Ellen Glasgow: “That killed how many? how many?”
From The Battle Ground (1902)
In the adjoining room she saw her mother sitting in a square of sunlight with her open Bible on her knees.
“Oh, speak, mamma!” she called half angrily. “Move, do anything but sit so still. I can’t bear it!” She caught her breath sharply, for with her words a low sound like distant thunder filled the room and the little street outside. As she clung with both hands to the window it seemed to her that a gray haze had fallen over the sunny valley. “Some one is dead,” she said almost calmly, “that killed how many?”
The room stifled her and she ran hurriedly down into the street, where a few startled women and old men had rushed at the first roll of the cannon. As she stood among them, straining her eyes from end to end of the little village, her heart beat in her throat and she could only quaver out an appeal for news.
“Where is it? Doesn’t any one know anything? What does it mean?”
“It means a battle, Miss, that’s one thing,” remarked an obliging by-stander who leaned heavily upon a wooden leg…
He rambled on excitedly, but Betty, frowning with impatience, turned from him and walked rapidly up and down the single street, where the voices of the guns growled through the muffling distance. “That killed how many? how many?” she would say at each long roll, and again, “How many died that moment, and was one Dan?”
As he tossed a last armful on the fire, his eyes roamed over the long mounds of snow that filled the clearing, and he caught his breath as a man might who had waked suddenly among the dead. In the beginning of dawn, with the glimmer of smouldering fires reddening the snow, there was something almost ghastly in the sloping field filled with white graves and surrounded by white mountains. Even the wintry sky borrowed, for an hour, the spectral aspect of the earth, and the familiar shapes of cloud, as of hill, stood out with all the majesty of uncovered laws – stripped of the mere frivolous effect of light or shade. It was like the first day – or the last.
“I thought you were my husband,” said the woman, blushing at her mistake. “If you want food you are welcome to the little that I have – it is very little.” She led the way into the house, and motioned, with a pitiable gesture, to a table that was spread in the centre of the sitting room.
“Will you sit down?” she asked, and at the words, a child in the corner of the room set up a frightened cry.
“It’s my supper – I want my supper,” wailed the child.
“Hush, dear,” said the woman, “they are our soldiers.”
“Our soldiers,” repeated the child, staring, with its thumb in its mouth and the tear-drops on its cheeks.
For an instant Dan looked at them as they stood there, the woman holding the child in her arms, and biting her thin lips from which hunger had drained all the red. There was scant food on the table, and as his gaze went back to it, it seemed to him that, for the first time, he grasped the full meaning of a war for the people of the soil. This was the real thing – not the waving banners, not the bayonets, not the fighting in the ranks.