«Stephen Crane, “A Gray Sleeve” Source: The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, ...»
Stephen Crane, “A Gray Sleeve”
Source: The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (New York: D.
Appleton and Company, 1896). Originally syndicated in October 1895 in several different
newspapers. Other editions of the story change “gray” to “grey.”
“It looks as if it might rain this afternoon,” remarked the lieutenant of artillery.
“So it does,” the infantry captain assented. He glanced casually at the sky. When his eyes had
lowered to the green-shadowed landscape before him, he said fretfully: “I wish those fellows out yonder would quit pelting at us. They’ve been at it since noon.” At the edge of a grove of maples, across wide fields, there occasionally appeared little puffs of smoke of a dull hue in this gloom of sky which expressed an impending rain. The long wave of blue and steel in the field moved uneasily at the eternal barking of the far-away sharpshooters, and the men, leaning upon their rifles, stared at the grove of maples. Once a private turned to borrow some tobacco from a comrade in the rear rank, but, with his hand still stretched out, he continued to twist his head and glance at the distant trees. He was afraid the enemy would shoot him at a time when he was not looking.
Suddenly the artillery officer said: “See what’s coming!” Along the rear of the brigade of infantry a column of cavalry was sweeping at a hard gallop. A lieutenant riding some yards to the right of the column bawled furiously at the four troopers just at the rear of the colors. They had lost distance and made a little gap, but at the shouts of the lieutenant they urged their horses forward. The bugler, careering along behind the captain of the troop, fought and tugged like a wrestler to keep his frantic animal from bolting far ahead of the column.
On the springy turf the innumerable hoofs thundered in a swift storm of sound. In the brown faces of the troopers their eyes were set like bits of flashing steel.
The long line of the infantry regiments standing at ease underwent a sudden movement at the rush of the passing squadron. The foot soldiers turned their heads to gaze at the torrent of horses and men.
The yellow folds of the flag fluttered back in silken shuddering waves as if it were a reluctant thing. Occasionally a giant spring of a charger would rear the firm and steady figure of a soldier suddenly head and shoulders above his comrades. Over the noise of the scudding hoofs could be heard the creaking of leather trappings, the jingle and clank of steel, and the tense, low-toned commands or appeals of the men to their horses. And the horses were mad with the headlong sweep of this movement. Powerful under jaws bent back and straightened so that the bits were clamped as rigidly as vices [sic] upon the teeth, and glistening necks arched in desperate resistance to the hands at the bridles. Swinging their heads in rage at the granite laws of their lives, which compelled even their angers and their ardors to chosen directions and chosen paces, their flight was as a flight of harnessed demons.
The captain’s bay kept its pace at the head of the squadron with the lithe bounds of a thoroughbred, and this horse was proud as a chief at the roaring trample of his fellows behind him. The captain’s glance was calmly upon the grove of maples from whence the sharpshooters of the enemy had been picking at the blue line. He seemed to be reflecting. He stolidly rose and fell with the plunges of his horse in all the indifference of a deacon’s figure seated plumply in church. And it occurred to many of the watching infantry to wonder why this officer could remain imperturbable and reflective when his squadron was thundering and swarming behind him like the rushing of a flood.
The column swung in a saber-curve toward a break in a fence and dashed into a roadway. Once a little plank bridge was encountered, and the sound of the hoofs upon it was like the long roll of many drums. An old captain in the infantry turned to his first lieutenant and made a remark which was a compound of bitter disparagement of cavalry in general and soldierly admiration of this particular troop.
Suddenly the bugle sounded and the column halted with a jolting upheaval amid sharp, brief cries. A moment later the men had tumbled from their horses and carbines in hand were running in a swarm toward the grove of maples. In the road, one of every four of the troopers was standing with braced legs, and pulling and hauling at the bridles of four frenzied horses.
The captain was running awkwardly in his boots. He held his saber low so that the point often threatened to catch in the turf. His yellow hair ruffled out from under his faded cap. “Go in hard now!” he roared in a voice of hoarse fury. His face was violently red.
The troopers threw themselves upon the grove like wolves upon a great animal. Along the whole front of the wood there was the dry, crackling of musketry, with bitter, swift flashes and smoke that writhed like stung phantoms. The troopers yelled shrilly and spanged bullets low into the foliage.
For a moment, when near the woods, the line almost halted. The men struggled and fought for a time like swimmers encountering a powerful current. Then with a supreme effort they went on again. They dashed madly at the grove, whose foliage from the high light of the field was as inscrutable as a wall.
Then suddenly each detail of the calm trees became apparent, and with a few more frantic leaps the men were in the cool gloom of the woods. There was a heavy odor as from burned paper.
Wisps of gray smoke wound upward. The men halted and, grimy, perspiring and puffing, they searched the recesses of the woods with eager, fierce glances. Figures could be seen flitting afar off. A dozen carbines rattled at them in an angry volley.
During this pause the captain strode along the line, his face lit with a broad smile of contentment.
“When he sends this crowd to do anything, I guess he’ll find we do it pretty sharp,” he said to the grinning lieutenant.
“Say, they didn’t stand that rush a minute, did they?” said the subaltern. Both officers were profoundly dusty in their uniforms, and their faces were soiled like those of two urchins.
Out in the grass behind them were three tumbled and silent forms.
Presently the line moved forward again. The men went from tree to tree like hunters stalking game. Some at the left of the line fired occasionally and those at the right gazed curiously in that direction. The men still breathed heavily from their scramble across the field.
Of a sudden a trooper halted and said: “Hello! there’s a house!” Everyone paused. The men turned to look at their leader.
The captain stretched his neck and swung his head from side to side. “By George, it is a house!” he said.
Through the wealth of leaves there vaguely loomed the form of a large, white house. These troopers, brown-faced from many days of campaigning, each feature of them telling of their placid confidence and courage, were stopped abruptly by the appearance of this house. There was some subtle suggestion—some tale of an unknown thing—which watched them from they knew not what part of it.
A rail fence girted a wide lawn of tangled grass. Seven pines stood along a driveway which led from two distant posts of a vanished gate. The blue-clothed troopers moved forward until they stood at the fence peering over it.
The captain put one hand on the top rail and seemed to be about to climb the fence when suddenly he hesitated, and said in a low voice: “Watson, what do you think of it?” The lieutenant stared at the house. “Derned if I know!” he replied.
The captain pondered. It happened that the whole company had turned a gaze of profound awe and doubt upon this edifice which confronted them. The men were very silent.
At last the captain swore and said: “We are certainly a pack of fools. Derned old deserted house halting a company of Union cavalry and making us gape like babies!” “Yes, but there’s something—something—” insisted the subaltern in a half stammer.
“Well, if there’s ‘something—something’ in there, I’ll get it out,” said the captain. “Send Sharpe clean around to the other side with about twelve men, so we will sure bag your ‘something— something,’ and I’ll take a few of the boys and find out what’s in the d——d old thing.” He chose the nearest eight men for his “storming party,” as the lieutenant called it. After he had waited some minutes for the others to get into position, he said “Come ahead” to his eight men, and climbed the fence.
The brighter light of the tangled lawn made him suddenly feel tremendously apparent, and he wondered if there could be some mystic thing in the house which was regarding this approach.
His men trudged silently at his back. They stared at the windows and lost themselves in deep speculations as to the probability of there being, perhaps, eyes behind the blinds—malignant eyes, piercing eyes.
Suddenly a corporal in the party gave vent to a startled exclamation, and half threw his carbine into position. The captain turned quickly and the corporal said: “I saw an arm move the blinds.
An arm with a gray sleeve!” “Don’t be a fool, Jones, now,” said the captain sharply.
“I swear t’—” began the corporal, but the captain silenced him.
When they arrived at the front of the house the troopers paused, while the captain went softly up the front steps. He stood before the large front door and studied it. Some crickets chirped in the long grass and the nearest pine could be heard in its endless sighs. One of the privates moved uneasily and his foot crunched the gravel. Suddenly the captain swore angrily and kicked the door with a loud crash. It flew open.
II The bright lights of the day flashed into the old house when the captain angrily kicked open the door. He was aware of a wide hallway carpeted with matting and extending deep into the dwelling. There was also an old walnut hat rack and a little marble-topped table with a vase and two books upon it. Further back was a great, venerable fireplace containing dreary ashes.
But directly in front of the captain was a young girl. The flying open of the door had obviously been an utter astonishment to her and she remained transfixed there in the middle of the floor, staring at the captain with wide eyes.
She was like a child caught at the time of a raid upon the cake. She wavered to and fro upon her feet and held her hands behind her. There were two little points of terror in her eyes as she gazed up at the young captain in dusty blue, with his reddish, bronze complexion, his yellow hair, his bright saber held threateningly.
These two remained motionless and silent, simply staring at each other for some moments.
The captain felt his rage fade out of him and leave his mind limp. He had been violently angry, because this house had made him feel hesitant, wary. He did not like to be wary. He liked to feel confident, sure. So he had kicked the door open, and had been prepared to march in like a soldier of wrath.
But now he began, for one thing, to wonder if his uniform was so dusty and old in appearance.
Moreover, he had a feeling that his face was covered with a compound of dust, grime, and perspiration. He took a step forward and said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” But his voice was coarse from his battle-howling. It seemed to him to have hempen fibers in it.
The girl’s breath came in little, quick gasps, and she looked at him as she would have looked at a serpent.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said again.
The girl, still with her hands behind her, began to back away.
“Is there anyone else in the house?” he went on, while slowly following her. “I don’t wish to disturb you, but we had a fight with some rebel skirmishers in the woods, and I thought maybe some of them might have come in here. In fact, I was pretty sure of it. Are there any of them here?” The girl looked at him and said: “No!” He wondered why extreme agitation made the eyes of some women so limpid and bright.
“Who is here besides yourself?” By this time his pursuit had driven her to the end of the hall, and she remained there with her back to the wall and her hands still behind her. When she answered this question she did not look at him, but down at the floor. She cleared her voice and then said, “There is no one here.” “No one?” She lifted her eyes to him in that appeal that the human being must make even to falling trees, crashing bowlders, the sea in a storm, and said, “No, no, there is no one here.” He could plainly see her tremble.
Of a sudden he bethought him that she had always kept her hands behind her. As he recalled her air when first discovered, he remembered she appeared precisely as a child detected at one of the crimes of childhood. Moreover, she had always backed away from him. He thought now that she was concealing something which was an evidence of the presence of the enemy in the house.
“What are you holding behind you?” he said suddenly.
She gave a little quick moan, as if some grim hand had throttled her.
“What are you holding behind you?” “Oh, nothing—please. I am not holding anything behind me; indeed I’m not.” “Very well. Hold your hands out in front of you, then.” “Oh, indeed, I’m not holding anything behind me. Indeed, I’m not.” “Well,” he began. Then he paused, and remained for a moment dubious. Finally, he laughed.
“Well, I shall have my men search the house, anyhow. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I feel sure that there is some one here whom we want.” He turned to the corporal, who, with the other men, was gaping quietly in at the door, and said: “Jones, go through the house.” As for himself, he remained planted in front of the girl, for she evidently did not dare to move and allow him to see what she held so carefully behind her back. So she was his prisoner.
The men rummaged around on the ground floor of the house. Sometimes the captain called to them, “Try that closet,” “Is there any cellar?” But they found no one, and at last they went trooping toward the stairs which led to the second floor.