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The Spirit of ‘63 by Elsie Singmaster

Editors note: This story was originally published in Outlook, July 3, 1918.

 

“You’d treat children that way?’ asked old Evans, slowly. 

 

“Certainly, if their parents carried them into danger.” 

 

“You’d throw them into the cold sea?” 

 

“It wouldn’t be my lookout.” 

 

“And women, you’d—you’d--” Old Evans stopped, lacking words. 

 

A low, coarse laugh answered him. 

 

“War is war,” said another voice. “It’s not a tea party, like your war.” 

 

In the vast cylindrical room there was after this complete stillness. From without not a sound carried through the unbroken walls, and within there was not even the buzzing of a fly, since old Evans pursued flies as relentlessly as he had once pursued Confederates. Even the birds which twittered under the lofty roof were for the moment still. 

 

The Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg was at this moment at its best. The sun was close to setting, and the brilliant light, reflected from a clear sky, shone from above upon the hundreds of square feet of painted canvas with which the walls were covered. Time had softened the bright colors, but the light seemed now to restore the yellow of the wheat, the blue and red of the waving banners, even the scarlet of the blood-stains. The cruel scene was presented in a romantic glow which brightened and glorified. 

 

Old Evans was a little man in a blue suit, with a saber cut across his face and a grotesquely twisted leg. The saber cut made him appear indescribably ferocious, the crooked leg indescribably ridiculous. Facing him stood three men, heavy, soft of flesh, and elegantly dressed. All four were angry; old Evans with the white heat with which one contemplates some outrageous wrong, the others with the annoyance with which one regards an insect before the moment of smiting. Old Evans moved a step backward, his limp more than ever ridiculous to the visitors. One of them laughed again. At that a gleam which was almost insane came into Evans’s eye. He moved still farther away. 

 

Even in war time visitors throng to Gettysburg. They come in automobiles and in trains, in the most elegant of limousines and in the most plebeian of Fords. They drive about, the indifferent idly glancing at that which does not particularly concern them, the others gazing with the eager attention of those who have within them springs of imagination or patriotic emotion at that which thrills and stirs them. They visit the Jenny Wade House, where fell the one woman slain in a three days’ battle; they visit East Cemetery Hill, where the Louisiana Tigers were hurled back, broken; they visit the Angle behind which rose a living and impregnable breastwork; they visit the scene of Pickett’s charge and look across the wide fields once strewn with the defenders of a Lost Cause; they stand at last—the most dull a little awed---before the Cyclorama. There some refuse to give more than a glance, not now from lack of interest, but from fright—from stubborn unwillingness to look at war. 

 

At the Cyclorama they see also old Evans, whose youth was glorious and whose old age is happy. Old Evans received both saber cut and shell wound at the Angle on the third day, and fell, yelling defiance, to know no more for many weeks. Once out of the hospital, he was, to his great disgust, invalided, and his military appearances were thenceforth limited to an absurd hopping in military and Memorial Day parades, where, laughed at and applauded, he kept bravely up with more fortunate comrades who had two sound legs. 

 

In his old age Evans was made guardian of what he believed to be the treasure of the world, the Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, which, after many journeys and long sojournings in great cities, had found at last a permanent home. Evans had seen few paintings in his life, but he did not need any extensive knowledge of art to tell him that this was a great painting. Here was Gettysburg—could one not distinguish the Seminary, dim but unmistakable, in the distance; could could one not see the very trees which Pickett’s men made their desperate goal, the very Angle in the stone wall which was bathed in blood? Here were the generals, Hunt among his staff, Hancock magnificent on his great horse, Armistead reeling backward, the heroic symbol of splendid defeat. Here were flying banners, here were smoke clouds, here was a caisson bursting volcanically into red flame and spreading ruin, here were injured men in tortured positions, here were surgeons at their sad work, here was even an old Gettysburg doctor, pressed into service and painted to the life! Here was, moreover, ripe wheat, exactly the proper color for July 3 in Gettysburg—Evans had observed it since fifty-two times—here were red poppies in the wheat, here were the distant hills with Jack’s Mountain plainly to be seen, there in the distance was even a dim suggestion of Emmitsburg! 

 

Old Evans met visitors with the enthusiasm of a child. He loved to talk, he could talk almost all day. 

 

“Well, friends, you’ve come to see the painting. A treat’s in store for you. Before taking you into the main room I’ll tell you what you’re going to see. A colossal work, friends. A battle. This is a great day for you, children. Have you been over the field? Well, there’s no choice between going over the field before you see the Cyclorama or after you see the Cyclorama, just so you see it, friends. Yes, a quarter. A quarter may seem large now, but it’s a small price for what you’re going to get. Now, look!” 

 

When Evans had said his speech, he accompanied his guests to the door and gave them a benediction. 

 

“Up the street now, friends, to the graves of the unbeknownst.” 

 

Evans not only adored the picture but defended it. 

 

“You say there ain’t any poppies in Gettysburg wheat? You drive to Pen Mar and you’ll see poppies in the wheat. There’s nothing to prove that there weren’t poppies here then. French haystacks? That’s a small matter to fuss about. It might be that a Gettysburg farmer made a haystack like that for a change.” 

 

Evans even feared the Cyclorama. In the twilight, when he looked about, the masses of smoke seemed to move, to roll forward on the battle-lines, the dying and even the dead to stir. On moonlight nights one rider seemed to Evans to urge his white steed forward, and Evans thought of Death on his pale horse. Then Evans heard shouts and screams and the roar of cannon, and quickly closed the door of the tall iron grating between the Cyclorama and the vestibule, and then the outer door itself. 

 

Old Evans had many friends. Among his intimates were the blacksmith, John Byers, who was the largest man in Gettysburg; Alec Dimmet, a carpenter, who was six feet two and of powerful frame; and John Potter, the Burgess, who was only a little smaller than John Byers. 

 

Evans lived with the Burgess, a silent man who liked to hear Evans talk. Seen together they suggested a giant and his familiar. Agreement between them was complete, both about their manner of living and about the affairs of the world. Especially did they now agree about what Evans called “the contemporary war,” and their comments took the form of a lengthy recitative in Evans’s tenor with comments in Potter’s deep bass. The recitative recounted the events of each day as reported in the newpapers, the bass added such expressions as “hellish butchery,” “execrable,” and occasionally “damnable.” When Alec Dimmet and John Byers were present, there were three harmonious basses. 

 

It was the summer of 1916 when the three stout strangers came to Gettysburg. Obese and rich, they were motoring from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and stopped against their will. The ride was dull. For them nature had few charms; they wished only to get on to their business appointment the next evening. They saw neither blossoming rhododendron nor swift little streams nor the unbounded prospects spread before them at each descent of the mountain ridges. Here and there enormous signs, already disfiguring the Lincoln Highway, caught their eye, and they pointed them out to one another as the one notable feature of the landscape. 

 

The three talked steadily, moved by a strange obsession. A red flower had blossomed in the world from an ancient root long thought dead and done with, and this blossom they meditated upon and loved. They were soft and pampered creatures who could not have stood for an instant against a good-sized and strong-armed boy, yet they glorified physical power. They were Americans, speaking only English, knowing only—as far as they knew any literature—English literature, living under English laws, and still by some strange perversity allying themselves with the Germany from which their fathers had fled. Of its efficiency in peace and war they talked at length and loudly, of the satisfaction of brutal instincts which a world has striven to inhibit they spoke in lower tones but with a deeper pleasure. 

 

In the early afternoon they reached Gettysburg, and there were told by their chauffeur that their car could not go on until the next day. Meanwhile he would have to go by train to Harrisburg for a broken part. 

 

The three were angry. The history of America did not interest them. Gettysburg looked to them like a poor town, and to them, by some obscure analogy, the battle was a poor battle. To the soliciting of the guides at the hotel they were deaf. 

 

“This is a one-horse show. We’ll wait and see France and England when Germany’s licked them.” 

 

After an early supper the three walked ponderously up and down the hills of a long street and came at last to the Cyclorama. Because they were tired they went in. 

 

Old Evans hopped to meet them, his eyes twinkling. He had had that day only a few visitors and his soul longed for expression. All the comparisons invented could scarcely describe the need of old Evans for frequent communication with his kind. Tomorrow he expected to be away, and was therefore all the more reason why he should talk to-day. 

 

“Well, friends,”--thus had he spoken aloud to himself several times during the long afternoon, hearing, as he spoke, the usual comments--”Wasn’t it awful?” “How did they live through it?” “I tell you those were brave men!” He expected, as he went forward to meet this group of visitors, a repetition of his little triumphs. He moistened his lips, he heard himself saying, “Now, friends, a general look first;” he heard his climax, “There I fought, friends!” 

 

Kindly old Evans was so poor a judge of human character of a certain sort that he shook hands with his three visitors. 

 

“Sit down, friends, here in the vestibule. This is a warm evening. I’ll tell you here what you’re going to see, then we’ll go inside. Now, friends, to do that I must go back a little before the battle. You see, friends, it was this way. For two years, friends, war had been proceeding, and our folks hadn’t been successful. You know all about that. Lee, he conceived a great plan. If he could get north of the Mason and Dixon’s line and attack the capital of the Keystone State, which was Harrisburg, he wouldn’t have much trouble—so he thought—with Philadelphia, and after that Baltimore and Washington would be easy marks. So, having whipped our folks bad at Chancellorsville, he made his plans for to go north, and he did go north, friends, clear to sight of Harrisburg. But then, friends, he got important word that set him thinking. Our folks was after him. But he thought that General Stuart could easily tend to them with his cavalry, and he goes on. He—“ 

 

Old Evans found himself interrupted. 

 

“Say, friend,” said a harsh voice, “we haven’t got all time. We’ve got to be in Philadelphia to-morrow evening.” 

 

Evans made pleasant answer, as though to a witticism. He had not yet surmised that there might be human beings who were not interested in what he had to say. 

 

“I haven’t got all time either,” said he, cheerfully. “I’m going to East Berlin this evening to stay till to-morrow evening. I have a little farm there. I—“ 

 

“East Berlin? Where’s that?” 

 

“It’s a town near here. My friend the Burgess is going to take charge of this place for me to-morrow.” 

 

“I’m glad you’re good Germans in this neighborhood.” 

 

Old Evans did not hear. He took a long breath, as for a plunge into the deep water. 

 

“So Lee went on, friends. But it wasn’t long till he learned the sickenin’ news—that is, sickenin’ to him—that Stuart had not been successful in bafflin’ Hooker, and that Hooker had outgeneraled Stuart. What did this make Lee determine to do, friends? To give up his nefarious plan of attacking the capital of the Keystone State—from which it had a narrow escape, I can tell you—and get his folks first together, and then out of the narrow valley where they was, which would have been the same as a prison trap. So, friends—“ 

 

The largest of the three men rose and walked toward the iron grating which divided the vestibule from the Cyclorama. Inside and well within the cylindrical room there was still another grating. 

 

“You’d better show us what you got. We can look while you talk.” 

 

Evans held out a pleading hand. 

 

“You’ll be glad when you get in to understand a little. It’s very confusing if you don’t understand.” 

 

The stranger sat down. 

 

“Well, make it short.” 

 

All three grinned broadly when Evans concluded his description of the first and second days of the battle. When one cared nothing for his earnestness or his wounds, he was ludicrous. Now, at his command, the three arose and passed ponderously through the doors in the iron grating. 

 

“A general look,” directed Evans. “First a general look.” 

 

The three strangers looked. Then one of them asked an amazing question. 

 

“Is this all?” 

 

“All!” repeated Evans. He laughed at the stranger’s joke. “I guess this is enough!” 

 

“Go on with your story,” commanded another. 

 

Evans took his long wand, and again filled his lungs with air. 

 

“Now, friends, you see—” 

 

“Ain’t we to sit down?” asked one of the strangers. 

 

“You won’t want to sit down—that is, not yet. Now, friends—” 

 

One man reached suddenly a climax of irritation. He mocked Evans in a low tone, as though Evans were a sheep. But still Evans did not hear. 

 

“So, now, friends, as I have told you, the first day was a victory for the Confederates; the second day was, one might say, so to speak, a drawn battle, and it was left to the third day to decide that God was still in his heaven, friends, if I might speak in such strong terms. It was on the third day that the great question was decided, friends. Here at this point”—the long wand rested upon the thickest of the carnage—“here government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the earth—” 

 

“Seems to me I’ve heard that before,” said one of the strangers. 

 

“Sounds familiar to me, too.” 

 

Evans went on in a louder tone. 

 

“Now, gentlemen, move back here to a further distance.” 

 

The three took ponderous steps like elephants in haste. One of them raised his arm to imitate Evans’s gesture. 

 

“Now friends, you see there by that cannon—” 

 

“You call that a cannon! Why, that’s a toy for a child to play with.” 

 

“A toy!” repeated Evans, still pleasantly. “You wouldn’t think it was a toy if you got a charge from it in your leg. Why, the cannons shot away hundreds of tons of metal in these three days!” 

 

“They shoot away that much in an hour on the other side.” 

 

Evans began at last to be disturbed. 

 

“There was two hundred thousand men in this battle,” he declared. 

 

“Two hundred thousand!” repeated one of the strangers. “That wasn’t much more than an alley fight.” 

 

Evans lowered his wand. His cheeks grew pale. 

 

“Why, friends, I know about this battle, I fought”—in his excitement he proceeded with inartistic haste to his climax. “I fought”—with trembling hand the wand was directed again to the center of the hottest fighting—“there! With Hays, friends, I got these wounds there.” 

 

But to this audience Evans’s wounds signified nothing. 

 

“If you’d been on the other side, there wouldn’t ‘a’ been anything left of you.” 

 

“The other side!” repeated Evans. “You mean the Confederate side?” 

 

The three shouted. 

 

“The other side of the water! I mean, if the Germans were after you.” 

 

Evans laid down his wand and folded his shaking arms. 

 

“Friends,” said he, “this was a great battle. History says it, and I know it. Why, look at it!” he pointed tremulously with his finger. “See the throngs of men! See the horses! See there that mass of troops advancing! See them comin’ behind by hundreds! See the cannon! See—” 

 

“On the other side they came by thousands,” came the mocking answer. “This battle was nothing. This war was nothing.” 

 

Old Evans was stupefied. He could only repeat, “Nothing!” 

 

“You have said it,” said one visitor. 

 

“A little quarrel over some niggers,” said another. 

 

Evans saw now the jeering faces and realized that these strange creatures had come to mock. He realized also the implications of their words. 

 

“This was a great war,” he shouted. “It was in a just cause. That over there is”—he remembered gratefully a few serviceable words of the Burgess’s—“is hellish butchery!” 

 

The visitors laughed at his ardor. 

 

“That is real war,” said one. “That is worth something. No ‘Alphonse—Gaston’ business about that! They know what they want and they get it. They go to a town. ‘Here,’ they say, ‘we want so and so, and you deliver the goods. If you don’t, you’re dead.’” 

 

Old Evans moved a little away, not beause of any physical fear, for he knew no such thing, but because of spiritual horror. 

 

“They shoot civilians!” he cried. “Why, in the battle of Gettysburg only one civilian was killed, and she was mourned by both sides. She was Jennie Wade, she—“ 

 

“Shoot civilians—of course. Let the civilians get out.” 

 

“They batter down churches!” cried Evans. 

 

“A church is no better than any other building in war.” 

 

“And hospitals!” 

 

“Sure.” 

 

“They torpedo ships and send them to the bottom without givin’ the people a chance!” 

 

‘I wouldn’t give ‘em a chance either.” 

 

Evans moved still a little farther away. His hand was now upon the iron grating, to which he held as though he were faint. 

 

“You’d treat children the way they do?” 

 

“Certainly, if their parents carried them into danger.” 

 

“You’d throw them into the cold sea?” 

 

“It wouldn’t be my lookout.” 

 

“Would you expect the Germans to warm the sea?” asked another voice. 

 

“And women,” said Evans. “You’d—you’d—” 

 

When one of the men laughed, Evans clung to the grating with his whole weight. Such words and such opinions defiled what was to him a holy place. 

 

“You must get out,” he commanded. “You cannot stay here.” 

 

“Bah, bah, bah!” said a voice. “We’re glad to go.” 

 

The three men moved through the grated door and Evans clicked it shut. But they were not through with poor old Evans. Between the two grated doors they mocked him again. 

 

“Did you think you  could fight the Germans?” asked one. “Perhaps you thought you could scare ‘em?” 

 

“Evans’s dreadful scar burned. 

 

“Get out!” said he. 

 

“Get out!” mocked one of the fat men. 

 

The voice maddened old Evans. His mind worked quickly. They need not think he was powerless; he would show them what he could do. He slipped through the second iron grating and shut with lightning swiftness the second grated door. 

 

“Then stay!” he shouted. “I’m going for the Burgess.” 

 

The three men made a rush for the grated door. But the spring lock held. They looked upward. The grating cold not by any possibility be scaled by a fat man. They looked back over their shoulders at the enormous picture with its dead and dying. It seemed to them that the smoke clouds moved. They began to curse sickeningly. 

 

“Bring your Burgess, and you’ll get what’s coming to you! You fool! Open this door! We couldn’t be held for a minute. Not a second. Damn you! Open the door!” 

 

Old Evans stood facing them. One of them might have a revolver, but Evans was past caring for revolvers. His soul was sick and he was filled at the same time with rage. It was true, alas! That they could not be held. What they said boldly in defense of Germany was only what others hinted. Nothing could be done to them. The Burgess would have to let them go unpunished, even though he would long to imprison them. Tears came into Evans’s eyes. 

 

Then old Evans had a second thought. There are hurs when a man must make his own laws. Relentlessly he walked through the vestibule and closed the outer door. When that was shut, not a sound could be heard, neither a cry nor a curse. 

 

“There’ll be a full moon,” said Evans to himself, as he crossed the street. “After a while it’ll shine on ‘Death on a pale horse.’ They can get water if they’re thirsty and if they have sense enough to open the closet door. I guess it’s a long time since they drank water.” 

 

Across the street there was the sound of pounding, and the carpenter Alec Dimmet looked down from the roof of his new porch. He stood like Thor, hammer in hand, grinning at the friend whom he loved. 

 

“Alec,” said Evans, “to-morrow morning, at nine o’clock, when you see the Burgess coming, you go across to the Cyclorama with him and he’ll give you the ten dollars we owe you.” 

 

“All right,” said Alec. 

 

“They can still get to Philadelphia by to-morrow evening,” said Evans, as he went down the street. 

 

At the blacksmith’s he stopped. 

 

“John,” said he, “you go out to the Cyclorama in the morning and fix that hinge. Can you be there at nine sharp?” 

 

“I can,” said the giant blacksmith. 

 

Before the little house where old Evans and the Burgess lived together there waited a horse and buggy ready for old Evans’s annual journey to East Berlin. The Burgess stood beside it, ready to seize the sober steed if he should by any remote chance decide to lift a foot before the time. 

 

“All ready?” asked the Burgess. 

 

Old Evans looked up at his friend. 

 

“Burgess, you won’t fail to be at the Cyclorama in the morning?” 

 

“I’ll be there.” 

 

“Here is the key. Byers is coming at nine o’clock to fix a hinge. I guess he’ll walk up with you. And Dimmet’s coming for his money—ten dollars—you’ll find it in the safe.” 

 

“I’ll tend to it,” said the Burgess. 

 

Evans slapped the lines on the back of the old horse. He regretted the necessity for even a short hiatus in the communion between him and the Burgess. He was burning, also, with an intense curiosity.  That his friends would meet successfully the situation provided for them he did not doubt. 

 

“I had three awful men with me this afternoon,” said he. “They said this was a little quarrel over a few niggers. They said everything the Germans did was right.” 

 

“I wish I had my hands on them!” said the giant Burgess. 

 

Slowly at last the horse got under way. Old Evans looked back, his eyes gleaming. 

 

“Burgess,” said he, “about ten o’clock to-morrow morning I’ll ‘phone up.” 

 

 

 

   

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