The Star of Gettysburg by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. A Christmas Dinner
After the great battle at Fredericksburg both armies seemed to suffer somewhat from reaction. Besides, the winter deepened. There was more snow, more icy rain, and more hovering of the temperature near the zero mark. The vast sea of mud increased, and the swollen Rappahannock, deep at any time, flowed between the two armies. Pickets often faced one another across the stream, sometimes firing, but oftener exchanging the news, when the river was not too wide for the shouted voice to reach.
Harry, despite his belief that the North would hold out, heard now that the hostile section had sunk into deep depression. The troops had not been paid for six months. Desertion into the interior went on on a great scale. One commander-in-chief after another had failed. After Antietam it had seemed that success could be won, but the South had come back stronger than ever and had won Fredericksburg, inflicting appalling loss upon the North. Yet he heard that Lincoln never flinched. The tall, gaunt, ugly man, telling his homely jokes, had more courage than anybody who had yet led the Union cause.
Harry often went down to Fredericksburg, where some houses still stood among the icy ruins. A few families had returned, but as the town was still practically under the guns of the Northern army, it was left chiefly to the troops.
The Invincibles were stationed here, and Harry and Dalton got leave to spend Christmas day with its officers. Nothing could bring more fully home to him the appalling waste and ruin of war than the sight of Fredericksburg. Mud, ice and snow were deeper than ever in the streets. Many of the houses had been demolished by cannon balls and fire, and only fragments of them lay about the ground. Others had been wrecked but partially, with holes in the roofs and the windows shot out. The white pillars in front of colonnaded mansions had been shattered and the fallen columns lay in the icy slough. Long icicles hung from the burned portions of upper floors that still stood.
Used to war's ruin as he had become, Harry's eyes filled with tears at the sight. It seemed a city dead, but not yet buried. But on Christmas day his friends and he resolutely dismissed gloom, and, first making a brave pretence, finally succeeded in having real cheerfulness in a fine old brick house which had been pretty well shot up, but which had some sound rooms remaining. Its owner had sent word that, while he could not yet come back to it with his family, he would be glad if the Southern army would make use of it in his absence.
It was in this house that the little colony of friends gathered, everyone bringing to the dinner what he could. Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire occupied the great sitting room on the ground floor, and here the dinner would be spread, as a part of the dining-room had been shot away and was still wet from snow and rain.
But the sitting room gladdened the eye. A heavy imported carpet covered the central portion of the polished oaken floor. Old family portraits lined its walls and those of the parlor adjoining it. Curtains hung at the windows. They were more or less discolored by smoke and other agencies, but they were curtains. All about the chamber were signs of wealth and cultivation, and a great fire of wood was burning in a huge chimney under a beautifully carved oaken mantelpiece.
The room seemed to remain almost as it had been left by the owner, save that two one-hundred-pound cannon balls, fired by the Union guns into Fredericksburg, were lying by either side of the door.
"Tickets, sir," said Langdon, as Harry appeared at the door.
Harry drew from under his cloak two boxes of sardines which he had taken from a deserted sutler's wagon on the field of Fredericksburg. He handed them to Langdon, who said:
"Pass in, most welcome guest."
Harry was the first arrival, but Dalton was next.
"Tickets double price to all Virginia Presbyterians," said Langdon.
"Instead of a double ticket here are two singles," said Dalton, as he drew from under his cloak two fine dressed chickens. "Don't these take me in?"
"They certainly do. Go in on the jump, Dalton."
The next arrival was Sherburne, who brought a five-pound bag of coffee. Then came the two colonels together, one with the half of a side of bacon, and the other with a twenty-pound bag of flour. More followed, bringing like tickets that were perfectly good, and it seemed that all the invited ticket holders were in, when a big black man on a big black horse rode up and saluted Langdon respectfully. He held out a pass.
"This pass am from Gen'ral Jackson," he said.
"Am it?" said Langdon, looking at the pass, "Yes, it am."
"Is you the orf'cer in command of this yere house?" asked the colored man, his wide mouth parting in an enormous grin that showed his magnificent white teeth.
"For the present I am, Sir Knight of the Dark but Kind Countenance. What wouldst thou?"
The man scratched his head and looked doubtfully at Langdon.
"Guess you're asking me some kind of a question, sah?"
"I am. Who art thou? Whence comest thou, Sir Knight of Nubia? Bearest thou upon thy person some written token, or, as you would say in your common parlance, what's your business?"
"Oh, I see, sah. Yes, sah, I done got a lettah from Mr. Theophilus Moncrieffe. That's the owner of this house, and I belong to him. I'se Caesar Moncrieffe. Here's the lettah, sah."
He handed a folded paper to Harry, who opened and read it. It was addressed to the chief of whatever officers might be occupying his house, and it ran thus, somewhat in the old-fashioned way:
SIRS AND GENTLEMEN:
The bearer of this is Caesar Moncrieffe. He and his ancestors have been servants of my family and my ancestors in the State of Virginia for more than two hundred years. He is a good man, as were his father and grandfather before him. He will not steal unless he should think it for his benefit or yours. He will not lie unless convinced of its necessity. He will work if you make him.
All of his impulses are good, and though he will strenuously deny it at first, he is about the best cook in the world. Knowing the scarcity of nutritious food in the army, I have therefore sent him to you with what I could gather together, in order that he might cook you a dinner worthy of Christmas. Put him to work, and if he disobeys, shuffles or evades in any manner, hit him over the head with anything that you can find hard enough or heavy enough to make an impression.
Wishing the Army of Northern Virginia the continued and brilliant success that has attended it heretofore,
Your most obedient servant,
"Ah, Sir Knight of the Dark but not Rueful Countenance, thou art doubly welcome!" said Happy Tom, now thrice-happy Tom. "It is a stout and goodly horse from which thou hast dismounted, and I see that he yet carries on his back something besides the saddle. But let me first speak to my Lord Talbot, our real commander, who is within."
Caesar did not wholly understand, but he saw that Langdon meant well, and he grinned. Happy Tom rushed toward Colonel Talbot, who stood before the fire with Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire.
"Colonel Talbot! Colonel Talbot, sir!" he exclaimed.
"What is it, Thomas, my lad? You appear to be excited, and that is not seemly in a soldier of your experience."
"But, Colonel, this isn't a battle. Of course, I wouldn't let myself be stirred up by the Yankees, but it's a dinner, Colonel! It's a Christmas dinner, and it bears all the signs of being as fine as any we ever ate in the old times of peace!"
"Thomas, my lad, I regret it, but I must say that you are talking in a much more light-headed way than usual. All that we had we brought with us, and your young brother officers, who I must say excel you in industry, are now assembling it."
"But, Colonel, there's a big black fellow outside. He's just come in with a loaded horse, belonging to the owner of this house, and he's brought a letter with him. Read it, sir."
Colonel Talbot gravely read the letter and passed it to Lieutenant- Colonel St. Hilaire, who read it with equal gravity.
"Sounds well, eh, Hector?" Colonel Talbot said.
"Most excellent, Leonidas."
They went to the door with Happy Tom, and again Caesar saluted respectfully.
"You are welcome, Caesar," said Colonel Talbot. "I am commander here. What has your kind master sent us?"
Caesar bowed low before the two colonels and then proceeded to unload his horse. The young officers had come crowding to the door, but Happy Tom received the first package, which was wrapped in sacking.
"An old Virginia ham, nut-fed and sugar-cured!" he exclaimed. "Yes, it's real! By all the stars and the sun and the moon, too, it's real, because I'm pinching it! I thought I'd never see another such ham again!"
"And here's a dressed turkey, a twenty-pounder at least!" said Harry. "Ah, you noble bird! What better fate could you find than a tomb in the stomachs of brave Confederate soldiers!"
"And another turkey!" said Dalton.
"And a bag of nuts!" said Sherburne.
"And, as I live, two bottles of claret!" said St. Claire.
"And a big black cake!" said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
"And a great bunch of holly!" said Colonel Talbot, in whose eye, usually so warlike, a large tear stood.
"Dat," said Caesar, "was sent by little Miss Julia Moncrieffe, just nine years old. She wished she had a bunch for every soldier in the army, an' she sent her lub to all uv 'em."
"God bless little Julia Moncrieffe, aged nine," said Colonel Talbot, much moved.
"God bless her, so say we all of us," the others added together.
"And now, Caesar," said Colonel Talbot, "put your horse in the part of the stable that remains. I noticed some hay there which you can give to him. Then come to the kitchen. Mr. Moncrieffe, whose name be praised, says that you're the best cook since those employed by Lucullus. It's great praise, Caesar, but in my opinion it's none too great."
Caesar, highly flattered, led his horse to the stable, and the approving looks of the youths followed him.
"Sometimes I've had my doubts about Santa Claus" said Happy Tom.
"So have I," said St. Clair, "but like you I have them no longer."
"And there's a curious thing about this restoration of our belief in Santa Claus," said Dalton.
"Since we see him in person we all observe the fact," said Harry.
"That he is a very large man."
"Six feet two at the very least."
"Weight about two twenty, and all of it bone and muscle."
"And he is coal black."
"So black that even on a dark night he would seem to be clothed around with light."
"Why did it never occur to anybody before that Santa Claus was a very black, black man?"
"Because we are the first who have ever seen him in the flesh."
Caesar stabled his horse, went to the kitchen, where he lighted a fire in the big stove, and fell to work with a will and a wonderful light-handed dexterity that justified Mr. Moncrieffe's praise of him. The younger officers helped in turn, but in the kitchen they willingly allowed to Caesar his rightful position as lord and master.
Delicious aromas arose. The luxury of the present was brightened by the contrast with the hardships and hunger of two years. More than twenty officers were present, and by putting together three smaller tables they made a long one that ran full length down the center of the sitting-room.
"We'll save a portion of what we have for friends not so fortunate," said Colonel Talbot.
"You have always had a generous heart, Leonidas," said Lieutenant- Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
"We have much for others and much for ourselves. But many of our friends and many thousands of the brave Southern youth have gone, Hector. However, we will not speak of that to-day, and we will try not to think of it, as we are here to celebrate this festival with the gallant lads who are still living."
Caesar proved to be all that his master had promised and all that they had hoped. No better Christmas dinner was eaten that day in the whole United States. Invincible youth was around the board, and the two colonels lent dignity to the gathering, without detracting from its good cheer.
The table had been set late, and soon the winter twilight was approaching. As they took another slice of ham they heard the boom of a cannon on the far side of the Rappahannock. Harry went to the window and saw the white smoke rising from a point about three miles away.
"They can't be firing on us, can they, sir?" he said to Colonel Talbot. "They wouldn't do it on a day like this."
"No. There are two reasons. We're so far apart that it would be a waste of good powder and steel, and they would not violate Christmas in that manner. We and the Yankees have become too good friends for such outrageous conduct. If I may risk a surmise, I think it is merely a Christmas greeting."
"I think so, too, sir. Listen, there goes a cannon on our side."
"It will be answered in a few moments. The favorite Biblical numbers are seven and twelve, and I take it that each side will fire either seven or twelve shots. It is certainly a graceful compliment from the Yankees, befitting the season. I should not have said a year ago that they would show so much delicacy and perception."
"I think that the number of shots on each side will be twelve," said Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire. "It's three apiece now, isn't it?"
"Yes, three apiece," said Colonel Talbot.
"Four now," said Sherburne.
"Five now," said Dalton.
"Six now," said St. Clair.
"Seven now," said Harry.
"Eight now," said Happy Tom.
"And seven has been passed," said Colonel Talbot. "It will surely be twelve."
All were silent now, counting under their breath, and they felt a certain extraordinary solemnity as they counted. Harry knew that both armies, far up and down the river, were counting those shots, as the little group in the Moncrieffe house were counting them. Certainly there would be no hostilities on that day.
"Nine," they said under their breath.
Then they listened, as the echo of the twelfth Southern shot died away on the stream, and no sound came after it. Twenty-four shots had been fired, twelve by each army, conveying Christmas good wishes, and the group in the house went back to their dinner. Some glasses had been found, and there was a thimbleful of wine, enough for everyone. The black cake was cut, and at a word from Colonel Talbot all rose and drank a toast to the mothers and wives and sweethearts and sisters they had left behind them.
Then the twilight thickened rapidly and the winter night came down upon them, hiding the ruined town, the blackened walls, the muddy streets and the icicles hanging from scorched timbers.
Caesar Moncrieffe washed all the dishes--those left in the house had been sufficient for their purpose--wiped them carefully, and returned them to the cupboard. Then he announced that he must go.
"Come now, Santa Claus," said Happy Tom, "you must stay here. You've done enough for one day. In fact, I should say that you've earned a week's rest."
"I ain't no Santy Claus," said Caesar, "but I done got to git back to Massa Moncrieffe. He'll be expectin' me."
"But you'll get lost in the dark. Besides, some Yankee scout may shoot the top of your head off."
"You can't lose me anywhar' roun' here. 'Sides, I kin dodge them Yankees every time. On a dark night like this I could go right up the gullies and through the biggest army in the world without its seein' me."
Caesar felt that he was bound to go, and all the officers in turn shook his big rough black hand. Then they saw him ride away in the darkness, armed with his pass from General Jackson, and on the lookout for any prowling Yankees who might have ventured on the right bank of the river.
"Isn't it odd, Colonel," said Harry to Colonel Talbot, "that so many of our colored people regard the Yankees who are trying now to free them as enemies, while they look upon us as their best friends?"
"Propinquity and association, Harry," replied Colonel Talbot, "and in the border states, at least, we have seldom been cruel to them. I hope there has been little of cruelty, too, in my own South Carolina. They are used to our ways, and they turn to us for the help that is seldom refused. The Northerner will always be a stranger to them, and an unsympathetic stranger, because there is no personal contact, none of that 'give and take' which makes men friends."
"What a pity we didn't free 'em ourselves long ago!"
"Yes, it is. I say this to you in confidence now, Harry. Of course, I would be denounced by our people if I said it. But many of our famous men, Harry, have not approved of it. The great Washington said slavery, with its shiftless methods of farming, was draining the life out of the land, and he was right. Haven't we seen the 'old fields' of Virginia?"
"And Clay was against it, too," said Harry; "but I suppose it's one of the things we're now fighting for, unless we should choose to liberate them ourselves after defeating the North."
"I suppose so," said Colonel Talbot, "but I am no politician or statesman. My trade unfits me for such matters. I am a West Pointer--a proud and glorious fact I consider it, too--but the life of a regular army officer makes him a man set apart. He is not really in touch with the nation. He cannot be, because he has so little personal contact with it. For that reason West Pointers should never aspire to public office. It does not suit them, and they seldom succeed in it. But here, I'm becoming a prosy old bore. Come into the house, lad. The boys are growing sentimental. Listen to their song. It's the same, isn't it, that some of our bands played at Bull Run?"
"Yes, sir, it is," replied Harry, as he joined the others in the song:
"The hour was sad, I left the maid A lingering farewell taking, Her sighs and tears my steps delayed I thought her heart was breaking. "In hurried words her name I blessed, I breathed the vows that bind me, And to my heart in anguish pressed The girl I left behind me."
Most all the officers had leave for the full day. Harry and Dalton in fact were to stay overnight at the house, and, forgetful of the war, they sang one song after another as the evening waned. At nine o'clock all the guests left save Harry and Dalton.
"You and Langdon will show them to their bedrooms," said Colonel Talbot. "Take the candle. The rest of us can sit here by the firelight."
There was but a single candle, and it was already burning low, but Happy Tom and Arthur, shielding it from draughts, led the way to the second floor.
"Most of the houses were demolished by cannon shot and fire," said Langdon, "but we've a habitable room which we reserve for guests of high degree. You will note here where a cannon shot, the result of plunging fire, came slantingly through the roof and passed out at the wall on the other side. You need not get under that hole if it should rain or snow, and meanwhile it serves splendidly for ventilation. The rip in the wall serves the same purpose, and, of course, you have too much sense to fall through it. Some blankets are spread there in the corner, and as you have your heavy cloaks with you, you ought to make out. Sorry we can't treat you any better, Sir Harry of Kentucky and Sir George of Virginia, but these be distressful times, and the best the castle affords is put at your service."
"And I suspect that it's really the best," said Harry to Dalton, as St. Clair and Langdon went out. "There's straw under these blankets, George, and we've got a real bed."
The moonlight shone through two windows and the cannon-shot hole, and it was bright in the room.
"Here's a little bureau by the wall," said Dalton, "and as I intend to enjoy the luxury of undressing, I'm going to put my clothes in it, where they'll keep dry. You'll notice that all the panes have been shot out of those windows, and a driving rain would sweep all the way across the room."
"Now and then a good idea springs up in some way in that old head of yours, George. I'll do the same."
Dalton opened the top drawer.
"Something has been left here," he said.
He held up a large doll with blue eyes and yellow hair.
"As sure as we're living," said Harry, "we're in the room of little Miss Julia Moncrieffe, aged nine, the young lady who sent us the holly. Evidently they took away all their clothing and lighter articles of furniture, but they forgot the doll. Put it back, George. They'll return to Fredericksburg some day and we want her to find it there."
"You're right, Harry," said Dalton, as he replaced the doll and closed the drawer. "You and I ought to be grateful to that little girl whom we may never see."
"We won't forget," said Harry, as he undressed rapidly and lay down upon their luxurious bed of blankets and straw.
Neither of them remembered anything until they were dragged into the middle of the room next morning by St. Clair and Langdon.
"Here! here! wake up! wake up!" cried Langdon. "It's not polite to your hosts to be snoring away when breakfast is almost ready. Go down on a piece of the back porch that's left, and you'll find two pans of cold water in which you can wash your faces. It's true the pans are frozen over, but you can break the ice, and it will remind you of home and your little boyhood."
They sprang up and dressed as rapidly as they could, because when they came from the covers they found it icy cold in the room. Then they ran down, as they had been directed, broke the ice in the pans and bathed their faces.
"Fine air," said Harry.
"Yes, but too much of it," said Dalton.
"Br-h-h-h-h, how it freezes me! Look at the icicles, George! I think some new ones came to town last night! And what a cold river! I don't believe there was ever a colder-looking river than the Rappahannock!"
"And see the fogs and mists rising from it, too. It looks exactly as it did the morning of the battle."
"Let it look as it pleases," said Harry. "I'm going to make a dash for the inside and a fire!"
They found the colonels and the rest of the staff in the sitting-room, all except two, who were acting as cooks, but their work ceased in a moment or two, as breakfast was ready. It consisted of coffee and bread and ham left over from the night before. A heap of timber glowed in the fireplace and shot forth ruddy flames. Harry's soul fairly warmed within him.
"Sit down, all of you," said Colonel Talbot, "and we'll help one another."
They ate with the appetite of the soldier, and Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, finishing first, withdrew to a wide window seat. There they produced the board and box of chessmen and proceeded to rearrange them exactly as they were before the battle of Fredericksburg.
"You will recall that your king was in great danger, Leonidas," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire.
"Truly I do, Hector, but I do not think it beyond my power to rescue him."
"It will be a hard task, Leonidas."
"Hector, I would have you to remember that I am an officer in the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Army of Northern Virginia prefers hard tasks to easy ones."
"You put the truth happily, Leonidas, but I must insist that your position is one of uncommon danger."
"I recognize the fact fully, Hector, but I assert firmly that I will rescue my red king."
Harry, his part of the work finished, watched them. The two gray heads bent lower and lower over the table until they almost touched. Everybody maintained a respectful silence. Colonel Talbot's brow was corded deeply with thought. It was a full quarter of an hour before he made a move, and then his opponent looked surprised.
"That does not seem to be your right move, Leonidas."
"But it is, Hector, as you will see presently."
"Very well. I will now choose my own course."
Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire's own brow became corded and knotted as he put his whole mental energy upon the problem. Harry watched them a little while, and then strolled over to the other window, where St. Clair was looking at the ruined town.
"Curious how people can find entertainment in so slow a game," he said, nodding toward the two colonels.
"That same game has been going on for more than a year," said St. Clair, with a slight smile. "It's odd how something always breaks it up. I wonder what it will be this time. But it's an intelligent game, Harry."
"I don't think a sport is intellectual, merely because it is slow."
Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire made a move, Colonel Leonidas Talbot made another, and then promptly uttered a little cry of triumph.
"My king is free! He is free! You made no royal capture, Hector!" he exclaimed joyously.
"It is so, Leonidas. I did not foresee your path of retreat. I must enter upon a new campaign against you."
Harry, who was looking toward the heights on the other side of the river, saw a flash of flame and a puff of smoke. A rumbling noise came to him.
"What is it, Harry?" asked Colonel Talbot.
"A Yankee cannon. I suppose it was telling us Christmas is over. The ball struck somewhere in Fredericksburg."
"A waste of good ammunition. Why, they've done all the damage to Fredericksburg that they can do. It's your move, Hector."
Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire corded and knotted his brow again, and once more the two heads nearly met over the chessboard. A whistling sound suddenly came from the street without. Something struck with a terrible impact, and then followed a blinding flash and roar. The whole house shook and several of the men were thrown down, but in a half minute they sprang to their feet.
Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire were standing erect, staring at each other. The chessmen were scattered on the floor and the board was split in half. A fragment of the exploding shell had entered the window and passing directly between them had done the damage. The same piece had gone entirely through the opposite wall.
Harry's quick glance told him that nothing had suffered except the chessboard. He sprang forward, picked up the two halves, and said:
"No real harm has been done. Two strips underneath, a few tacks, and it's as good again as ever."
The other lads carefully gathered up the scattered chessmen and announced that not one of them was injured.
"Thank you, boys," said Colonel Talbot. "It is a pleasing thing to see that, despite the war, the young still show courtesy to their elders. You will bear in mind, Hector, when this game is resumed at a proper time and place, that the position of one of your knights was very delicate."
"Assuredly I will not forget it, Leonidas. It will be no trouble to either of us to replace them exactly as they were at a moment's notice."
Harry and Dalton were compelled now to return to General Jackson, and they did so, after leaving many thanks with their generous hosts. Heavy winter rains began. The country on both sides of the Rappahannock became a vast sea of mud, and the soldiers had to struggle against all the elements, because the rains were icy and the mud formed a crust through which they broke in the morning.
While they lingered here news came of the great battle in the West, fought on the last day of the old year and the first day of the new, along the banks of Stone River. Harry and his comrades looked for a triumph there like that which they had won, and they were deeply disappointed when they heard the result.
Harry had a copy of a Richmond paper and he was reading from it to an attentive circle, but he stopped to comment:
"Ours was the smaller army, but we drove them back and held a part of the field. Two or three days later we withdrew to Chattanooga. Well, I don't call it much of a victory to thump your enemy and then go away, leaving him in possession of the field."
"But the enemy was a third more numerous than we were," said Happy Tom, "and since it looks like a draw, so far as the fighting was concerned, we, being the smaller, get the honors."
"That's just the trouble," said Dalton gravely. "We are loaded down with honors. Look at the great victories we've won in the East! Has anything solid come of them? Here is the enemy on Virginia soil, just as he was before. We've given the Army of the Potomac a terrible thrashing at Fredericksburg, but there it is on the other side of the Rappahannock, just as strong as ever, and maybe stronger, because they say recruits are pouring into it."
"Stop! Stop, Dalton!" said Happy Tom. "We don't want any lecture from you. We're just having a conversation."
"All right," said Dalton, laughing, "but I gave you my opinion."
Days of comparative idleness followed. The Army of the Potomac moved farther up the river and settled itself around the village of Falmouth. The Army of Northern Virginia faced it, and along the hillsides the young Southern soldiers erected sign posts, on the boards of which were painted, in letters large enough for the Union glasses to see, the derisive words:
THIS WAY TO RICHMOND