On a warm April day in 1865, a young Confederate soldier walked slowly and unsteadily along a deep-rutted country road toward the west. He was as thin as a girl, and although his age was but 21, he bore the marks of a man of 40. War had seared his once youthful visage with the hardened lines of a veteran. Relieved and on furlough, he was headed towards the mountains, home, hope.
Barely 24 hours had passed since he had been discharged from the hospital in Petersburg with a 60 days leave granted. The officer who made out his papers had remarked, 'Things winding up, my boy; you may not need to return.' The surgeon said to him, 'Young man, I think you can make it home, but you must rest often and not allow yourself to go without food. When passed out of the ward, they placed another man on his cot.
He had volunteered at 17 and for four years had followed Pickett up and down the ravaged soil of battle-scarred states. Gettysburg, where he was standard bearer for his company, gave evidence of his reckless abandon and inspiring courage. These were so noteworthy that his captain remarked that the only thing that saved him was that he was too thin for a bullet to hit.
Now, as he limped weary and sore-footed, the wide expanse of an older and much larger dead brother's uniform flapped about his limbs and rendered it even more difficult for him to walk. Sometimes in his simple mind arose faint memories of his village home as it was when he left it. His mother had stood at the gate and tearfully bade him goodbye as he marched away to war, full of spirit as a gamecock. Later, when he had passed around the bend and forded the creek, he had choked back a sob. Subsequent days had brought loneliness and heartache to the boy who had never been away from home - the home that was now a distant memory. It was all so much like a dream, and he thought of the peacefulness of it all - of treasured scenes of his childhood and early manhood. But that was four years ago. He wondered if they were still there.
The wound in his shoulder brought him back forcefully to the bitter presence of the moment. In the last hour it had commenced to bleed, and he sat down by the roadside to staunch the flow of blood. The shoulder had been struck a glancing blow by a Minie ball, and the arm hung like an iron weight, numb, devoid of feeling. The bleeding subsided and the rest strengthened him. Springtime abounded over the land. Wheat was knee deep and billowy. Corn and potatoes were up, for this section of Virginia was yet untrod den seriously by the war god ... The scent of wild hyacinth pervaded the atmosphere ... It was hard to believe from this peaceful scene that tragedy stalked.
A cloud of dust on the country road was soon followed by the sound of rumbling wheels, and a cavalcade of wagons, buggies, carts, loaded with country folk and their household effects, came into view. There must have been a dozen or more. The occupants called greetings to him, but moved on hurriedly. They were fleeing from (Union General Philip) Sheridan's ravaging hosts.
Near the middle of the afternoon he came to a bridge under which a small stream flowed deep and amber ... Kneeling, he proceeded to satisfy his thirst. Then he plunged his head under the surface of the water several times ... Painfully, he pulled off his worn shoes and tattered stockings, then dangled his tired, aching feet in the water. Its cooling freshness soothed his feet and brought peace to him. His attention became drawn to the shoes ... The heels had disappeared. There were holes in the uppers and holes in the soles. No wonder he had sore feet. He grinned derisively at them and, holding them high for a last look, dropped them into the stream where they were swept under the bridge and out of sight. .. The gentle swaying of the sycamore tree lulled him into sleep.
Hours later he awoke to the accompaniment of the crash of thunder. Overhead flashes of lightning swept across the murky sky, and the wind soughing through the branches made him shiver. . . The rain descended in torrents. The soldier sheltered himself against the bole of the tree ... After a time (the storm) wore itself out and the broken peals of thunder sounded dim in the distance ... The wetness had made him cold ... Barefooted, he continued his journey.
The day had grown dim and hunger began to assail him. How he wished for food! ... Straight ahead, in a large open space on slightly rising ground, loomed a pretentious country dwelling. Nearer, it was seen to have a white-columned portico, shady, grassy lawns, extensive outbuildings, and all about unmistakable evidence of culture.
The soldier, now almost famished, turned from the highway and slowly approached the mansion ... He walked up a box-hedge-bordered path to the porch ... All about was evidence of elegant taste, albeit the surroundings were somewhat in a state of dilapidation, something to be expected in the zero hour of Southern tide.
A massive door stood before him as he crossed the portico, and there was no response as he took hold of the heavy knocker and let it fall several times. Then he called loudly. Still no answer. He waited. The silence of the graveyard permeated the atmosphere. Plainly, no one was at home.
He tried the door and it opened with ease ... For a moment he hesitated, and stepped inside. He was in a large hallway. Doors opened to either side. Cautiously, he opened the first door to the right. Inside was a lavishly furnished parlor. Rich tapestries hung on the walls ... The lush feel of expensive rugs was under his feet. In an open fireplace a bright fire burned. He approached the fire to warm himself. Then he called loudly. Still there was no answer.
Forgetting his weariness and all else, even the desolation of the mansion, in his hunger, the soldier tossed his cap, gun and knapsack upon a divan and began to search for food. At the end of the hall he found the kitchen. To his surprise, a fire burned in the fireplace there, and pots of vegetables hung from hooks in the chimney. On a table sat a pan of yeast dough. Upon shelves were some cakes and pies, and, opening a cupboard, he discovered a cold-boiled ham and a loaf of light bread. These he seized and started to eat ravenously.
Feeling better, he gathered an armful of wood from the kitchen pile and, carrying it to the parlor, threw it upon the fire. Then he lighted a candle, as it was now quite dark. .. Warmth crept over him, but he could not sleep. There was yet the mystery of the mansion ...
Suddenly, a noise startled him. It came from overhead and was like the tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp of heavy boots going from one corner to the other in the room above. He gripped himself and sat up. Then he listened steadily. Could he have been mistaken? All doubt was cast aside, when, presently, he heard the sound again, this time the walker retracing his steps to the original corner.
He hastily seized his gun and the candle and crept quickly and silently upstairs. Three doors opened to either side of the upstairs hall. The one at the far end of the hall and to the right, he was certain, opened into the room whence the noise had issued. He would find out. Tiptoeing to the door, he opened it cautiously, and, holding the candle aloft, peered inside. The chamber was that of a young lady of that period ... But there was no sign of life. Only the mournful call of a hoot owl to its mate came through a partly opened window. But the room was heavy with a personality.
The astonished soldier took in all these details at a moment's glance. Then he hurried to the other chambers. In these, he made a circumspect examination, looking under the beds, searching the closets, and thumping on the walls. These rooms were all handsomely furnished, but devoid of life as a tomb.
Returning to the parlor downstairs, he sat down beside the fire. In a moment he heard the noise again. The mystery walker was crossing the upstairs room again. He sprang to his feet this time, somewhat nervously, and, seizing the candle, literally ran upstairs to the young lady's chamber, throwing open the door violently. It was as empty as before. Quickly, he searched the closet, examined the bed, looked behind the pictures on the wall for a possible secret passage, but to no avail. Walking to the open window, he examined the exterior for a porch roof, tree, ladder, or trellis that might furnish footing for escape.
No tree, shrubbery, or other avenue offered egress ... Silence, save for the chirping of the night insects, hung over the meadow, and an even more deathlike silence pervaded the mansion. Uncertainty that hinged upon dread perplexed his brain. Though his heart was beating faster, he returned to the upstairs hall and sat down in a far corner. He had extinguished the candle, for he had ceased to think of catching the walker, and, to tell the truth, felt safer in the gloom.
He sat in the corner for perhaps 15 minutes, listening, his dread bordering upon fear. Then he heard the walker again, this time downstairs, and, unmistakably, in the parlor. The footsteps began in a corner toward the front of the room and proceeded diagonally across to the opposite corner.
The simple people of the South believed firmly in ghosts. From childhood, he had learned to fear uncanny manifestations. His perplexity had already grown into fear. He now became frightened. Little would it take to precipitate him into headlong flight. Suddenly, he heard the noise again from the parlor. The walker was retracing his steps, but had paused midway across the room, making two loud thumps with the heels of his boots, and then proceeding to the opposite corner.
This was enough! The soldier who had dared the cannon's mouth sprang to his feet and ran at top speed down the hall to the back room, dashed to the window, and jumped out into dark space. Like a plummet, he hurtled downward and landed on the roof of a low building to the rear of the mansion. Another jump took him to the ground, and he was off like a wild man through thickets, over rocks and stubble, and up a hillside back of the house, halting on a large rock out of breath and exhausted from the terrific exertion.
While recovering his strength, he watched the mansion below. In the black night it loomed up dark and dreadful. He half expected to see a phantom emerge from one of the doors or windows and seek the rude disturber of its placidity, yet no grim apparition came into view ...
He became drowsy. A soft breeze fanned his cheek. The moon rose higher in the sky and, as the soldier watched the eerie visit through half closed eyelids, he fell asleep.
What awakened him were the pangs of hunger, and as he sat up rubbing his eyes, the cheery rays of the sun greeted him from the east. .. He thought of the pies and cakes and the ham and light bread that he had left in the kitchen; and then of last night's ghost that had frightened him into such fast retreat to the hillside.
At the latter incident, he roared with laughter ... His soldier's courage had returned. As he descended the hillside, his eyes were fixed on the kitchen. Entering it, he saw that someone had been there during the night! The vegetables had been taken from the pots, the pots washed and arranged neatly upon the shelf. Roll had been baked and laid on a white tablecloth ...
He ate hurriedly, swallowing his food in great mouthfuls, while his eyes roved about the place. He tried to piece together the small bits of evidence that might yield a solution of the mystery - the cozy fires of the night before in the parlor and kitchen, the strange walker, the excellent food all untouched laid out as if placed ready for some person ...
He would not unravel this mystery, but would leave it with the house.
Feeling that the food in the kitchen was intended for him, he filled his knapsack with one of the pies and part of the rolls and ham, and, with a tender, thankful heart, passed into the back yard and thence, by a path, to the front yard. Pausing at the fragrant lilac bush near the front gate, he turned for one last look before departing.
I may be mistaken with the author's intent, but I do believe this is an early example of the "He's dead but doesn't know it" theme used in movies and elsewhere. Does it seem that way to you as well? Or is the author being cunningly ambiguous? - Jonah