The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter VII. Pomp and Circumstances of Glorious War.
But man, proud man, Dressed in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assured, * * * * * Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven As make the angels weep, who, with our spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal. --Measure for Measure
"Abe, you remember how that man who made the speech when our colors were presented to us talked of 'the swelling hearts of our volunteers,' don't you?" said Kent Edwards, as he and Abe Bolton lounged near the parade-ground one fine afternoon, shortly after the arrival of the regiment in camp of instruction. "You remember that that was his favorite figure of rhetoric, and he repeated it several times?"
"Don't know anything about figger of retterick," growled Abe, who, his comrades said, had the evenest temper in the regiment, "for he was always mad. But I do remember that he said that over several times, with a lot o' other things without much pint to 'em, until I thought I'd drop, I was so thirsty and tired."
"Yes? Well, now if you want to get a good idea of what that expression meant, look over there. Not only his heart swells, but he swells all over."
"I should think he did," replied Abe, after a moment's inspection. "Unless his hat has an Injy-rubber band, he'll have to git it cut offen his head, which ought to be hooped, for it can't swell no more without busting."
It was Jacob Alspaugh crossing the parade ground in more than Solomonic splendor of uniform. His inflated form bore upon it all the blue and tinsel prescribed by the Army Regulations for the raiment and insignia of a First Lietenant of Infantry, with such additions as had been suggested by his exuberant fancy. His blue broadcloth was the finest and shiniest. Buttons and bugles seemed masses of barbric gold. From broad-brimmed hat floated the longest ostrich feather procurable in the shops. Shining leather boots, field-marshal pattern, came above his knees. Yellow gauntlets covered his massive hands and reached nearly to his elbows, and on his broad shoulders were great glittering epaulets--then seldom worn by anyone, and still more rarely by volunteer officers. He evidently disdained to hide the crimson glories of his sash in the customary modest way, by folding it under his belt, but had made of it a broad bandage for his abdominal regions, which gae him the appearance of some gigantic crimson-breasted blue-bird. Behind him trailing, clanking on the ground as he walked, not the modest little sword of his rank, but a long cavalry saber, with glittering steel scabbard. But the sheen of gold and steel was dimmed beside the glow of intense satisfaction with hs make-up that shone in his face. There might be alloy in his gleaming buttons and bullion epaulets; there was none in his happiness.
"I feel sorry for the poor lilies of the field that he comes near," sighed Kent, sympathetically. "He is like them now, in neither toiling nor spinning, and yet how ashamed he must make them of their inferior rainment."
"Faugh! it makes me sick to see a dunghill like that strutting around in feathers that belong to game birds."
"O, no; no game bird ever wore such plumage as that. You must be thinking of a peacock, or a bird-of-paradise."
"Well, then, blast it, I hate to see a peacock hatched all at once out of a slinking, roupy, barnyard rooster."
"O, no; since circuses are out of the question now, we ought to be glad of so good a substitute. It only needs a brass band, with some colored posters, to be a genuine grand entry, with street parade."
Alspaugh's triumphal march had now brought him within a few feet of them, but they continued to lounge indifferently on the musket box upon which they had been sitting, giving a mere nod as recognition of his presence, and showing no intention of rising to salute.
The glow of satisfaction faded from Alspaugh's horizon, and a cloud overcast it.
"Here, you fellers," he said angrily, "why don't ye git up an' saloot? Don't ye know your business yit?"
"What business, Jake?" asked Kent Edwards, absently, paying most attention to a toad which had hopped out form the cover of a budock leaf, in search of insects for his supper.
Alspaugh's face grew blacker. "The business of paying proper respect to your officers."
"It hasn't occured to me that I am neglecting anything in that line," said Kent, languidly, shifting over to recline upon his left elbow, and with his right hand gathering up a little gravel to flip at the toad; "but maybe you are better acquainted with our business than we are."
Abe contributed to the dialogue a scornful laugh, indicative of a most heartless disbelief in his superior officer's superior intellectuality.
The dark cloud burst in storm: "Don't you know," said Alspaugh, angry in every fiber, "that the reggerlations say that 'when an enlisted man sees an officer approach, he will rise and saloot, and remain standin' and gazin' in a respectful manner until the officer passes five paces beyond him?' Say, don't you know that?"
Kent Edwards flipped a bit of gravel with such good aim that it struck the toad fairly on the head, who blinked his bright eyes in surprise, and hopped back to his covert. "I am really glad," said he, "to know that you have learned something of the regulations. Now, don't say another word about it until I run down to the company quarters and catch a fellow for a bet, who wants to put up money that you can never learn a single sentence of them. Don't say another word, and you can stand in with me on the bet."
"Had your head measured since you got this idea into it?" asked Abe Bolton, with well-assumed interest.
"If he did, he had to use a surveyor's chain," suggested Kent, flipping another small pebble in the direction of the toad's retreat.
Alspaugh had grown so great upon the liberal feed of the meat of flattery, that he could hardly make himself believe that he had heard aright, and that these men did not care a fig for himself or his authority. Then recovering confidence in the fidelity of their ears, it seemed to him that such conduct was aggravated mutiny, which military discipline demanded should receive condign punishment on the spot. Had he any confidence in his ability to use the doughy weapon at his side, he would not have resisted the strong temptation to draw his sword and make an example then and there of the contemners of his power and magnificence. But the culprits has shown such an aptitude in the use of arms as to inspire his wholesome respect, and he was very far from sure that they might not make a display of his broadsword an occasion for heaping fresh ridicule upon him. An opportune remembrance came to his aid:
"If it wasn't for the strcit orders we officers got yesterday not to allow ourselves to be provoked under any circumstances into striking our men, I'd learn you fellers mighty quick not to insult your superior officers. I'd bring you to time, I can tell you. But I'll settle with you yit. I'll have you in the guard hose on bread and water in short meter, and then I'll learn you to be respectful and obedient."
"He means 'teach,' instead of 'learn,'" said Kent, apologetically, to Abe. "It's just awful to have a man, wearing shoulder-straps, abuse English grammar in that way. What's grammar done to him to deserve such treatment? He hasn't even a speaking acquaintance with it."
"I 'spose it's because grammar can't hit back. That's the kind he always picks on," answered Abe.
"You'll pay for this," shouted Alspaugh, striding off after the Seargent of the Guard.
At that moment a little drummer appeared by the flagstaff, and beat a lively rataplan.
"That's for dress-parade," said Kent Edwards, rising. "We'd better skip right over to quarters and fall in."
"Wish their dress-parades were in the brimstone flames," growled Abe Bolton, as he rose to accompany his comrade. "All they're for is to stand up as a background, to show off a lot of spruce young officers dressed in fancy rigs."
"Well," said Kent, lightly, as they walked along, "I kind of like that; don't you? We make picturesque backgrounds, don't we? you and I, especially you, the soft, tender, lithe and willowy; and I, the frowning, rugged and adamantine, so to speak. I think the background business is our best hold."
He laughed heartily at his own sarcasm, but Abe was not to be moved by such frivolity, and answered glumly:
"O, yes; laugh about it, if you choose. That's your way: giggle over everything. But when I play background, I want it to be with something worth while in the foreground. I don't hanker after making myself a foil to show off such fellers as our officers are, to good advantage."
"That don't bother me any more than it does a mountain to serve as a background for a nanny goat and a pair of sore-eyed mules!"
"Yes, but the mountain sometimes has an opportunity to drop an avalanche on 'em."
At this point of the discussion they arrived at the company grounds, and had scarcely time to snatch up their guns and don their belts before the company moved out to take its place in the regimental line.
The occasion of Lieutenant Alspaugh's elaborate personal ornamentation now manifested itself. By reason of Captain Bennett's absence, he was in command of the company, and was about to make his first appearance on parade in that capacity. Two or three young women, of the hollyhock order of beauty, whom he was very anxious to impress, had been brought to camp, to witness his apotheosis into a commanding officer.
The moment, however, that he placed himself at the head of the company and drew sword, the chill breath of distrust sent the mercury of his self-confidence down to zero. It looked so easy to command a company when some one else was doing it; it was hard when he tried it himself. All the imps of confusion held high revel in his mind when he attempted to give the orders which he had conned until he supposed he had them "dead-letter perfect." he felt his usually-unfailing assurance shrivel up under the gaze of hundreds of mercilessly critical eyes. He managed to stammer out:
"Attention, company! Forward, file right, march!"
But as the company began to execute the order, it seemed to be going just the opposite to what he had commanded, and he called out excitedly:
"Not that way! Not that way! I said 'file right,' and you're going left."
"We are filing right," answered some in the company. "You're turned around; that's what's the matter with you."
So it was. He had forgotten that when standing facing the men, he must give them orders in reverse from what the movement appeared to him. This increased his confusion, until all his drill knowledge seemed gone from him. The sight of his young lady friends, clad in masses of primary colors, stimulated him to a strong effort to recover his audacity, and bracing himself up, he began calling out the guide and step, with a noisy confidence that made him heard all over the parade ground:
"Left! left! left! Hep! hep! hep! Cast them head and eyes to the right!"
Trouble loomed up mountainously as he approached the line. Putting a company into its place on parade is one of the crucial tests of tactical proficiency. To march a company to exactly the right spot, with every man keeping his proper distance from his file-leader--"twenty-eight inches from back to breast," clear down the column, so that when the order "front" was given, every one turns, as if on pivot, and touches elbows with those on each side of him, in a straight, firm wall of men, without any shambling "closing up," or "side-stepping" to the right or left,--to do all this at word of command, looks very simple and easy to the non-military spectator, as many other very difficult things look simple and easy to the inexperienced. But really it is only possible to a thoroughly drilled company, held well in hand by a competent commander. It is something that, if done well, is simply done well, but if not done well, is very bad. It is like an egg that is either good or utterly worthless.
Alspaugh seemed fated to exhaust the category of possible mistakes. Coming on the ground late he found that a gap had been left in the line for his company which was only barely sufficient to receive it when it was aligned and compactly "dressed."
In his nervousness he halted the company before it had reached the right of the gap by ten paces, and so left about one-quarter of the company lapping over on the one to his left. Even this was done with an unsightly jumble. His confusion as to the reversal of right and left still abode with him. He commanded "right face" instead of "front," and was amazed to see the whole one hundred well-drilled men whirl their backs around to the regiment and the commanding officer. A laugh rippled down the ranks of the other companies; even the spectators smiled, and something sounded like swearing by the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major.
Alspaugh lifted his plumed hat, and wiped the beaded perspiration from his brow with the back of one of the yellow gauntlets.
"Order an 'about face,'" whispered the Orderly-Sergeant, whose face was burning with shame at the awkward position in which the company found itself.
"About--face!" gasped Alspaugh.
The men turned on their heels.
"Side-step to the right," whispered the Orderly.
"Side-step to the right," repeated Alspaugh, mechanically.
The men took short side-steps, and following the orders which Alspaugh repeated from the whispered suggestions of the Orderly, the company came clumsily forward into its place, "dressed," and "opened ranks to the rear." When at the command of "parade-rest," Alspaugh dropped his saber's point to the ground, he did it with the crushed feeling of a strutting cock which has been flung into the pond and emerges with dripping feathers.
He raised his heart in sincere thanksgiving that he was at last through, for there was nothing more for him to do during the parade, except to stand still, and at its conclusion the Orderly would have to march the company back to its quarters.
But his woes had still another chapter. The Inspector-General had come to camp to inspect the regiment, and he was on the ground.
Forty years of service in the regular army, with promotion averaging one grade every ten years, making him an old man and a grandfather before he was a Lieutenant-Colonel, had so surcharged Col. Murbank's nature with bitterness as to make even the very air in his vicinity seem roughly astringent. The wicked young Lieutenants who served with him on the Plains used to say that his bark was worse than his bite, because no reasonable bite could ever be so bad as his bark. They even suggested calling him "Peruvian Bark," because a visit to his quarters was worse than a strong does of quinia.
"Yeth, that'th good," said the lisping wit of the crowd. "Evely bite ith a bit, ain't it? And the wortht mutht be a bitter, ath he ith."
The Colonel believed tha the whole duty of man consisted in loving the army regulations, and in keeping their commandments. The best part of all virtue was to observe them to the letter; the most abhorrent form of vice, to violate or disregard even their minor precepts.
His feelings were continually lacerated by contact with volunteers, who cared next to nothing for the form of war-making, but everything for its spirit, and the martinet heart within him was bruised and sore when he came upon the ground to inspect the regiment.
Alspaugh's blundering in bringing the company into line awakened this ire from a passivity to activity.
"I'll have that dunderhead's shoulder-straps off inside of a fortnight," he muttered between his teeth.
The unhappy Lietenant's inability to even stand properly during the parade, or repeat an order intensified his rage. When the parade was dismissed the officers, as usual, sheathed their swords, and forming a line with the Adjutant in the center, marched forward to teh commanding and inspecting officers, and saluted. Then the wrath of the old Inspector became vocable.
"What in God's name," he roared, fixing his glance upon Alspaugh so unmistakably that enve the latter's rainbow-clad girls, who had crowded up closely, could not make a mistake as to the victim of the expletives. "What in God's name, sir," repeated the old fellow with purpling face, "do you mean by bringing your company on to the ground in that absurd way, sir? Did you think, sir, that it was a hod of brick--with which I have no doubt you are most familiar--that you could dump down any place and any how, sir? Such misconduct is simply disgraceful, sir, I'd have you know. Simply disgraceful, sir."
He paused for breath, but Alspaugh had no word of defense to offer.
"And what do you mean, sir," resumed the Inspector, after inflating his lungs for another gust, "what in the name of all the piebald circus clowns that ever jiggered around on sawdust, do you mean by coming on parade dressed like the ringmaster of a traveling monkey-show, sir? Haven't you any more idea of the honor of wearing a United States sword--the noblest weapon on earth, sir--than to make yourself look like the drum-major of a band of nigger minstrels, sir! A United States officer ought to be ashamed to make a damned harlequin of himself, sir. I'd have you to understand that most distinctly, sir!"
The Inspector's stock of breath, alas, was not so ample as in the far-off days when his sturdy shoulders bore the modest single-bar, instead of the proud spread eagle of the present. Even had it been, the explosive energy of his speech would have speedily exhausted it. Compelled to stop to pump in a fresh supply, the Colonel of the regiment took advantage of the pause to whisper in his ear:
"Don't be too rough on him, please. He's a good man but green. Promoted from the ranks for courage in action. First appearance on parade. He'll do better if given a chance."
The Inspector's anger was mollified. Addressing himself to all the officers, he continued in a milder tone:
"Gentlemen, you seem to be making progress in acquiring a knowledge of your duties, though you have a world of things yet to learn. I shall say so in my report to the General. You can go to your quarters."
The line of officers dissolved, and the spectators began to melt away. Alspaugh's assurance rose buoyantly the moment that the pressure was removed. He raised his eyes from the ground, and looked for the young ladies. They had turned their backs and were leaving the ground. He hastened after them, fabricating as he walked an explanation, based on personal jealousy, of the Inspector's treatment of him. He was within a step of overtaking them when he heard one say, with toss of flaunting ribbons, and hoidenish giggle:
"Did you ever see any-body wilt as Alspaugh did when old Bite-Your-Head-Off-In-a-Minute was jawing him? It was so awfully funny that I just thought I should die."
The sentence ended with the picturesque rapid crescendo employed by maidens of her type in describing a convulsive experience.
"Just didn't he," joined in another. "I never saw any-thing so funny in all my born days. I was afraid to look at either one of you; I knew if I did I would burst right out laughing. I couldn't've helped it--I know I couldn't, if I'd'a knowed I'd'a died the next minute."
"This would seem to be a pretty good time to drop the fellow," added the third girl, reflectively.
Alspaugh turned and went in another direction. At the 9 o'clock roll-call he informed the company that the Inspector was well pleased with its appearance on parade.