On Picket Duty And Other Tales – Louisa May Alcott
‘On Picket Duty (and other tales) is a short-story compilation by the author of “Little Women”, Louisa May Alcott. It includes the following stories: ‘On Picket Duty’, “The King of Clubs and the Queen of Hearts’, ‘The Cross on the old Church Tower’ and ‘The Death of John.
On Picket Duty And Other Tales.
Excerpt from the text:
WHAT air you thinkin’ of, Phil?
“My wife, Dick.”
“So was I! Aint it odd how fellers fall to thinkin’ of thar little women, when they get a quiet spell like this?”
“Fortunate for us that we do get it, and have such gentle bosom guests to keep us brave and honest through the trials and temptations of a life like ours.”
October moonlight shone clearly on the solitary tree, draped with gray moss, scarred by lightning and warped by wind, looking like a venerable warrior, whose long campaign was nearly done; and underneath was posted the guard of four. Behind them twinkled many camp-fires on a distant plain, before them wound a road ploughed by the passage of an army, strewn with the relics of a rout. On the right, a sluggish river glided, like a serpent, stealthy, sinuous, and dark, into a seemingly impervious jungle; on the left, a Southern swamp filled the air with malarial damps, swarms of noisome life, and discordant sounds that robbed the hour of its repose. The men were friends as well as comrades, for though gathered from the four quarters of the Union, and dissimilar in education, character, and tastes, the same spirit animated all; the routine of camp life threw them much together, and mutual esteem soon grew into a bond of mutual good fellowship.
Thorn was a Massachusetts volunteer; a man who seemed too early old, too early embittered by some cross, for though grim of countenance, rough of speech, cold of manner, a keen observer would have soon discovered traces of a deeper, warmer nature hidden, behind the repellent front he turned upon the world. A true New Englander, thoughtful, acute, reticent, and opinionated; yet earnest withal, intensely patriotic, and often humorous, despite a touch of Puritan austerity.
Phil, the “romantic chap,” as he was called, looked his character to the life. Slender, swarthy, melancholy eyed, and darkly bearded; with feminine features, mellow voice and, alternately languid or vivacious manners. A child of the South in nature as in aspect, ardent, impressible, and proud; fitfully aspiring and despairing; without the native energy which moulds character and ennobles life. Months of discipline and devotion had done much for him, and some deep experience was fast ripening the youth into a man.
Flint, the long-limbed lumberman, from the wilds of Maine, was a conscript who, when government demanded his money or his life, calculated the cost, and decided that the cash would be a dead loss and the claim might be repeated, whereas the conscript would get both pay and plunder out of government, while taking excellent care that government got precious little out of him. A shrewd, slow-spoken, self-reliant specimen, was Flint; yet something of the fresh flavor of the backwoods lingered in him still, as if Nature were loath to give him up, and left the mark of her motherly hand upon him, as she leaves it in a dry, pale lichen, on the bosom of the roughest stone.
Dick “hailed” from Illinois, and was a comely young fellow, full of dash and daring; rough and rowdy, generous and jolly, overflowing with spirits and ready for a free fight with all the world.
Silence followed the last words, while the friendly moon climbed up the sky. Each man’s eye followed it, and each man’s heart was busy with remembrances of other eyes and hearts that might be watching and wishing as theirs watched and wished. In the silence, each shaped for himself that vision of home that brightens so many camp-fires, haunts so many dreamers under canvas roofs, and keeps so many turbulent natures tender by memories which often are both solace and salvation.
Thorn paced to and fro, his rifle on his shoulder, vigilant and soldierly, however soft his heart might be. Phil leaned against the tree, one hand in the breast of his blue jacket, on the painted presentment of the face his fancy was picturing in the golden circle of the moon. Flint lounged on the sward, whistling softly as he whittled at a fallen bough. Dick was flat on his back, heels in air, cigar in mouth, and some hilarious notion in his mind, for suddenly he broke into a laugh.
“What is it, lad?” asked Thorn, pausing in his tramp, as if willing to be drawn from the disturbing thought that made his black brows lower and his mouth look grim.
“Thinkin’ of my wife, and wishin’ she was here, bless her heart! set me rememberin’ how I see her fust, and so I roared, as I always do when it comes into my head.”
“How was it? Come, reel off a yarn and let’s hear houw yeou hitched teams,” said Flint, always glad to get information concerning his neighbors, if it could be cheaply done.
“Tellin’ how we found our wives wouldn’t be a bad game, would it, Phil?”
“I’m agreeable; but let us have your romance first.”
“Devilish little of that about me or any of my doin’s. I hate sentimental bosh as much as you hate slang, and should have been a bachelor to this day if I hadn’t seen Kitty jest as I did. You see, I’d been too busy larkin’ round to get time for marryin’, till a couple of years ago, when I did up the job double-quick, as I’d like to do this thunderin’ slow one, hang it all!”
“Halt a minute till I give a look, for this picket isn’t going to be driven in or taken while I’m on guard.”
Down his beat went Thorn, reconnoitring river, road, and swamp, as thoroughly as one pair of keen eyes could do it, and came back satisfied, but still growling like a faithful mastiff on the watch; performances which he repeated at intervals till his own turn came.
“I didn’t have to go out of my own State for a wife, you’d better believe,” began Dick, with a boast, as usual; “for we raise as fine a crop of girls thar as any State in or out of the Union, and don’t mind raisin’ Cain with any man who denies it. I was out on a gunnin’ tramp with Joe Partridge, a cousin of mine,—poor old chap! he fired his last shot at Gettysburg, and died game in a way he didn’t dream of the day we popped off the birds together. It ain’t right to joke that way; I won’t if I can help it; but a feller gets awfully kind of heathenish these times, don’t he?”
“Settle up them scores byme-by; fightin’ Christians scurse raound here. Fire away, Dick.”
“Well, we got as hungry as hounds half a dozen mile from home, and when a farm-house hove in sight, Joe said he’d ask for a bite and leave some of the plunder for pay. I was visitin’ Joe, didn’t know folks round, and backed out of the beggin’ part of the job; so he went ahead alone. We’d come up the woods behind the house, and while Joe was foragin’, I took are connoissance. The view was fust-rate, for the main part of it was a girl airin’ beds on the roof of a stoop. Now, jest about that time, havin’ a leisure spell, I’d begun to think of marryin’, and took a look at all the girls I met, with an eye to business. I s’pose every man has some sort of an idee or pattern of the wife he wants; pretty and plucky, good and gay was mine, but I’d never found it till I see Kitty; and as she didn’t see me, I had the advantage and took an extra long stare.”
“What was her good pints, hey?”
“Oh, well, she had a wide-awake pair of eyes, a bright, jolly sort of a face, lots of curly hair tumblin’ out of her net, a trig little figger, and a pair of the neatest feet and ankles that ever stepped. ‘Pretty,’ thinks I; ‘so far so good.’ The way she whacked the pillers, shooked the blankets, and pitched into the beds was a caution; specially one blunderin’ old featherbed that wouldn’t do nothin’ but sag round in a pig-headed sort of way, that would have made most girls get mad and give up. Kitty didn’t, but just wrastled with it like a good one, till she got it turned, banged, and spread to suit her; then she plumped down in the middle of it, with a sarcy little nod and chuckle to herself, that tickled me mightily. ‘Plucky,’ thinks I, ‘better ‘n’ better.’ Jest then an old woman came flyin’ out the back-door, callin’, ‘Kitty! Kitty! Squire Partridge’s son’s here, ‘long with a friend; been gunnin’, want luncheon, and I’m all in the suds; do come down and see to ’em.’
“’Where are they?’ says Kitty, scrambling up her hair and settlin’ her gown in a jiffy, as women have a knack of doin’, you know.
“’Mr. Joe’s in the front entry; the other man’s somewheres round, Billy says, waitin’ till I send word whether they can stop. I darsn’t till I’d seen you, for I can’t do nothin’, I’m in such a mess,’ says the old lady.
“’So am I, for I can’t get in except by the entry window, and he’ll see me,’ says Kitty, gigglin’ at the thoughts of Joe.
“’Come down the ladder, there’s a dear. I’ll pull it round and keep it stiddy,’ says her mother.
“’Oh, ma, don’t ask me!’ says Kitty, with a shiver. ‘I’m dreadfully scared of ladders since I broke my arm off this very one. It’s so high, it makes me dizzy jest to think of.’
“’Well, then, I’ll do the best I can; but I wish them boys was to Jericho!’ says the old lady, with a groan, for she was fat and hot, had her gown pinned up, and was in a fluster generally. She was goin’ off rather huffy, when Kitty called out,—
“’Stop, ma! I’ll come down and help you, only ketch me if I tumble.’
“She looked scared but stiddy, and I’ll bet it took as much grit for her to do it as for one of us to face a battery. It don’t seem much to tell of, but I wish I may be hit if it wasn’t a right down dutiful and clever thing to see done. When the old lady took her off at the bottom, with a good motherly hug, I found myself huggin’ my rifle like a fool, but whether I thought it was the ladder, or Kitty, I ain’t clear about. ‘Good,’ thinks I; ‘what more do you want?’
“A snug little property wouldn’t a ben bad, I reckon. Well she had it, old skin-flint, though I didn’t know or care about it then. What a jolly row she’d make if she knew I was tellin’ the ladder part of the story! She always does when I get to it, and makes believe cry, with her head in my breast-pocket, or any such handy place, till I take it out and swear I’ll never do so ag’in. Poor little Kit, I wonder what she’s doin’ now. Thinkin’ of me, I’ll bet.”
Dick paused, pitched his cap lower over his eyes, and smoked a minute with more energy than enjoyment, for his cigar was out and he did not perceive it.
“That’s not all, is it?” asked Thorn, taking a fatherly interest in the younger man’s love passages.
“Not quite. ‘Fore long, Joe whistled, and as I always take short cuts everywhar, I put in at the back-door, jest as Kitty come trottin’ out of the pantry with a big berry-pie in her hand. I startled her, she tripped over the sill and down she come; the dish flew one way, the pie flopped into her lap, the juice spatterin’ my boots and her clean gown. I thought she’d cry, scold, have hysterics, or some confounded thing or other; but she jest sat still a minute, then looked up at me with a great blue splosh on her face, and went off into the good-naturedest gale of laughin’ you ever heard in your life. That finished me. ‘Gay,’ thinks I; ‘go in and win.’ So I, did; made love hand over hand, while I stayed with Joe; pupposed a fortnight after, married her in three months, and there she is, a tip-top little woman, with a pair of stunnin’ boys in her arms!”
Out came a well-worn case, and Dick proudly displayed the likeness of a stout, much bejewelled young woman, with two staring infants on her knee. In his sight, the poor picture was a more perfect work of art than any of Sir Joshua’s baby-beauties, or Raphael’s Madonnas, and the little story needed no better sequel than the young father’s praises of his twins, the covert kiss he gave their mother when he turned as if to get a clearer light upon the face. Ashamed to show the tenderness that filled his honest heart, he hummed “Kingdom Coming,” while relighting his cigar, and presently began to talk again.
“Now, then, Flint, it’s your turn to keep guard, and Thorn’s to tell his romance. Come, don’t try to shirk; it does a man good to talk of such things, and we’re all mates here.”
“In some cases it don’t do any good to talk of such things; better let ’em alone,” muttered Thorn, as he reluctantly sat down, while Flint as reluctantly departed.
With a glance and gesture of real affection, Phil laid his hand upon his comrade’s knee, saying, in his persuasive voice, “Old fellow, it will do you good, because I know you often long to speak of something that weighs upon you. You’ve kept us steady many a time, and done us no end of kindnesses; why be too proud to let us give our sympathy in return, if nothing more?”
Thorn’s big hand closed over the slender one upon his knee, and the mild expression, so rarely seen upon his face, passed over it as he replied,—
“I think I could tell you almost anything if you asked me that way, my boy. It isn’t that I’m too proud,—and you’re right about my sometimes wanting to free my mind,—but it’s because a man of forty don’t just like to open out to young fellows, if there is any danger of their laughing at him, though he may deserve it. I guess there isn’t now, and I’ll tell you how I found my wife.”
Dick sat up, and Phil drew nearer, for the earnestness that was in the man dignified his plain speech, and inspired an interest in his history, even before it was begun. Looking gravely at the river and never at his hearers, as if still a little shy of confidants, yet grateful for the relief of words, Thorn began abruptly,—
“I never hear the number eighty-four without clapping my hand to my left breast and missing my badge. You know I was on the police in New York, before the war, and that’s about all you do know yet. One bitter cold night, I was going my rounds for the last time, when, as I turned a corner, I saw there was a trifle of work to be done. It was a bad part of the city, full of dirt and deviltry; one of the streets led to a ferry, and at the corner an old woman had an apple-stall. The poor soul had dropped asleep, worn out with the cold, and there were her goods left, with no one to watch ’em. Somebody was watching ’em, however; a girl, with a ragged shawl over her head, stood at the mouth of an alley close by, waiting for a chance to grab something. I’d seen her there when I went by before, and mistrusted she was up to some mischief; as I turned the corner, she put out her hand and cribbed an apple. She saw me the minute she did it, but neither dropped it nor ran, only stood stocks still with the apple in her hand till came up.
“’This won’t do, my girl,’ said I. I never could be harsh with ’em, poor things! She laid it back and looked up at me with a miserable sort of a smile, that made me put my hand in my pocket to fish for a ninepence before she spoke.
“’I know it won’t,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to do it, it’s so mean, but I’m awful hungry, sir.’