Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis at a mere 28 years of age, but his place in the canon of American realist writers is indisputed. After the tremendous success of his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane received an advance to cover the pending Spanish-American War in 1896 as a war correspondent. After witnessing Marine combat in Cuba, the writer penned the fictional account “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” for this magazine, noting that the experience of war “seemed made to prove that the emphatic time of history is not the emphatic time of the common man, who, throughout the changing of nations, feels an itch on his shin, a pain in his head, hunger, thirst, a lack of sleep, the influence of his memory of past firesides, glasses of beer, girls, theatres, ideals, religions, parents, faces, hurts, joys.”
Published on May 6, 1899
Little Nell, sometimes called the Blessed Damosel, was a war correspondent for the New York Eclipse. At sea, on the dispatch-boats, he wore pajamas, and on shore he wore what fate allowed him, which clothing was in the main unsuitable to the climate. He had been cruising in the Caribbean on a small tug, awash always, habitable never, wildly looking for Cervera’s fleet, although what he was going to do with four armored cruisers and two destroyers in the event of his really finding them had not been explained by the managing editor. The cabled instructions read:
“Take tug. Go find Cervera’s fleet.”
If his unfortunate nine-knot craft should happen to find these great twenty-knot ships, with their two spiteful and faster attendants, Little Nell had wondered how he was going to lose them again. He had marveled both publicly and in secret on the uncompromising asininity of managing editors at odd moments, but he had wasted little time. The Jefferson G. Johnson was already coaled, so he passed the word to his skipper, bought some canned meats, cigars and beer, and soon the Johnson sailed on her mission, tooting her whistle in graceful farewell to some friends of hers in the bay.
So the Johnson crawled giddily to one wave height after another, and fell, aslant, into one valley after another for a longer period than was good for the hearts of the men, because the Johnson was merely a harbor tug, with no architectural intention of parading the high seas, and the crew had never seen the decks all white water like a mere sunken reef. As for the cook, he blasphemed hopelessly hour in and hour out, meanwhile pursuing the equipment of his trade frantically from side to side of the galley.
Little Nell dealt with a great deal of grumbling, but he knew it was not the real, evil grumbling. It was merely the unhappy words of men who wished expression of comradeship for their wet, forlorn, half-starved lives, to which, they explained, they were not accustomed, and for which, they explained, they were not properly paid. Little Nell condoled, and condoled without difficulty. He laid words of gentle sympathy before them, and smothered his own misery behind the face of a reporter of the New York Eclipse.
They tossed themselves in their cockleshells even as far as Martinique; they knew many races and many flags; but they did not find Cervera’s fleet. If they had found that elusive squadron this timid story would never have been written; there would probably have been a lyric.
The Johnson limped one morning into the Mole St. Nicholas, and there Little Nell received this dispatch:
“Can’t understand your inaction. What are you doing with the boat? Report immediately. Fleet transports already left Tampa; expected destination near Santiago. Proceed there immediately; place yourself under orders.
One day, steaming along the high, luminous blue coast of Santiago province, they fetched into view the fleet, a knot of masts and funnels, looking incredibly inshore, as if they were glued to the mountains. Then mast left mast, and funnel left funnel, slowly, slowly, and the shore remained still, but the fleets seemed to move out toward the eager Johnson.
At the speed of nine knots an hour, the scene separated into its parts. On an easily rolling sea, under a crystal sky, black-hulled transports — erstwhile packets — lay waiting, while gray cruisers and gunboats swung near shore, shelling the beach and some woods. From their gray sides came thin, red flashes, belches of white smoke, and then over the waters sounded “boom — boom — boom — boom.” The crew of the Jefferson G. Johnson forgave Little Nell all the suffering of a previous fortnight.
To the westward, about the mouth of Santiago harbor, sat a row of castellated gray battleships, their eyes turned another way, waiting. The Johnson swung past a transport whose decks and rigging were aswarm with black figures as if a tribe of bees had alighted upon a log. She swung past a cruiser, indignant at being left out of the game, her deck thick with white-clothed tars, watching the play of their luckier brethren. The cold, blue, lifting seas tilted the big ships easily, slowly, and heaved the little ones in the usual sinful way, as if very little babes had surreptitiously mounted sixteen-hand trotting hunters.
The Johnson leered and tumbled her way through the community of ships. The bombardment ceased, and some of the troopships edged in near the land. Soon boats black with men and towed by launches were almost lost to view in the scintillant mystery of light which appeared where the sea met the land. A disembarkation had begun. The Johnson sped on at her nine knots, and Little Nell chaffed exceedingly, gloating upon the shore through his glasses, anon glancing irritably over the side to note the efforts of the excited tug.
Then at last they were in a sort of a cove, with troopships, newspaper boats and cruisers on all sides of them, and over the water came a great hum of human voices, punctuated frequently by the clang of engine-room gongs as the steamers maneuvered to avoid jostling.
In reality, it was the great moment — the moment for which men, ships, islands and continents had been waiting for months — but somehow it did not look it. It was very calm; a certain strip of high, green, rocky shore was being rapidly populated from boat after boat; that was all. Like many preconceived moments, it refused to be supreme.
But nothing lessened Little Nell’s frenzy. He knew that the Army was landing; he could see it; and little did he care if the great moment did not look its part; it was his virtue as a correspondent to recognize the great moment in any disguise.
The Johnson lowered a boat for him and he dropped into it swiftly, forgetting everything. However, the mate, a bearded philanthropist, flung after him a mackintosh and a bottle of whisky. Little Nell’s face was turned toward those other boats, filled with men, all eyes upon the placid, gentle, noiseless shore. Little Nell saw many soldiers seated stiffly beside, upright rifle barrels, their blue breasts crossed with white shelter-tent and blanket-rolls. Launches screeched: jack-tars pushed or pulled with their boathooks; a beach was alive with working soldiers, some of them stark naked. Little Nell’s boat touched the shore amid a babble of tongues, dominated at that time by a single stern voice which was repeating: “Fall in, B Company!”
He took his mackintosh and his bottle of whisky and invaded Cuba. It was a trifle bewildering. Companies of those same men in blue and brown were being rapidly formed and marched off across a little open space — near a pool — near some palm trees — near a house — into the hills.
At one side a mulatto in dirty linen and an old straw hat was hospitably using a machete to cut open some green coconuts for a group of idle invaders. At the other side — up a bank — a blockhouse was burning furiously, while near it some railway sheds were smoldering, with a little Rogers engine standing amid the ruins, gray, almost white with ashes, until it resembled a ghost.
Little Nell dodged the encrimsoned blockhouse and proceeded to where he saw a little village street lined with flimsy wooden cottages. Some ragged Cuban cavalrymen were tranquilly tending their horses in a shed which had not yet grown cold of the recent Spanish occupation. Three American soldiers were trying to explain to a Cuban that they wished to buy drinks. A native rode by, clubbing his pony, as always. The sky was blue; the sea talked with a gravelly accent at the feet of some rocks; upon its bosom the ships sat quiet as gulls. There was no mention, directly, of invasion, invasion for war, save in the roar of the flames at the blockhouse; but none even heeded this conflagration, excepting to note that it threw out a great heat.
It was really hard for Little Nell to keep from thinking of his own affairs, his debts, other misfortunes, loves, prospects of happiness. Nobody was in a flurry; the Cubans were not tearfully grateful; the American troops were visibly glad of being released from those ill transports, and the men often asked with interest: “Where’s the Spaniards?”
And yet it must have been a great moment! … It was a great moment! … It seemed made to prove that the emphatic time of history is not the emphatic time of the common man, who, throughout the changing of nations, feels an itch on his shin, a pain in his head, hunger, thirst, a lack of sleep, the influence of his memory of past firesides, glasses of beer, girls, theatres, ideals, religions, parents, faces, hurts, joys.
Little Nell was hailed from a comfortable veranda, and, looking up, saw Walkley, of the Eclipse, stretched in a yellow-and-green hammock, smoking his pipe with an air of having always lived in that house, in that village.
“Oh, dear Little Nell,” he cried, “how glad I am to see your angel face again. There — don’t try to hide it! I can see it. Did you bring a corkscrew, too? You’re superseded as master of the slaves. Did you know it? And by Rogers, too! Rogers is a Sadducee, a cadaver and a pelican, appointed to the post of chief correspondent, no doubt, because of his rare gift of incapacity. Never mind.”
“Where is he now?” asked Little Nell, taking a seat.
“He is down interfering with the landing of the troops,” answered Walkley, swinging a leg. “I hope you have the Johnson well stocked with food, as well as with cigars, cigarettes and tobaccos, ales, wines and liquors. We shall need them. There is already famine in the house of Walkley. I have discovered that the system of transportation for our gallant soldiery does not strike in me the admiration which I have often felt when viewing the management of an ordinary bun-shop. A-hunger, stifling, jammed together amid odors and everybody irritable — ye gods, how irritable! And so I — Look! Look!”
The Jefferson G. Johnson, well known to them at an incredible distance, could be seen striding the broad sea, the smoke belching from her funnel, headed for Jamaica. “The Army Lands in Cuba!” shrieked Walkley. “Shafter’s Army Lands near Santiago! Special type! Half the front page! Oh, the Sadducee! The cadaver! The pelican!”
Little Nell was dumb with astonishment and fear. Walkley, however, was at least not dumb. “That’s the pelican! That’s Mr. Rogers, making his first impression upon the situation. He has engraved himself upon us. We are tattooed with him. There will be a fight tomorrow sure, and we will cover it even as you found Cervera’s fleet. No food, no horses, no money. I am transport-lame; you are sea-weak. We will never see our salaries again. Whereby Rogers is a fool.”
“Anybody else here?” asked Little Nell wearily.
“Only young Point.” Point was an artist on the Eclipse. “But he has nothing. Pity there wasn’t an almshouse here in this God-forsaken country. Here comes Point now.”
A sad-faced little man came along carrying much luggage. Hello, Point, lithographer and genius; have you food — food? Well, then, you had better return yourself to Tampa by wire. You are no good here. Only one more little mouth to feed.”
Point seated himself near Little Nell. “I haven’t had anything to eat since daybreak,” he said gloomily, “and I don’t care much, for I am simply dog-tired!”
“Don’t tell me you are dog-tired, my talented friend,” cried Walkley from his hammock. “Think of me. And now, what’s to be done?”
They stared for a time disconsolately at where, over the rim of the sea, trailed black smoke from the Johnson. From the landing-place below and to the right came the howls of a man who was superintending the disembarkation of some mules. The burning blockhouse still rendered its hollow roar. Suddenly the man-crowded landing set up its cheer, and the steamers all whistled long and raucously. Tiny black figures were raising an American flag over a blockhouse on the top of the great hill.
“That’s mighty fine Sunday stuff,” said Little Nell. “Well, I’ll go and get the order in which the regiments landed, and who was first ashore, and all that. Then I’ll go and try to find General Lawton’s headquarters. His division has got the advance, I think.”
“And, lo! I will write a burning description of the raising of the flag,” said Walkley, “while the brilliant Point buskies for food. And makes sure that he gets it,” he added.
Little Nell thereupon wandered over the face of the earth, threading out the story of the landing of the regiments. He found only about fifty men who had been the first American soldier to set foot on Cuba, and of these he took the most probable. The Army was going forward in detail as soon as the pieces were landed. There was a house something like a crude country tavern; the soldiers in it were looking over their rifles and talking; there was a well of water, quite hot; more palm trees — an inscrutable background.
When he arrived again at Walkley’s mansion he found the veranda crowded with correspondents in khaki, duck, dungaree and flannel. They wore riding-breeches, but that was mainly forethought. They could see now that Fate intended them to walk. Some were writing copy while Walkley discoursed from his hammock. Rhodes — doomed to be shot in action some two days later — was trying to borrow a canteen from men who had canteens and from men who had none. Young Point, wan, utterly worn out, was asleep on the floor. Walkley pointed to him. “That is how he appears after his foraging journey, during which he ran all Cuba through a sieve. Oh, yes. A can of corn and half a bottle of lime juice.”
“Say, does anybody know the name of the commander of the Twenty-sixth Infantry?”
“Who commands the first brigade of Kent’s division?”
“What was the name of the chap that raised the flag?”
“What time is it?”
And a woeful man was wandering here and there with a cold pipe, saying plaintively: “Who’s got a match?”
Little Nell’s left boot hurt him at the heel, and so he removed it, taking great care and whistling through his teeth. The heated dust was upon them all, making everybody feel that bathing was unknown, and shattering their tempers. Young Point developed a snore which brought grim sarcasm from all quarters. Always, below, hummed the traffic of the landing-place.
When night came Little Nell thought best not to go to bed until late, because he recognized the mackintosh as but a feeble comfort. The evening was a glory. A breeze came from the sea, fanning spurts of flame out of the ashes and charred remains of the sheds, while overhead lay a splendid summer-night sky aflash with great tranquil stars. In the street of the village were two or three fires, frequently and suddenly reddening with their glare the figures of low-voiced men who moved here and there.
The lights of the transports blinked on the murmuring plain in front of the village, and far to the westward Little Nell could sometimes note a subtle indication of a playing searchlight which alone marked the presence of the invisible battleships half-mooned about the entrance to Santiago harbor, waiting — waiting — waiting.
When Little Nell returned to the veranda he stumbled along a man-strewn place until he came to the spot where he had left his mackintosh; but he found it gone. His curses mingled then with those of the men upon whose bodies he had trodden. Two English correspondents, lying awake to smoke a last pipe, reared and looked at him lazily. “What’s wrong, old chap?” murmured one. “Eh? Lost it, eh? Well, look here; come here and take a bit of my blanket. It’s a jolly big one. Oh, no trouble at all, man … There you are. Got enough? Comfy? … Goodnight.”
A sleepy voice rose in the darkness. “If this hammock breaks I shall hit at least ten of those Indians down there. Never mind. This is war!” The men slept.
Once the sound of three or four shots rang across the windy night, and one head uprose swiftly from the veranda, two eyes looked dazedly at nothing, and the head as swiftly sank. Again a sleepy voice was heard. “Usual thing; nervous sentries.” The men slept.
Before dawn a pulseless, penetrating chill came into the air, and the correspondents awakened shivering into a blue world. Some of the fires still smoldered. Walkley and Little Nell kicked vigorously into Point’s framework. “Come on, Brilliance! Wake up, Talent! Don’t be sogering. It’s too cold to sleep, but it’s not too cold to hustle.”
Point sat up dolefully. Upon his face was a childish expression. “Where we going to get breakfast?” he asked sulkily.
“There’s no breakfast for you, you hound. Get up and hustle.”
Accordingly they hustled. With exceeding difficulty they learned that nothing emotional had happened during the night save the killing of two Cubans who were so secure in ignorance that they could not understand the challenge of two American sentries.
Then Walkley ran a gamut of commanding officers, and Little Nell pumped privates for their impressions of Cuba. When his indignation at the absence of breakfast allowed him, Point made sketches. At the full break of day the Adolphus, an Eclipse dispatch-boat, sent a boat ashore with Tailor and Shackles in it, and Walkley departed tearlessly for Jamaica, soon after he had bestowed upon his friends much canned goods and blankets.
“Well, we’ve got our stuff off,” said Little Nell. “Now Point and I must breakfast.”
Shackles for some reason carried a great hunting-knife, and with it Little Nell opened a can of beans. “Fall to,’’ he said amiably to Point. There were some hard biscuits.
Afterward the four of them marched off. They were well loaded with luggage, particularly young Point, who had somehow made a great gathering of unnecessary things.
Hills covered with verdure soon enclosed them. They heard that the Army had advanced some nine miles with no fighting. Evidences of the rapid advance were here and there; coats, gauntlets, blanket-rolls on the ground. Mule trains came herding back along the narrow trail to the sound of a little tinkling bell. Cubans were appropriating the tunics and blanket-rolls.
The four correspondents hurried onward. The surety of impending battle weighed upon them always, but there were a score of minor things more intimate. Little Nell’s left heel had chafed until it must have been quite raw, and every moment he wished to take a seat by the roadside and console himself from pain. Shackles and Point disliked each other extremely, and often they foolishly quarreled over something or over nothing: the blanket-rolls and packages for the hand oppressed everybody. It was like being burned out of a boarding-house and having to carry one’s trunk eight miles to the nearest neighbor.
Moreover, Point, since he had stupidly overloaded, with great wisdom placed various cameras and other trifles in the hands of his three less burdened and more sensible friends. This made them fume and gnash, but in complete silence, since he was hideously youthful and innocent and unaware. They all wished to rebel, but none of them saw their way clear because (they did not understand, but somehow it seemed a barbarous project) no one wanted to say anything.
For instance, Little Nell wished to remark: “Point, you are not a thoroughbred in half of a way. You are an inconsiderate, thoughtless little swine.” But in truth he said: “Point, when you started out you looked like a Christmas tree. If we keep on robbing you of your bundles there soon won’t be anything left for the children.”
Point asked dubiously: “What do you mean?”
Little Nell merely laughed with deceptive good nature.
They were always very thirsty. There was always a howl for the half bottle of lime juice. Five or six drops from it were simply heavenly in the warm water from the canteens. Point seemed to try to keep the lime juice in his possession in order that he might get more benefit from it. Before the war was ended the others found themselves declaring vehemently that they loathed Point, and yet when men asked them for reasons they grew quite inarticulate: the reasons seemed then so small, so childish, like the reasons of a lot of women. And yet, at the time, his offenses loomed enormous.
The surety of impending battle still weighed upon them. Then it came that Shackles turned seriously ill. Suddenly he dropped his own and much of Point’s traps upon the trail, wriggled out of his blanket-roll, flung it away, and took a seat heavily at the roadside. They saw with surprise that his face was pale as death and yet streaming with sweat.
“Boys,” he said in his ordinary voice, “I’m clean played out. I can’t go another step. You fellows go on and leave me to come as soon as I am able.”
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t do at all,” said Little Nell and Tailor together. Point moved over to a soft place and dropped amid whatever traps he was himself carrying.
“Don’t know whether — it’s — ancestral or merely from the — sun — but I’ve got a stroke,” said Shackles, and gently slumped over to a prostrate position before either Little Nell or Tailor could reach him. Thereafter Shackles was parental; it was Little Nell and Tailor who were really suffering from a stroke — either ancestral or from the sun.”
“Put my blanket-roll under my head, Nell, my son,” he said gently. “There, now. That is very nice. It is delicious. Why, I’m all right, only — only tired.”
He closed his eyes and something like an easy slumber came over him. Once he opened them. “Don’t trouble about me,” he remarked. But the two fussed about him, nervous, worried, discussing this plan and that plan.
It was Point who first made a businesslike statement. Seated carelessly and indifferently upon his soft place, he finally blurted out: “Say. Look here. Some of us have got to go on. We can’t all stay here.”
It was quite true. The Eclipse could take no account of strokes. In the end, Tailor and Point went on, leaving Little Nell to bring on Shackles as soon as possible. The latter two spent many hours in the grass by the roadside. They made numerous abrupt acquaintances with passing staff officers, privates, muleteers, many stopping to inquire the wherefore of the death-faced figure on the ground. Favors were done, often and often, by peer and peasant — small things — of no consequence and yet warming.
It was dark when Shackles and Little Nell had come slowly to where they could hear the murmur of the Army’s bivouac.
“Shack,” gasped Little Nell to the man leaning forlornly upon him, “I guess we’d better bunk down here where we stand.”
“All right, old boy. Anything you say,” replied Shackles, in the bass and hollow voice which arrives with such condition.
They crawled into some bushes and distributed their belongings upon the ground. Little Nell spread out the blankets and generally played housemaid. Then they lay down, supperless, being too weary to eat. The men slept.
At dawn Little Nell awakened and looked wildly for Shackles, whose empty blanket was pressed flat like a wet newspaper on the ground. But at nearly the same moment Shackles appeared elate.
“Come on,” he cried; “I’ve rustled an invitation for breakfast.”
Little Nell came on with celerity. “Where? Who?” he asked.
“Oh, some officers,” replied Shackles airily. If he had been ill the previous day he showed it now only in some curious kind of deference he paid to Little Nell.
Shackles conducted his comrade, and soon they arrived at where a Captain and his one subaltern rose courteously from where they were squatting near a fire of little sticks. They wore the wide, white trouser-stripes of infantry officers, and upon the shoulders of their blue campaign shirts were the little marks of their rank, but otherwise there was little beyond their manners to render them different from the men who were busy with breakfast near them.
The Captain was old, grizzled, a common type of Captain in the tiny American Army, overjoyed at the active service, confident of his business, and yet breathing out in some way a note of pathos. The war was come too late. Age was grappling him, and honors were only for his widow and his children — merely a better life insurance policy. He had spent his life policing Indians with much labor, cold and heat, but with no glory for him nor for his fellows. All he could do now was to die at the head of his men.
If he had youthfully dreamed of a General’s stars, they were now impossible to him, and he knew it. He was too old to leap so far; his sole honor was a new invitation to face death. And yet, with his ambitions lying half-strangled, he was going to take his men into any sort of holocaust because his traditions were of gentlemen and soldiers, and because … he loved it for itself … the thing itself … the unknown.
The Lieutenant was young. Perhaps he had been hurried out of West Point at the last moment, upon a shortage of officers appearing. To him all was opportunity. He was, in fact, in great luck. Instead of going off in 1898 to grill for an indefinite period on some God-forgotten heap of red-hot sand in New Mexico, he was here in Cuba — on real business — with his regiment. When the big engagement came he was sure to emerge from it either horizontally or at the head of a company, and what more could a boy ask?
He was a very modest lad, and talked nothing of his frame of mind, but an expression of blissful contentment was ever upon his face. He really accounted himself the most fortunate boy of his time. And he felt almost certain that he would do well … It was necessary to do well … He would do well.
And yet, in many ways, these two were alike — the grizzled Captain with his gentle, mournful countenance — “Too late” — and the elate young Second Lieutenant, his commission hardly dry. Here again it was the influence of the Army. After all, they were both children of the Army.
It is possible to spring into the future here and chronicle what happened later. The Captain, after thirty-five years of waiting for his chance, took his Mauser bullet through the brain at the foot of San Juan Hill in the very beginning, and the boy arrived on the crest, panting, sweating, but unscratched, and not sure whether he commanded one company or a whole battalion. Thus Fate dealt to the hosts of Shackles and Little Nell.
The beach at Siboney was furious with traffic, even as had been the beach at Daqueri. Launches shouted, jack-tars prodded with their boathooks, and load of men followed load of men. Straight, paradelike, on the shore stood a trumpeter playing familiar calls to the troop-horses, who swam toward him eagerly through the salt seas.
Crowding closely into the cove were transports of all sizes and ages. To the left and to the right of the little landing beach green hills shot upward like the wings in a theatre. They were scarred here and there with blockhouses and rifle-pits. Up one hill a regiment was crawling, seemingly inch by inch. Shackles and Little Nell walked among palms and over spaces of sand holding little monuments of biscuit boxes, ammunition boxes and supplies of all kinds. Some regiment was just collecting itself from the ships, and the men made great patches of blue on the brown sand.
Shackles asked a question of a man, accidentally. “Where’s that regiment going to?” He pointed to the force that was crawling up the hill. The man grinned and said: “They’re goin’ to look for a fight.”
“Looking for a fight,” said Shackles and Little Nell together. They stared into each other’s eyes. Then they set off for the foot of the hill.
Soon they were on a fine upland near the sea. The path, under ordinary conditions, must have been a beautiful wooded way. It wound in the shade of thickets of fine trees, then through rank growths of bushes with revealed and fantastic roots, then through a grassy space which had all the beauty of a neglected orchard. But always from under their feet scuttled noisy land-crabs, demons to the nerves, which in some ways possessed a semblance of moonlike faces upon their blue or red bodies, and these faces were turned with expressions of deepest horror upon Shackles and Little Nell as they sped to overtake the regiment.
They heard a dull noise of voices in front of them. One man came limping back along the path. He looked to them anxiously for sympathy and comprehension. “Hurt m’knee. I swear I couldn’t keep up with the boys. I had to leave ’em. Wasn’t that tough luck?” His collar rolled from a great red muscular neck, and his bare forearms were better than stanchions. Yet he was almost babishly tearful in his attempt to make the two correspondents feel that he had not turned back because he was afraid.
They gave him scant courtesy, tinctured with one drop of sympathetic yet cynical understanding. Soon they overtook the hospital squad — men addressing chaste language to some pack-mules — a talkative Sergeant — two amiable, cool-eyed young surgeons. Soon they were amid the rear troops of the dismounted volunteer cavalry regiment which was moving to attack. The men strode easily along, arguing one with another on ulterior matters. If they were going into battle they either did not know it or they concealed it well. Their laughter rang through the Cuban woods. And in the meantime soft, mellow, sweet, sang the voice of the Cuban wood dove … the Spanish guerilla calling to his mate … forest music … on the flanks … deep back on both flanks … the adorable wood dove, singing only of love … some of the advancing Americans said it was beautiful … it was beautiful … the Spanish guerilla calling to his mate … What could be more beautiful?
Shackles and Little Nell rushed precariously through waist-high bushes until they reached the center of the single-filed regiment. The firing then broke out in front. All the woods set up a hot sputtering; the bullets sped along the path and across it from both sides. The thickets presented nothing but dense masses of light green foliage, out of which these swift steel things were born supernaturally.
It seemed that every leaf had turned into a soda-water bottle and was popping its cork. Some of the explosions seemed to be against the men’s very faces; others against the backs of their necks. “Now, men, keep goin’ ahead. Keep on goin’.” The forward troops were already engaged. They, at least, had something at which to shoot … “Now, Captain, if you’re ready.” … “Stop that swearing there.” … “Got a match?” ….” Steady now, men.”
A gate appeared in a barbed-wire fence. Within were billowy fields of long grass, dotted with palms and luxuriant mango trees. It was Elysian, a place for lovers, fair as Eden in its radiance of sun, under its blue sky. One might have expected to see white-robed figures walking slowly in the shadows … A dead man, with a bloody face, lay twisted in a curious contortion at the waist … Someone was shot in the leg — his pins knocked cleanly from under him … “Keep goin’, men.” … The air roared, and the ground fled reelingly under their feet … Light, shadow, trees, vines, grass … Bullets spat from every side.
Once they were in a thicket, and the men, blanched and bewildered, turned one way and then another, not knowing which way to turn. “Keep goin’, men.” Soon they were in the sunlight again. They could see the long, scant line which was being drained man by man — one might say drop by drop. The musketry rolled forth in great full measure from the magazine carbines. “Keep goin’, men.” … “They’re flankin’ us, sir.” … “We’re bein’ fired into by our own crowd, sir.” … “keep goin’, men.”
A low ridge before them was a bottling establishment blowing up in detail. From the right — it seemed at that time to be the far right — they could hear steady, crashing volleys — the United States Regulars in action.
Then suddenly — to use a phrase of the street — the whole bottom of the thing fell out. It was suddenly and mysteriously ended. The Spaniards had run away and some of the Regulars were chasing them. It was a victory.
Little Nell and Shackles were walking through the fields.
“Well, hang it, man,” cried Shackles, “we must get a list of the killed and wounded.”
“That is not nearly so important,” quoth Little Nell academically, “as to get the first account to New York of the first action of the Army in Cuba.”
They came upon Tailor with a bared torso and a small red hole through his right lung. He was calm, but evidently out of temper. “Good God, Tailor,” they cried, dropping to their knees like two pagans, “are you hurt, old boy?”
“Hurt,” he said gently. “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, d’you see? You understand, do you? Idiots.”
Then he became very official. “Shackles, feel and see what’s under my leg. It’s a small stone or a burr or something. Don’t be clumsy, now. Be careful. Be careful.”
In reality there was nothing there, and so Shackles could not have removed it. “Sorry, old boy,” he said meekly.
“Well, you may observe that I can’t stay here for more than a year,” said Tailor with some oratory, “and the hospital people have their own work in hand. It behooves you, Nell, to fly to Siboney, arrest a dispatch-boat, get a cot and some other things, and some minions to carry me. If I once get down to the base I’m all right, but if I stay here I’m dead. Meantime Shackles can stay here and try to look as if he liked it.”
There was no disobeying the man. Lying there with a little red hole in his right lung, he dominated them through his helplessness and through their fear that, if they angered him, he would move and — bleed.
“Well?” said Little Nell.
“Yes,” said Shackles, nodding.
Little Nell departed. That blanket you lent me,” Tailor called after him, “is back there with Point.”
Little Nell noted that many of the men who were wandering among the wounded seemed so spent with the toil and excitement of their first action that they could hardly drag one leg after the other. He found himself suddenly in the same condition. His face, his neck, even his mouth felt dry as sun-baked bricks, and his legs were foreign to him. But he swung desperately into his five-mile task.
Presently the hurrying correspondent met another regiment coming to assist — a line of a thousand men in single file through the jungle. “Well, how is it going, old man?” “How is it coming on?” “Are we doin’ ’em?”
On the way he passed many things — bleeding men carried by comrades — others making their way grimly with encrimsoned arms — then the little settlement of the hospital squad — men on the ground everywhere, many in the path — one young Captain dying with great gasps. But the voice of the Cuban wood dove, soft, mellow, sweet, singing only of love, was no longer heard.
Then after an interval came other regiments moving out. He had to take to the hush to let these long lines pass him, and he was delayed and had to flounder amid brambles. But at last, like a successful pilgrim, he arrived at the brow of the great hill overlooking Siboney. His practiced eye scanned the brow of the sea with its clustering ships, but he saw thereon no Eclipse dispatch-boats. He zigzagged heavily down the hill and arrived finally amid the dust and outcries of the base. He seemed to ask a thousand men if they had seen an Eclipse boat on the water or an Eclipse correspondent on the shore. They all answered “No.”
He was like a poverty-stricken and unknown suppliant at a foreign court. Even his plea got only ill hearings. He had expected the news of the serious wounding of Tailor to appall the other correspondents, but they took it quite calmly. It was as if their sense of an impending great battle between two large armies had quite got them out of focus for these minor tragedies. Tailor was hurt. How curious that Tailor should be almost the first; how very curious; yes. But as far as arousing them to any enthusiasm of active pity, it seemed impossible. He was dying up there in the grass, was he? Too bad, too bad, too bad!
Little Nell went alone and lay down in the sand with his back against a rock. Tailor was prostrate up there in the grass. Never mind. Nothing was to be done. The whole situation was too colossal. Then into his zone came Walkley, the invincible.
“Walkley,” yelled Little Nell. Walkley came quickly and Little Nell lay weakly against his rock and talked. In thirty seconds Walkley understood everything, had hurled a drink of whisky into Little Nell, had admonished him to lie quiet, and had gone to organize and manipulate. When he returned he was a trifle dubious and backward. Behind him was a singular squad of volunteers from the Adolphus carrying among them a wire-woven bed.
“Look here, Nell,” said Walkley in bashful accents, “I’ve collected a battalion here which is willing to go bring Tailor, but — they say — you — can’t you show them where he is?”
“Yes,” said Little Nell, rising.
When the party arrived back at Siboney and deposited Tailor in the best place, Walkley had found a house and stocked it with canned soups. Therein Shackles and Little Nell reveled for a time and then rolled on the floor in their blankets. Little Nell tossed a great deal. “Oh, I’m so tired! Good God, I’m tired! I’m tired!”
In the morning a voice roused them. It was a swollen, important circus voice, saying: “Where is Nell? I wish to see him immediately.”
“Here I am, Rogers,” cried Little Nell.
“Oh, Nell,” said Rogers, “here’s a dispatch to me which I thought you had better read.” Little Nell took the dispatch. It was:
“Tell Nell can’t understand his inaction. Tell him come home first steamer from Port Antonio, Jamaica. — Eclipse.”
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