war lasted. She thought of divorce; but no Carrington had ever been divorced. She would never be able to hold up her head again, not after two years of basking in the light of her husband's heroism.
And then another thought crept into her mind: Suppose he were killed in action?
She glanced at the tall man, as if he could read her thoughts. She felt her cheeks reddening, yet the elusive idea would not leave her alone. To be a hero's wife, yet to know that he was dead and never to return! All problems would be solved, and she would still be young enough to marry again.
As she developed the thought, it took on the appearance of a certain fact. In this horrible war so many persons were killed. And he was in the most dangerous branch of the service he had said so himself the scouting cavalry. Surely, she had only to go home and wait patiently, and sooner or later there would come from the government that letter so many of her friends had received:
"With the deepest regrets, we find it necessary to inform you?"
She smiled to herself. It was not difficult to endure the dreary monotony of the ride now. How many hours to Washington? Once there, she would be royally feted by her father's friends, not to mention the praise that would be hers for venturing right into the battle zone to be with the man she loved.
She was startled out of her reflections as the train jolted to a stop. It was late afternoon, and a hot, red sun was folding into the west.
She looked out of the window. The train had stopped in a gap between high walls of forest, and all of the space between the tracks and the woods was swarming with men in blue.
The tall man rose from his seat, came over to her and said, "I'm sure, madam, that this is nothing to be alarmed over." His long, wrinkled face tried a smile of assurance, but she ignored him.
Now an officer entered the car, followed by the captain of the train guard. He saluted the bearded man, who still held the book he had been reading, and announced: "Colonel Clarence, sir, Sixteenth Massachusetts. My apologies. I did not know this was your train. You may proceed now, if you will accept my apologies, sir?"
The tall man nodded gravely. "Why did you stop the train, Colonel?"
"We desired to put some wounded men aboard. There was a slight skirmish to the east of here, and we brought the wounded to the railroad by wagon. We have no facilities to take care of them here, sir, but I imagine there will be another train along later."
"There will be no other train today, Colonel." He closed his book and laid it on a seat beside him. "Bring your men into the car, and we will make them as comfortable as possible."
The colonel hesitated. Mrs. Alex could see that he was still bewildered by the presence of the tall, bearded, shawl-wrapped man who was her traveling companion. She wondered why they should show him such consideration, when he was so plain and awkward, mumbling his speech as if he never knew where it came from.
"Some of them are badly done in, sir," Colonel Clarence said. "You will be inconvenienced?"
"Bring them in," the tall man said, in a tone that left no room for further argument.
Mrs. Alex sat very prim, very put out, very much sickened, as they brought one wounded man after another into the car, taking the cushions off the seats and making beds for the weaker ones in the aisle. Altogether, there were sixteen men in blue and three in gray and, wounded as they were, they filled the car. The bearded man remained standing at one side, his eyes full of helpless pity, his huge, bony hands clenching and unclenching. There was nothing he could do, and he stood as far back as possible to be out of the way. But Mrs. Alex kept her seat, and the blue-clad soldiers doffed their hats and made no move to disturb her.
Finally it was done with. The sun had moved lower, and the car was dusky and full of murmurs of pain. The colonel tried to thank the bearded man, muttered a few words, and then left the car. Two army orderlies stayed with the wounded, and the train hissed and jerked and shuddered ahead once more.
There was discomfort added now to Mrs. Alex' feeling of resentment. The odor in the car was almost enough to make her retch, and the eyes of the wounded men sought her out with glances of pain and longing. But at this point, irritation and self-pity made her oblivious of any appeal. Beasts, she told herself, they and their filthy war and filthy, messy wounded.
Nothing in the newspapers or in her husband's letters had ever told her that war was like this. She resented it.
The beshawled man approached her slowly, not quite sure of himself, and said, "Madam, I know that your trip has been made unpleasant and that you have been inconvenienced, but this is a time of war. Madam, if you could give these men a little comfort.... When a boy is sick or wounded, a woman?" He saw her face and stopped, and then went slowly back to the other end of the car.
She sat primly as darkness came on, the train rumbling along, the last whisper of the sun making a pattern of pinks and purples on the cloudy Virginia sky. Some of the wounded were asleep, and for that reason the beshawled man asked that only one small light be lighted at the end of the car. In the dusk, Mrs. Alex counted the wrongs that had been inflicted upon her and held back the tears. Time dragged and prodded her with thin, poisoned needles.
AND then the train stopped again, and again Mrs. Alex heard an officer explaining the situation to the tall, homely man.
"We're sorry, sir, but your train can't go through tonight. There's some uncertainty about the track up ahead, a rumor that Stuart's been raiding down from the northwest. At any rate, the general begs that you will spend the night here, at least until we've established telegraphic communication all along the line. You can start again at daylight with the eight-twenty, which is strong enough to be secure against any raids. The general knows that he can only accede to your wishes, sir, but he begs that you will think of your own safety and remain here through the night."
Mrs. Alex saw the bearded man's head nod wearily. "These wounded men?" he asked.
"There is a plantation house about a mile from here. We have a carriage, and my men can improvise litters for the wounded."
So it is that again, Mrs. Alex thought, everything and anything to keep me here.
She was sitting very still, but inwardly seething with rage and despair, when the tall, bearded man, with the same humble courtesy, asked her to share his carriage.
"I have no choice," she said.
They sat in the carriage together and rode through the night with a blue-clad escort. They came along a driveway of sad-looking willows, to where a white, pillared plantation house loomed out of the night. The bearded man helped Mrs. Alex out of the carriage and, together with the officer who had spoken on the train, they went up to the house.
The officer knocked, and the door was opened by a Negro, who let them enter and watched them in half-frightened, half-hostile silence.
"Where is Mrs. Kennut?" the officer asked.
"She upstairs. She don' feel so good."
"You'll have to tell her there are more guests than I expected. Aside from this lady and the gentleman I spoke to her about, there are nineteen wounded men who must have shelter for the night."
"Yankees?" the Negro asked.
"Three of her own kind, tell her."
"Wait here," the Negro said. He turned and climbed slowly up the broad, curving staircase. He returned a few moments later.
"Mrs. Kennut wants dem put in the parlor. Mrs. Kennut says the lady to come upstairs en' shown to her room."
Fear came alive in Mrs. Alex, and for the first time she felt in the tall, homely, beshawled man a sense of warmth and protection. Yet she could not protest and ask to remain. She followed the Negro up the stairs into a half-lit mahogany-floored foyer, where he left her. Trembling, she tried to summon all her Carrington courage for the ordeal of facing the mistress of this lonely house in the enemy country.
At last, she heard steps in the corridor, and turned to see a woman with pale hair, a woman older than herself, clad in a faded blue gown and carrying a candle in her hand. Her expressionless eyes observed Mrs. Alex and she said, "I am Mrs. Kennut. I'll show you to your room."
Mrs. Alex followed, humble, for the first time that day, and afraid. The room was under the eaves of the house, a square room with a four-poster bed. The room had a shabby gentility.
"I presume you left your baggage in the train," Mrs. Kennut said. "You will find bedclothes in the chest." She set down the candle and then turned to the door.
Mrs. Alex started after her. "Please don't go, please. I didn't want to force myself on you. There was no place for me." It seemed to Mrs. Alex, suddenly, that there had never been any place for her in a muddled world that was beyond her understanding. At home, there had been romance in living a dream, and now even that was gone.
MRS. KENNUT looked at Mrs. Alex curiously. Mrs. Kennut's loveliness had been washed out in poverty, and her small hands had learned the meaning of work. Bitterness had left its mark in her face.
"Why do you hate me so?" Mrs. Alex asked desperately.
"You come into our land, take our homes, kill our men and you ask why we hate you."
Mrs. Alex, remembering the strange, tired person she had once married, shook her head. She had never known that this was war. In Bridgeport, her world was secure and tight and orderly.
Mrs. Kennut went out. Alone now, more alone than she had ever been, Mrs. Alex lay on the bed and tried to contemplate the eternity that had passed since she first left her home in Connecticut. For two years she had been at home and her husband had been at war; and this afternoon she had been hoping that her husband would die in battle.
"My God," she whispered, and she said that over and over again.
She lay there until the candle burned down, until the moon came up and shone in through the window. Then she got up and went downstairs.
The tall, bearded, homely man stood in the living room. He was alone now, and his loneliness matched hers. He stood in front of the windows, his bony hands clasped behind his back, and when he heard her enter he turned very slowly.
"Good evening, Mrs. Alex," he said.
She couldn't find words, because to a Carrington of Bridgeport words came less easily than anything else. But she managed to say: "Mr. Lincoln, I spoke to Mrs. Kennut."
He nodded, looking at her curiously
"I'm sorry," she said, and then she went from the room, almost running.
She found the parlor, but it took a long time for her to gather enough courage to go in to the wounded men. When she did go in, the orderlies stared at her curiously. She stood helpless in the darkened room full of broken men and Duncan Phyfe's own handwork.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"They're all right," one said. They were hardened men, both of the orderlies. III-paid, ill-educated, they worked in a morass where medicine was sixty per cent black ignorance.
"Lady," the other said maliciously, remembering the way she had sat in the train, "if you want to be sweet, there's a rebel boy dying there. Put his head in your lap and make him happy lady." He grinned at her, puffed at his pipe, and pointed the way through the sleeping, moaning men to where a gray-uniformed boy lay.
She went to him. The boy couldn't have been more than seventeen, and he was shot in the chest. She put his head in her lap and stroked his pale hair.
He was dying, but he opened his eyes and had strength enough to say, "Mother, I'm glad I came home first."
It took her a long time to connect thought with thought, pale hair with pale hair, and then the boy was dead. She covered his face, then ran for the black servant. He came back with her, held his candle low over the dead boy, and then began to cry, rocking his curly head back and forth.
The tall, homely man was still in the room where she had left him, still suffering in his own, silent way. She came very close to him before she said:
"Mr. Lincoln, the son of the woman who owns this house, Mrs. Kennut's boy, is in there dead."
He continued to look at her.
"Don't you understand? Her son, in there, dead!" She began to cry, as softly and effortlessly as the old Negro. The tall man put his arm around her shoulder, and together they went back to where the Negro still wept. The two orderlies stood at uneasy attention as the tall, homely man bent over and raised the gray-clad body in his arms.
He was very strong; he held the Confederate soldier as a woman holds her child; and Mrs. Alex led him up the stairs.
Afterward, he could only stand and reflect the hurt of others, too big, too bruising to comfort. He saw Mrs. Alex holding the other woman in her arms; he saw Mrs. Alex comfort the enemy woman who had hated her, comfort her finally to a point where she could lose some of her grief in sleep; and then, with Mrs. Alex and the old Negro to help him, he washed and laid out the body of the dead boy....
When morning came at last, Mrs. Alex went out on the veranda. She went out after a sleepless night, out to watch the sunrise. She wanted to let the sun cleanse things the blood from her hands, from her mind, and from the face of the earth.
She was still on the veranda when her husband saw her. After a night of hard riding, which included a brush with rebel raiders, he had been ordered to add his company to the guard around the house where the President stayed. He was riding up to report when he saw his wife.
He flung himself off his horse and ran to her. Her smile frightened him, for it answered his questions before he asked them. He was hot from the battle and from riding, tired and dirty; and when he took her in his arms and kissed her, he felt as she had the day before, that this woman was a stranger and not his wife.
She told him what there was to tell; it took only a few words. She said, "I'm glad you're safe. I was afraid for you." He would never know how afraid, and there were other things he would never know.
"When the train leaves, you will go home?" he asked her. She could recognize his love now, but the thing he loved was empty and useless.
"I am home," she said softly. "You and I, Jimmy, both of us. This is no strange place."
He stared at her and tried to understand who she was, what had happened in the short space of time they were separated. She reached up and touched his face, as a girl knowingly touches the face of the first man she loves.
"You must get out of this, if I have to drag you away," he said.
"All your strength couldn't drag me Jimmy." She shook her head. "We can't go, either of us. There are too many scars to heal and too much work that only a woman can do. I don't know how else to explain it." Then she said, "Hold me like you would your wife Jimmy."
She was strong as iron and soft as clay, and for that reason he was helpless. He knew her as little as she knew him yet they both knew each other better than they knew their own selves. When Captain Alex left with the tall, homely tired man who was President, his wife remained behind, and Mr. Lincoln said: "God bless you, Mrs. Alex."
Captain Alex did not look back, so he did not see his wife go into the house, to a woman who might hate her, might despise her, but would need her a great deal.