Ellen Glasgow: The Altar of the War God
From The Battle-Ground (1902)
VIII. The Altar of the War God
Through the warm spring weather she sat beside the long window that gave on the street, or walked slowly up and down among the vegetable rows in the garden. The growing of the crops became an unending interest to her and she watched them, day by day, until she learned to know each separate plant and to look for its unfolding. When the drought came she carried water from the hydrant, and assisted by Mammy Riah sprinkled the young tomatoes until they shot up like weeds. “It is so much better than war,” she would say to Jack when he rode through the city. “Why will men kill one another when they might make things live instead?”
Beside the piazza, there was a high magnolia tree, and under this she made a little rustic bench and a bed of flowers. When the hollyhocks and the sunflowers bloomed it would look like Uplands, she said, laughing.
Under the magnolia there was quiet, but from her front window, while she sat at work, she could see the whole overcrowded city passing through sun and shadow. Sometimes distinguished strangers would go by, men from the far South in black broadcloth and slouch hats; then the President, slim and erect and very grave, riding his favourite horse to one of the encampments near the city; and then a noted beauty from another state, her chin lifted above the ribbons of her bonnet, a smile tucked in the red corners of her lips. Following there would surge by the same eager, staring throng — men too old to fight who had lost their work; women whose husbands fought in the trenches for the money that would hardly buy a sack of flour; soldiers from one of the many camps; noisy little boys with tin whistles; silent little girls waving Confederate flags. Back and forth they passed on the bright May afternoons, filling the street with a ceaseless murmur and the blur of many colours.
And again the crowd would part suddenly to make way for a battalion marching to the front, or for a single soldier riding, with muffled drums, to his grave in Hollywood. The quick step or the slow gait of the riderless horse; the wild cheers or the silence on the pavement; the “Bonnie Blue Flag” or the funeral dirge before the coffin; the eager faces of men walking to where death was or the fallen ones of those who came back with the dead; the bold flags taking the wind like sails or the banners furled with crepe as they drooped forward — there was not a day when these things did not go by near together. To Virginia, sitting at her window, it was as if life and death walked on within each other’s shadow.
That afternoon the sound of the guns rolled up the Williamsburg road, and in the streets men shouted hoarsely of an engagement with the enemy at Seven Pines. With the noise Virginia thrilled to her first feeling of danger, starting from a repose which, in its unconsciousness, had been as profound as sleep. The horror of war rushed in upon her at the moment, and with a cry she leaned out into the street, and listened for the next roll of the cannon.
A woman, with a scared face, looked up, saw her, and spoke hysterically.
“There’s not a man left in the city,” she cried. “They’ve taken my father to defend the breastworks and he’s near seventy. If you can sew or wash or cook, there’ll be work enough for you, God knows, to-morrow!”
She hurried on and Virginia, turning from the window, buried herself in the pillows upon the bed, trying in vain to shut out the noise of the cannonading and the perfume of the magnolia blossoms which came in on the southern breeze. With night the guns grew silent and the streets empty, but still the girl lay sleepless, watching with frightened eyes the shadow of Mammy Riah’s palm-leaf fan.
At dawn the restless murmur began again, and Virginia, looking out in the hot sunrise, saw the crowd hastening back to the hospitals lower down. They were all there, all as they had been the day before – old men limping out for news or returning beside the wounded; women with trembling lips and arms filled with linen; ambulances passing the corner at a walk, surrounded by men who had staggered after them because there was no room left inside; and following always the same curious, pallid throng, fresh upon the scent of some new tragedy. Presently the ambulances gave out, and yet the wounded came – some walking, and moaning as they walked, some borne on litters by devoted servants, some drawn in market wagons pressed into use. The great warehouses and the churches were thrown open to give them shelter, but still they came and still the cry went up, “Room, more room!”
Virginia watched it all, leaning out to follow the wagons as they passed the corner. The sight sickened her, but something that was half a ghastly fascination, and half the terror of missing a face she knew, kept her hour after hour motionless upon her knees. At each roll of the guns she gave a nervous shiver and grew still as stone.
The sun was already high above, and the breeze, which had blown for three days from the river, had dropped suddenly since dawn. Down the brick pavement the relentless glare flashed back into the sky which hung hot blue overhead. To Virginia, coming from the shade of her rooms, the city seemed a furnace and the steady murmur a great discord in which every note was one of pain.
Into the rude hospitals, one after one, she went without shuddering, passing up and down between the ghastly rows lying half clothed upon the bare plank floors. Her eyes were strained and eager, and more than one dying man turned to look after her as she went by, and carried the memory of her face with him to death. Once she stopped and folded a blanket under the head of a boy who moaned aloud, and then gave him water from a pitcher close at hand. “You’re so cool – so cool,” he sobbed, clutching at her dress, but she smiled like one asleep and passed on rapidly.
When the long day had worn out at last, she came from an open store filled with stretchers, and started homeward over the burning pavement. Her search was useless, and the reaction from her terrible fear left her with a sudden tremor in her heart. As she walked she leaned heavily upon Mammy Riah, and her colour came and went in quick flashes. The heat had entered into her brain and with it the memory of open wounds and the red hands of surgeons. Reaching the house at last, she flung herself all dressed upon the bed and fell into a sleep that was filled with changing dreams.
At midnight she cried out in agony, believing herself to be still in the street. When Mammy Riah bent over her she did not know her, but held out shaking hands and asked for her mother, calling the name aloud in the silent house, deserted for the sake of the hospitals lower down. She was walking again on and on over the hot bricks, and the deep wounds were opening before her eyes while the surgeons went by with dripping hands. Once she started up and cried out that the terrible blue sky was crushing her down to the pavement which burned her feet. Then the odour of the magnolia filled her nostrils, and she talked of the scorching dust, of the noise that would not stop, and of the feeble breeze that blew toward her from the river. All night she wandered back and forth in the broad glare of the noon, and all night Mammy Riah passed from the clinging hands to the window where she looked for help in the empty street. And then, as the gray dawn broke, Virginia put her simple services by, and spoke in a clear voice.
“Oh, how lovely,” she said, as if well pleased. A moment more and she lay smiling like a child, her chin pressed deep in her open palm.
In the full sunrise a physician, who had run in at the old woman’s cry, came from the house and stopped bareheaded in the breathless heat. For a moment he stared over the moving city and then up into the cloudless blue of the sky.
“God damn war!” he said suddenly, and went back to his knife.