Ellen Glasgow: The Reign of the Brute
From The Battle Ground (1902)
The Reign of the Brute
The sight of the soaked shirt and the smell of blood turned Dan faint. He felt a sudden tremor in his limbs, and his arteries throbbed dully in his ears. “I didn’t know it was like this,” he muttered thickly. “Why, they’re no better than mangled rabbits – I didn’t know it was like this.”
They wound through the little ravine, climbed a hillside planted in thin corn, and were ordered to “load and lie down” in a strip of woodland. Dan tore at his cartridge with set teeth; then as he drove his ramrod home, a shell, thrown from a distant gun, burst in the trees above him, and a red flame ran, for an instant, along the barrel of his musket. He dodged quickly, and a rain of young pine needles fell in scattered showers from the smoked boughs overhead. Somewhere beside him a man was groaning in terror or in pain. “I’m hit, boys, by God, I’m hit this time.” The groans changed promptly into a laugh. “Bless my soul! the plagued thing went right into the earth beneath me.”
“Damn you, it went into my leg,” retorted a hoarse voice that fell suddenly silent.
As he bent to fire, the fury of the game swept over him and aroused the sleeping brute within him. All the primeval instincts, throttled by the restraint of centuries – the instincts of bloodguiltiness, of hot pursuit, of the fierce exhilaration of the chase, of the death grapple with a resisting foe – these awoke suddenly to life and turned the battle scarlet to his eyes.
Two hours later, when the heavy clouds were smothering the sunset, he came slowly back across the field. A gripping nausea had seized upon him – a nausea such as he had known before after that merry night at college. His head throbbed, and as he walked he staggered like a drunken man. The revulsion of his overwrought emotions had thrown him into a state of sensibility almost hysterical.
The battle-field stretched grimly round him, and as the sunset was blotted out, a gray mist crept slowly from the west. Here and there he saw men looking for the wounded, and he heard one utter an impatient “Pshaw!” as he lifted a half-cold body and let it fall. Rude stretchers went by him on either side, and still the field seemed as thickly sown as before; on the left, where a regiment of Zouaves had been cut down, there was a flash of white and scarlet, as if the loose grass was strewn with great tropical flowers. Among them he saw the reproachful eyes of dead and dying horses.
Before him, on the gradual slope of the hill, stood a group of abandoned guns, and there was something almost human in the pathos of their utter isolation. Around them the ground was scorched and blackened, and scattered over the broken trails lay the men who had fallen at their post. He saw them lying there in the fading daylight, with the sponges and the rammers still in their hands, and he saw upon each man’s face the look with which he had met and recognized the end. Some were smiling, some staring, and one lay grinning as if at a ghastly joke. Near him a boy, with the hair still damp on his forehead, had fallen upon an uprooted blackberry vine, and the purple stain of the berries was on his mouth. As Dan looked down upon him, the smell of powder and burned grass came to him with a wave of sickness, and turning he stumbled on across the field. At the first step his foot struck upon something hard, and, picking it up, he saw that it was a Minie ball, which, in passing through a man’s spine, had been transformed into a mass of mingled bone and lead. With a gesture of disgust he dropped it and went on rapidly. A stretcher moved beside him, and the man on it, shot through the waist, was saying in a whisper, “It is cold – cold – so cold.”