A Curious Experience
by Mark Twain
This is the story which the Major told me, as nearly as I can recall it:–
In the winter of 1862-3, I was commandant of Fort Trumbull, at New London, Conn. Maybe our life there was not so brisk as life at “the front”; still it was brisk enough, in its way — one`s brains did n`t cake together there for lack of something to keep them stirring. For one thing, all the Northern atmosphere at that time was thick with mysterious rumors — rumors to the effect that rebel spies were flitting everywhere, and getting ready to blow up our Northern forts, burn our hotels, send infected clothing into our towns, and all that sort of thing. You remember it. All this had a tendency to keep us awake, and knock the traditional dulness out of garrison life. Besides, ours was a recruiting station — which is the same as saying we had n`t any time to waste in dozing, or dreaming, or fooling around. Why, with all our watchfulness, fifty per cent. of a day`s recruits would leak out of our hands and give us the slip the same night. The bounties were so prodigious that a recruit could pay a sentinel three or four hundred dollars to let him escape, and still have enough of his bounty-money left to constitute a fortune for a poor man. Yes, as I said before, our life was not drowsy.
Well, one day I was in my quarters alone, doing some writing, when a pale and ragged lad of fourteen or fifteen entered, made a neat bow, and said,–
“I believe recruits are received here?”
“Will you please enlist me, sir?”
“Dear me, no! You are too young, my boy, and too small.”
A disappointed look came into his face, and quickly deepened into an expression of despondency. He turned slowly away, as if to go; hesitated, then faced me again, and said, in a tone which went to my heart,–
“I have no home, and not a friend in the world. If you could only enlist me!”
But of course the thing was out of the question, and I said so as gently as I could. Then I told him to sit down by the stove and warm himself, and added,–
“You shall have something to eat, presently. You are hungry?”
He did not answer; he did not need to; the gratitude in his big soft eyes was more eloquent than any words could have been. He sat down by the stove, and I went on writing. Occasionally I took a furtive glance at him. I noticed that his clothes and shoes, although soiled and damaged, were of good style and material. This fact was suggestive. To it I added the facts that his voice was low and musical; his eyes deep and melancholy; his carriage and address gentlemanly; evidently the poor chap was in trouble. As a result, I was interested.
However, I became absorbed in my work, by and by, and forgot all about the boy. I don`t know how long this lasted; but, at length, I happened to look up. The boy`s back was toward me, but his face was turned in such a way that I could see one of his cheeks — and down that cheek a rill of noiseless tears was flowing.
“God bless my soul!” I said to myself; “I forgot the poor rat was starving.” Then I made amends for my brutality by saying to him, “Come along, my lad; you shall dine with me; I am alone to-day.”
He gave me another of those grateful looks, and a happy light broke in his face. At the table he stood with his hand on his chair-back until I was seated, then seated himself. I took up my knife and fork and — well, I simply held them, and kept still; for the boy had inclined his head and was saying a silent grace. A thousand hallowed memories of home and my childhood poured in upon me, and I sighed to think how far I had drifted from religion and its balm for hurt minds, its comfort and solace and support.
As our meal progressed, I observed that young Wicklow — Robert Wicklow was his full name — knew what to do with his napkin; and — well, in a word, I observed that he was a boy of good breeding; never mind the details. He had a simple frankness, too, which won upon me. We talked mainly about himself, and I had no difficulty in getting his history out of him. When he spoke of his having been born and reared in Louisiana, I warmed to him decidedly, for I had spent some time down there. I knew all the “coast” region of the Mississippi, and loved it, and had not been long enough away from it for my interest in it to begin to pale. The very names that fell from his lips sounded good to me, — so good that I steered the talk in directions that would bring them out. Baton Rouge, Plaquemine, Donaldsonville, Sixty-mile Point, Bonnet-Carre, the Stock-Landing, Carrollton, the Steamship Landing, the Steamboat Landing, New Orleans, Tchoupitoulas Street, the Esplanade, the Rue des Bons Enfants, the St. Charles Hotel, the Tivoli Circle, the Shell Road, Lake Pontchartrain; and it was particularly delightful to me to hear once more of the “R. E. Lee,” the “Natchez,” the “Eclipse,” the “General Quitman,” the “Duncan F. Kenner,” and other old familiar steamboats. It was almost as good as being back there, these names so vividly reproduced in my mind the look of the things they stood for. Briefly, this was little Wicklow`s history:–
When the war broke out, he and his invalid aunt and his father were living near Baton Rouge, on a great and rich plantation which had been in the family for fifty years. The father was a Union man. He was persecuted in all sorts of ways, but clung to his principles. At last, one night, masked men burned his mansion down, and the family had to fly for their lives. They were hunted from place to place, and learned all there was to know about poverty, hunger, and distress. The invalid aunt found relief at last: misery and exposure killed her; she died in an open field, like a tramp, the rain beating upon her and the thunder booming overhead. Not long afterward, the father was captured by an armed band; and while the son begged and pleaded, the victim was strung up before his face. [At this point a baleful light shone in the youth`s eyes, and he said, with the manner of one who talks to himself: “If I cannot be enlisted, no matter — I shall find a way — I shall find a way.”] As soon as the father was pronounced dead, the son was told that if he was not out of that region within twenty-four hours, it would go hard with him. That night he crept to the riverside and hid himself near a plantation landing. By and by the “Duncan F. Kenner,” stopped there, and he swam out and concealed himself in the yawl that was dragging at her stern. Before daylight the boat reached the Stock-Landing, and he slipped ashore. He walked the three miles which lay between that point and the house of an uncle of his in Good-Children Street, in New Orleans, and then his troubles were over for the time being. But this uncle was a Union man, too, and before very long he concluded that he had better leave the South. So he and young Wicklow slipped out of the country on board a sailing vessel, and in due time reached New York. They put up at the Astor House. Young Wicklow had a good time of it for a while, strolling up and down Broadway, and observing the strange Northern sights; but in the end a change came, — and not for the better. The uncle had been cheerful at first, but now he began to look troubled and despondent; moreover, he became moody and irritable; talked of money giving out, and no way to get more, — “not enough left for one, let alone two.” Then, one morning, he was missing — did not come to breakfast. The boy inquired at the office, and was told that the uncle had paid his bill the night before and gone away — to Boston, the clerk believed, but was not certain.
The lad was alone and friendless. He did not know what to do, but concluded he had better try to follow and find his uncle. He went down to the steamboat landing; learned that the trifle of money in his pocket would not carry him to Boston; however, it would carry him to New London; so he took passage for that port, resolving to trust to Providence to furnish him means to travel the rest of the way. He had now been wandering about the streets of New London three days and nights, getting a bite and a nap here and there for charity`s sake. But he had given up at last; courage and hope were both gone. If he could enlist, nobody could be more thankful; if he could not get in as a soldier, couldn`t he be a drummer-boy? Ah, he would work so hard to please, and would be so grateful!
Well, there`s the history of young Wicklow, just as he told it to me, barring details. I said,–
“My boy, you are among friends, now, — don`t you be troubled any more.” How his eyes glistened! I called in Sergeant John Rayburn, — he was from Hartford; lives in Hartford yet; maybe you know him, — and said, “Rayburn, quarter this boy with the musicians. I am going to enroll him as a drummer-boy, and I want you to look after him and see that he is well treated.”
Well, of course, intercourse between the commandant of the post and the drummer-boy came to an end, now; but the poor little friendless chap lay heavy on my heart, just the same. I kept on the lookout, hoping to see him brighten up and begin to be cheery and gay; but no, the days went by, and there was no change. He associated with nobody; he was always absent-minded, always thinking; his face was always sad. One morning Rayburn asked leave to speak to me privately. Said he, —
“I hope I don`t offend, sir; but the truth is, the musicians are in such a sweat it seems as if somebody`s got to speak.”
“Why, what is the trouble?”
“It`s the Wicklow boy, sir. The musicians are down on him to an extent you can`t imagine.”
“Well, go on, go on. What has he been doing?”
“Yes, sir; the musicians haven`t any peace of their life for that boy`s prayin`. First thing in the morning he`s at it; noons he`s at it; and nights — well, nights he just lays into `em like all possessed! Sleep? Bless you, they can`t sleep: he`s got the floor, as the sayin` is, and then when he once gets his supplication-mill agoin`, there just simply ain`t any let-up to him. He starts in with the band-master, and he prays for him; next he takes the head bugler, and he prays for him; next the bass drum, and he scoops him in; and so on, right straight through the band, givin` them all a show, and takin` that amount of interest in it which would make you think he thought he warn`t but a little while for this world, and believed he couldn`t be happy in heaven without he had a brass band along, and wanted to pick `em out for himself, so he could depend on `em to do up the national tunes in a style suitin` to the place. Well, sir, heavin` boots at him don`t have no effect; it`s dark in there; and, besides, he don`t pray fair, anyway, but kneels down behind the big drum; so it don`t make no difference if they rain boots at him, he don`t give a dern — warbles right along, same as if it was applause. They sing out, `Oh, dry up!` `Give us a rest!` `Shoot him!` `Oh, take a walk!` and all sorts of such things. But what of it? It don`t phaze him. He don`t mind it.” After a pause: “Kind of a good little fool, too; gits up in the mornin` and carts all that stock of boots back, and sorts `em out and sets each man`s pair where they belong. And they`ve been thronged at him so much now, that he knows every boot in the band, — can sort `em out with his eyes shut.”
After another pause, which I forebore to interrupt,–
“But the roughest thing about it is, that when he`s done prayin`, — when he ever does get done, — he pipes up and begins to sing. Well, you know what a honey kind of a voice he`s got when he talks; you know how it would persuade a cast-iron dog to come down off of a doorstep and lick his hand. Now if you`ll take my word for it, sir, it ain`t a circumstance to his singin`! Flute music is harsh to that boy`s singin`. Oh, he just gurgles it out so soft and sweet and low, there in the dark, that it makes you think you are in heaven.”
“What is there `rough` about that?”
“Ah, that`s just it, sir. You hear him sing
“`Just as I am — poor, wretched, blind,`
— just you hear him sing that, once, and see if you don`t melt all up and the water come into your eyes! I don`t care what he sings, it goes plum straight home to you — it goes deep down to where you live — and it fetches you every time! Just you hear him sing:–
“`Child of sin and sorrow, filled with dismay, Wait not till to-morrow, yield thee to-day; Grieve not that love Which, from above`– and so on. It makes a body feel like the wickedest, ungratefulest brute that walks. And when he sings them songs of his about home, and mother, and childhood, and old memories, and things that`s vanished, and old friends dead and gone, it fetches everything before your face that you`ve ever loved and lost in all your life — and it`s just beautiful, it`s just divine to listen to, sir — but, Lord, Lord, the heart-break of it! The band — well, they all cry — every rascal of them blubbers, and don`t try to hide it, either; and first you know, that very gang that`s been slammin` boots at that boy will skip out of their bunks all of a sudden, and rush over in the dark and hug him! Yes, they do — and slobber all over him, and call him pet names, and beg him to forgive them. And just at that time, if a regiment was to offer to hurt a hair of that cub`s head, they`d go for that regiment, if it was a whole army corps!”
“Is that all?” said I.
“Well, dear me, what is the complaint? What do they want done?”
“Done? Why, bless you, sir, they want you to stop him from singin`.”
“What an idea! You said his music was divine.”
“That`s just it. It`s too divine. Mortal man can`t stand it. It stirs a body up so; it turns a body inside out; it racks his feelin`s all to rags; it makes him feel bad and wicked, and not fit for any place but perdition. It keeps a body in such an everlastin` state of repentin`, that nothin` don`t taste good and there ain`t no comfort in life. And then the cryin`, you see — every mornin` they are ashamed to look one another in the face.”
“Well, this is an odd case, and a singular complaint. So they really want the singing stopped?”
“Yes, sir, that is the idea. They don`t wish to ask too much; they would like powerful well to have the prayin` shut down on, or leastways trimmed off around the edges; but the main thing`s the singin`. If they can only get the singin` choked off, they think they can stand the prayin`, rough as it is to be bully-ragged so much that way.”
I told the sergeant I would take the matter under consideration. That night I crept into the musicians` quarters and listened. The sergeant had not overstated the case. I heard the praying voice pleading in the dark; I heard the execrations of the harassed men; I heard the rain of boots whiz through the air, and bang and thump around the big drum. The thing touched me, but it amused me, too. By and by, after an impressive silence, came the singing. Lord, the pathos of it, the enchantment of it! Nothing in the world was ever so sweet, so gracious, so tender, so holy, so moving. I made my stay very brief; I was beginning to experience emotions of a sort not proper to the commandant of a fortress.
Next day I issued orders which stopped the praying and singing. Then followed three or four days which were so full of bounty-jumping excitements and irritations that I never once thought of my drummer-boy. But now comes Sergeant Rayburn, one morning, and says, —
“That new boy acts mighty strange, sir.”
“Well, sir, he`s all the time writing.”
“Writing? What does he write — letters?”
“I don`t know, sir; but whenever he`s off duty, he is always poking and nosing around the fort, all by himself, — blest if I think there`s a hole or corner in it he hasn`t been into, — and every little while he outs with pencil and paper and scribbles something down.”
This gave me a most unpleasant sensation. I wanted to scoff at it, but it was not a time to scoff at anything that had the least suspicious tinge about it. Things were happening all around us, in the North, then, that warned us to be always on the alert, and always suspecting. I recalled to mind the suggestive fact that this boy was from the South, — the extreme South, Louisiana, — and the thought was not of a reassuring nature, under the circumstances. Nevertheless, it cost me a pang to give the orders which I now gave to Rayburn. I felt like a father who plots to expose his own child to shame and injury. I told Rayburn to keep quiet, bide his time, and get me some of those writings whenever he could manage it without the boy`s finding it out. And I charged him not to do anything which might let the boy discover that he was being watched. I also ordered that he allow the lad his usual liberties, but that he be followed at a distance when he went out into the town.
During the next two days, Rayburn reported to me several times. No success. The boy was still writing, but he always pocketed his paper with a careless air whenever Rayburn appeared in his vicinity. He had gone twice to an old deserted stable in the town, remained a minute or two, and come out again. One could not pooh-pooh these things — they had an evil look. I was obliged to confess to myself that I was getting uneasy. I went into my private quarters and sent for my second in command — an officer of intelligence and judgment, son of General James Watson Webb. He was surprised and troubled. We had a long talk over the matter, and came to the conclusion that it would be worth while to institute a secret search. I determined to take charge of that myself. So I had myself called at two in the morning; and, pretty soon after, I was in the musicians` quarters, crawling along the floor on my stomach among the snorers. I reached my slumbering waif`s bunk at last, without disturbing anybody, captured his clothes and kit, and crawled stealthily back again. When I got to my own quarters, I found Webb there, waiting and eager to know the result. We made search immediately. The clothes were a disappointment. In the pockets we found blank paper and a pencil; nothing else, except a jackknife and such queer odds and ends and useless trifles as boys hoard and value. We turned to the kit hopefully. Nothing there but a rebuke for us! — a little Bible with this written on the fly-leaf: “Stranger, be kind to my boy, for his mother`s sake.”
I looked at Webb — he dropped his eyes; he looked at me — I dropped mine. Neither spoke. I put the book reverently back in its place. Presently Webb got up and went away, without remark. After a little I nerved myself up to my unpalatable job, and took the plunder back to where it belonged, crawling on my stomach as before. It seemed the peculiarly appropriate attitude for the business I was in.
I was most honestly glad when it was over and done with.
About noon next day Rayburn came, as usual, to report. I cut him short. I said,–
“Let this nonsense be dropped. We are making a bugaboo out of a poor little cub who has got no more harm in him than a hymn-book.”
The sergeant looked surprised, and said,–
“Well, you know it was your orders, sir, and I`ve got some of the writing.”
“And what does it amount to? How did you get it?”
“I peeped through the key-hole, and see him writing. So when I judged he was about done, I made a sort of a little cough, and I see him crumple it up and throw it in the fire, and look all around to see if anybody was coming. Then he settled back as comfortable and careless as anything. Then I comes in, and passes the time of day pleasantly, and sends him of an errand. He never looked uneasy, but went right along. It was a coal-fire and new-built; the writing had gone over behind a chunk, out of sight; but I got it out; there it is; it ain`t hardly scorched, you see.”
I glanced at the paper and took in a sentence or two. Then I dismissed the sergeant and told him to send Webb to me. Here is the paper in full: —
“FORT TRUMBULL, the 8th.
“COLONEL, — I was mistaken as to the calibre of the three guns I ended my list with. They are 18-pounders; all the rest of the armament is as I stated. The garrison remains as before reported, except that the two light infantry companies that were to be detached for service at the front are to stay here for the present — can`t find out for how long, just now, but will soon. We are satisfied that, all things considered, matters had better be postponed un–“
There it broke off — there is where Rayburn coughed and interrupted the writer. All my affection for the boy, all my respect for him and charity for his forlorn condition, withered in a moment under the blight of this revelation of cold-blooded baseness.
But never mind about that. Here was business, — business that required profound and immediate attention, too. Webb and I turned the subject over and over, and examined it all around. Webb said,–
“What a pity he was interrupted! Something is going to be postponed until — when? And what is the something? Possibly he would have mentioned it, the pious little reptile!”
“Yes,” I said, “we have missed a trick. And who is `we,` in the letter? Is it conspirators inside the fort or outside?”
That “we”was uncomfortably suggestive. However, it was not worth while to be guessing around that, so we proceeded to matters more practical. In the first place, we decided to double the sentries and keep the strictest possible watch. Next, we thought of calling Wicklow in and making him divulge everything; but that did not seem wisest until other methods should fail. We must have some more of the writings; so we began to plan to that end. And now we had an idea: Wicklow never went to the post-office, — perhaps the deserted stable was his post-office. We sent for my confidential clerk — a young German named Sterne, who was a sort of natural detective — and told him all about the case and ordered him to go to work on it. Within the hour we got word that Wicklow was writing again. Shortly afterward, word came that he had asked leave to go out into the town. He was detained awhile, and meantime Sterne hurried off and concealed himself in the stable. By and by he saw Wicklow saunter in, look about him, then hide something under some rubbish in a corner, and take leisurely leave again. Sterne pounced upon the hidden article — a letter — and brought it to us. It had no superscription and no signature. It repeated what we had already read, and then went on to say:–
“We think it best to postpone till the two companies are gone. I mean the four inside think so; have not communicated with the others — afraid of attracting attention. I say four because we have lost two; they had hardly enlisted and got inside when they were shipped off to the front. It will be absolutely necessary to have two in their places. The two that went were the brothers from Thirty-mile Point. I have something of the greatest importance to reveal, but must not trust it to this method of communication; will try the other.”
“The little scoundrel!” said Webb; “who could have supposed he was a spy? However, never mind about that; let us add up our particulars, such as they are, and see how the case stands to date. First, we`ve got a rebel spy in our midst, whom we know; secondly, we`ve got three more in our midst whom we don`t know; thirdly, these spies have been introduced among us through the simple and easy process of enlisting as soldiers in the Union army — and evidently two of them have got sold at it, and been shipped off to the front; fourthly, there are assistant spies `outside` — number indefinite; fifthly, Wicklow has very important matter which he is afraid to communicate by the `present method` — will `try the other.` That is the case, as it now stands. Shall we collar Wicklow and make him confess? Or shall we catch the person who removes the letters from the stable and make him tell? Or shall we keep still and find out more?”
We decided upon the last course. We judged that we did not need to proceed to summary measures now, since it was evident that the conspirators were likely to wait till those two light infantry companies were out of the way. We fortified Sterne with pretty ample powers, and told him to use his best endeavors to find out Wicklow`s “other method”of communication. We meant to play a bold game; and to this end we proposed to keep the spies in an unsuspecting state as long as possible. So we ordered Sterne to return to the stable immediately, and, if he found the coast clear, to conceal Wicklow`s letter where it was before, and leave it there for the conspirators to get.
The night closed down without further event. It was cold and dark and sleety, with a raw wind blowing; still I turned out of my warm bed several times during the night, and went the rounds in person, to see that all was right and that every sentry was on the alert. I always found them wide awake and watchful; evidently whispers of mysterious dangers had been floating about, and the doubling of the guards had been a kind of indorsement of those rumors. Once, toward morning, I encountered Webb, breasting his way against the bitter wind, and learned then that he, also, had been the rounds several times to see that all was going right.
Next day`s events hurried things up somewhat. Wicklow wrote another letter; Sterne preceded him to the stable and saw him deposit it; captured it as soon as Wicklow was out of the way, then slipped out and followed the little spy at a distance, with a detective in plain clothes at his own heels, for we thought it judicious to have the law`s assistance handy in case of need. Wicklow went to the railway station, and waited around till the train from New York came in, then stood scanning the faces of the crowd as they poured out of the cars. Presently an aged gentleman, with green goggles and a cane, came limping along, stopped in Wicklow`s neighborhood, and began to look about him expectantly. In an instant Wicklow darted forward, thrust an envelope into his hand, then glided away and disappeared in the throng. The next instant Sterne had snatched the letter; and as he hurried past the detective, he said: “Follow the old gentleman — don`t lose sight of him.” Then Sterne skurried out with the crowd, and came straight to the fort.
We sat with closed doors, and instructed the guard outside to allow no interruption.
First we opened the letter captured at the stable. It read as follows: —
“HOLY ALLIANCE, — Found, in the usual gun, commands from the Master, left there last night, which set aside the instructions heretofore received from the subordinate quarter. Have left in the gun the usual indication that the commands reached the proper hand–“
Webb, interrupting: `Is n`t the boy under constant surveillance now?”
I said yes; he had been under strict surveillance ever since the capturing of his former letter.
“Then how could he put anything into a gun, or take anything out of it, and not get caught?”
“Well,” I said, “I don`t like the look of that very well.”
“I don`t, either,”said Webb. “It simply means that there are conspirators among the very sentinels. Without their connivance in some way or other, the thing could n`t have been done.”
I sent for Rayburn, and ordered him to examine the batteries and see what he could find. The reading of the letter was then resumed: —
“The new commands are peremptory, and require that the MMMM shall be FFFFF at 3 o`clock to-morrow morning. Two hundred will arrive, in small parties, by train and otherwise, from various directions, and will be at appointed place at right time. I will distribute the sign to-day. Success is apparently sure, though something must have got out, for the sentries have been doubled, and the chiefs went the rounds last night several times. W. W. comes from southerly to-day and will receive secret orders — by the other method. All six of you must be in 166 at sharp 2 A. M. You will find B. B. there, who will give you detailed instructions. Password same as last time, only reversed — put first syllable last and last syllable first. REMEMBER XXXX. Do not forget. Be of good heart; before the next sun rises you will be heroes; your fame will be permanent; you will have added a deathless page to history. Amen.”
“Thunder and Mars,”said Webb, “but we are getting into mighty hot quarters, as I look at it!”
I said there was no question but that things were beginning to wear a most serious aspect. Said I,–
“A desperate enterprise is on foot, that is plain enough. To-night is the time set for it, — that, also, is plain. The exact nature of the enterprise — I mean the manner of it — is hidden away under those blind bunches of M`s and F`s, but the end and aim, I judge, is the surprise and capture of the post. We must move quick and sharp now. I think nothing can be gained by continuing our clandestine policy as regards Wicklow. We must know, and as soon as possible, too, where `166` is located, so that we can make a descent upon the gang there at 2 A. M.; and doubtless the quickest way to get that information will be to force it out of that boy. But first of all, and before we make any important move, I must lay the facts before the War Department, and ask for plenary powers.”
The despatch was prepared in cipher to go over the wires; I read it, approved it, and sent it along.
We presently finished discussing the letter which was under consideration, and then opened the one which had been snatched from the lame gentleman. It contained nothing but a couple of perfectly blank sheets of notepaper! It was a chilly check to our hot eagerness and expectancy. We felt as blank as the paper, for a moment, and twice as foolish. But it was for a moment only; for, of course, we immediately afterward thought of “sympathetic ink.” We held the paper close to the fire and watched for the characters to come out, under the influence of the heat; but nothing appeared but some faint tracings, which we could make nothing of. We then called in the surgeon, and sent him off with orders to apply every test he was acquainted with till he got the right one, and report the contents of the letter to me the instant he brought them to the surface. This check was a confounded annoyance, and we naturally chafed under the delay; for we had fully expected to get out of that letter some of the most important secrets of the plot.
Now appeared Sergeant Rayburn, and drew from his pocket a piece of twine string about a foot long, with three knots tied in it, and held it up.
“I got it out of a gun on the water-front,”said he. “I took the tompions out of all the guns and examined close; this string was the only thing that was in any gun.”
So this bit of string was Wicklow`s “sign” to signify that the “Master`s”commands had not miscarried. I ordered that every sentinel who had served near that gun during the past twenty-four hours be put in confinement at once and separately, and not allowed to communicate with any one without my privity and consent.
A telegram now came from the Secretary of War. It read as follows: —
“Suspend habeas corpus. Put town under martial law. Make necessary arrests. Act with vigor and promptness. Keep the Department informed.”
We were now in shape to go to work. I sent out and had the lame gentleman quietly arrested and as quietly brought into the fort; I placed him under guard, and forbade speech to him or from him. He was inclined to bluster at first, but he soon dropped that.
Next came word that Wicklow had been seen to give something to a couple of our new recruits; and that, as soon as his back was turned, these had been seized and confined. Upon each was found a small bit of paper, bearing these words and signs in pencil:–
EAGLE`S THIRD FLIGHT. REMEMBER XXXX. 166.
In accordance with instructions, I telegraphed to the Department, in cipher, the progress made, and also described the above ticket. We seemed to be in a strong enough position now to venture to throw off the mask as regarded Wicklow; so I sent for him. I also sent for and received back the letter written in sympathetic ink, the surgeon accompanying it with the information that thus far it had resisted his tests, but that there were others he could apply when I should be ready for him to do so.
Presently Wicklow entered. He had a somewhat worn and anxious look, but he was composed and easy, and if he suspected anything it did not appear in his face or manner. I allowed him to stand there a moment or two, then I said pleasantly, —
“My boy, why do you go to that old stable so much?”
He answered, with simple demeanor and without embarrassment,–
“Well, I hardly know, sir; there isn`t any particular reason, except that I like to be alone, and I amuse myself there.”
“You amuse yourself there, do you?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, as innocently and simply as before.
“Is that all you do there?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, looking up with childlike wonderment in his big soft eyes.
“You are sure?”
“Yes, sir, sure.”
After a pause, I said,–
“Wicklow, why do you write so much?”
“I? I do not write much, sir.”
“No, sir. Oh, if you mean scribbling, I do scribble some, for amusement.”
“What do you do with your scribblings?”
“Nothing, sir — throw them away.”
“Never send them to anybody?”
I suddenly thrust before him the letter to the “Colonel.” He started slightly, but immediately composed himself. A slight tinge spread itself over his cheek.
“How came you to send this piece of scribbling, then?”
“I nev — never meant any harm, sir.”
“Never meant any harm! You betray the armament and condition of the post, and mean no harm by it?”
He hung his head and was silent.
“Come, speak up, and stop lying. Whom was this letter intended for?”
He showed signs of distress, now; but quickly collected himself, and replied, in a tone of deep earnestness,–
“I will tell you the truth, sir — the whole truth. The letter was never intended for anybody at all. I wrote it only to amuse myself. I see the error and foolishness of it, now, — but it is the only offence, sir, upon my honor.”
“Ah, I am glad of that. It is dangerous to be writing such letters. I hope you are sure this is the only one you wrote?”
“Yes, sir, perfectly sure.”
His hardihood was stupefying. He told that lie with as sincere a countenance as any creature ever wore. I waited a moment to soothe down my rising temper, and then said,–
“Wicklow, jog your memory now, and see if you can help me with two or three little matters which I wish to inquire about.”
“I will do my very best, sir.”
“Then, to begin with — who is `the Master`?”
It betrayed him into darting a startled glance at our faces, but that was all. He was serene again in a moment, and tranquilly answered,–
“I do not know, sir.”
“You do not know?”
“I do not know.”
“You are sure you do not know?”
He tried hard to keep his eyes on mine, but the strain was too great; his chin sunk slowly toward his breast and he was silent; he stood there nervously fumbling with a button, an object to command one`s pity, in spite of his base acts. Presently I broke the stillness with the question,–
“Who are the `Holy Alliance`?”
His body shook visibly, and he made a slight random gesture with his hands, which to me was like the appeal of a despairing creature for compassion. But he made no sound. He continued to stand with his face bent toward the ground. As we sat gazing at him, waiting for him to speak, we saw the big tears begin to roll down his cheeks. But he remained silent. After a little, I said,–
“You must answer me, my boy, and you must tell me the truth. Who are the Holy Alliance?”
He wept on in silence. Presently I said, somewhat sharply,
“Answer the question!”
He struggled to get command of his voice; and then, looking up appealingly, forced the words out between his sobs,–
“Oh, have pity on me, sir! I cannot answer it, for I do not know.”
“Indeed, sir, I am telling the truth. I never have heard of the Holy Alliance till this moment. On my honor, sir, this is so.”
“Good heavens! Look at this second letter of yours; there, do you see those words, `Holy Alliance?` What do you say now?”
He gazed up into my face with the hurt look of one upon whom a great wrong had been wrought, then said, feelingly,–
“This is some cruel joke, sir; and how could they play it upon me, who have tried all I could to do right, and have never done harm to anybody? Some one has counterfeited my hand; I never wrote a line of this; I have never seen this letter before!”
“Oh, you unspeakable liar! Here, what do you say to this?” — and I snatched the sympathetic-ink letter from my pocket and thrust it before his eyes.
His face turned white! — as white as a dead person`s. He wavered slightly in his tracks, and put his hand against the wall to steady himself. After a moment he asked, in so faint a voice that it was hardly audible,–
“Have you — read it?”
Our faces must have answered the truth before my lips could get out a false “yes,” for I distinctly saw the courage come back into that boy`s eyes. I waited for him to say something, but he kept silent. So at last I said,–
“Well, what have you to say as to the revelations in this letter?”
He answered, with perfect composure,–
“Nothing, except that they are entirely harmless and innocent; they can hurt nobody.”
I was in something of a corner now, as I couldn`t disprove his assertion. I did not know exactly how to proceed. However, an idea came to my relief, and I said,–
“You are sure you know nothing about the Master and the Holy Alliance, and did not write the letter which you say is a forgery?”
“Yes, sir — sure.”
I slowly drew out the knotted twine string and held it up without speaking. He gazed at it indifferently, then looked at me inquiringly. My patience was sorely taxed. However, I kept my temper down, and said in my usual voice, —
“Wicklow, do you see this?”
“What is it?”
“It seems to be a piece of string.”
“Seems? It is a piece of string. Do you recognize it?”
“No, sir,” he replied, as calmly as the words could be uttered.
His coolness was perfectly wonderful! I paused now for several seconds, in order that the silence might add impressiveness to what I was about to say; then I rose and laid my hand on his shoulder, and said gravely,–
“It will do you no good, poor boy, none in the world. This sign to the `Master,` this knotted string, found in one of the guns on the water-front–“
“Found in the gun! Oh, no, no, no! do not say in the gun, but in a crack in the tompion! — it must have been in the crack!” and down he went on his knees and clasped his hands and lifted up a face that was pitiful to see, so ashy it was, and wild with terror.
“No, it was in the gun.”
“Oh, something has gone wrong! My God, I am lost!” and he sprang up and darted this way and that, dodging the hands that were put out to catch him, and doing his best to escape from the place. But of course escape was impossible. Then he flung himself on his knees again, crying with all his might, and clasped me around the legs; and so he clung to me and begged and pleaded, saying, “Oh, have pity on me! Oh, be merciful to me! Do not betray me; they would not spare my life a moment! Protect me, save me. I will confess everything!”
It took us some time to quiet him down and modify his fright, and get him into something like a rational frame of mind. Then I began to question him, he answering humbly, with downcast eyes, and from time to time swabbing away his constantly flowing tears.
“So you are at heart a rebel?”
“And a spy?”
“And have been acting under distinct orders from outside?”
“Yes, sir; it would do no good to deny it. The South is my country; my heart is Southern, and it is all in her cause.”
“Then the tale you told me of your wrongs and the persecution of your family was made up for the occasion?”
“They — they told me to say it, sir.”
“And you would betray and destroy those who pitied and sheltered you. Do you comprehend how base you are, you poor misguided thing?”
He replied with sobs only.
“Well, let that pass. To business. Who is the `Colonel,` and where is he?”
He began to cry hard, and tried to beg off from answering. He said he would be killed if he told. I threatened to put him in the dark cell and lock him up if he did not come out with the information. At the same time I promised to protect him from all harm if he made a clean breast. For all answer, he closed his mouth firmly and put on a stubborn air which I could not bring him out of. At last I started with him; but a single glance into the dark cell converted him. He broke into a passion of weeping and supplicating, and declared he would tell everything.
So I brought him back, and he named the “Colonel,” and described him particularly. Said he would be found at the principal hotel in the town, in citizen`s dress. I had to threaten him again, before he would describe and name the “Master.” Said the Master would be found at No. 15 Bond Street, New York, passing under the name of R. F. Gaylord. I telegraphed name and description to the chief of police of the metropolis, and asked that Gaylord be arrested and held till I could send for him.
“Now,” said I, “it seems that there are several of the conspirators `outside,` presumably in New London. Name and describe them.”
He named and described three men and two women, — all stopping at the principal hotel. I sent out quietly, and had them and the “Colonel” arrested and confined in the fort.
“Next, I want to know all about your three fellow-conspirators who are here in the fort.”
He was about to dodge me with a falsehood, I thought; but I produced the mysterious bits of paper which had been found upon two of them, and this had a salutary effect upon him. I said we had possession of two of the men, and he must point out the third. This frightened him badly, and he cried out,–
“Oh, please don`t make me; he would kill me on the spot!”
I said that that was all nonsense; I would have somebody near by to protect him, and, besides, the men should be assembled without arms. I ordered all the raw recruits to be mustered, and then the poor trembling little wretch went out and stepped along down the line, trying to look as indifferent as possible. Finally he spoke a single word to one of the men, and before he had gone five steps the man was under arrest.
As soon as Wicklow was with us again, I had those three men brought in. I made one of them stand forward, and said,–
“Now, Wicklow, mind, not a shade`s divergence from the exact truth. Who is this man, and what do you know about him?
Being “in for it,” he cast consequences aside, fastened his eyes on the man`s face, and spoke straight along without hesitation, — to the following effect.
“His real name is George Bristow. He is from New Orleans; was second mate of the coast-packet `Capitol,` two years ago; is a desperate character, and has served two terms for manslaughter, — one for killing a deck-hand named Hyde with a capstan-bar, and one for killing a roustabout for refusing to heave the lead, which is no part of a roustabout`s business. He is a spy, and was sent here by the Colonel, to act in that capacity. He was third mate of the `St. Nicholas,` when she blew up in the neighborhood of Memphis, in `58, and came near being lynched for robbing the dead and wounded while they were being taken ashore in an empty wood-boat.”
And so forth and so on — he gave the man`s biography in full. When he had finished, I said to the man,–
“What have you to say to this?”
“Barring your presence, sir, it is the infernalest lie that ever was spoke!”
I sent him back into confinement, and called the others forward in turn. Same result. The boy gave a detailed history of each, without ever hesitating for a word or a fact; but all I could get out of either rascal was the indignant assertion that it was all a lie. They would confess nothing. I returned them to captivity, and brought out the rest of my prisoners, one by one. Wicklow told all about them — what towns in the South they were from, and every detail of their connection with the conspiracy.
But they all denied his facts, and not one of them confessed a thing. The men raged, the women cried. According to their stories, they were all innocent people from out West, and loved the Union above all things in this world. I locked the gang up, in disgust, and fell to catechising Wicklow once more.
“Where is No. 166, and who is B. B.?”
But there he was determined to draw the line. Neither coaxing nor threats had any effect upon him. Time was flying — it was necessary to institute sharp measures. So I tied him up a-tiptoe by the thumbs. As the pain increased, it wrung screams from him which were almost more than I could bear. But I held my ground, and pretty soon he shrieked out,–
“Oh, please let me down, and I will tell!”
“No — you`ll tell before I let you down.”
Every instant was agony to him, now, so out it came,–
“No. 166, Eagle Hotel!” — naming a wretched tavern down by the water, a resort of common laborers, `longshoremen, and less reputable folk.
So I released him, and then demanded to know the object of the conspiracy.
“To take the fort to-night,” said he, doggedly and sobbing.
“Have I got all the chiefs of the conspiracy?”
“No. You`ve got all except those that are to meet at 166.”
“What does `Remember XXXX` mean?”
“What is the password to No. 166?”
“What do those bunches of letters mean, — `FFFFF` and `MMMM`? Answer! or you will catch it again.”
“I never will answer! I will die first. Now do what you please.”
“Think what you are saying, Wicklow. Is it final?”
He answered steadily, and without a quiver in his voice,–
“It is final. As sure as I love my wronged country and hate everything this Northern sun shines on, I will die before I will reveal those things.”
I triced him up by the thumbs again. When the agony was full upon him, it was heartbreaking to hear the poor thing`s shrieks, but we got nothing else out of him. To every question he screamed the same reply: “I can die, and I will die; but I will never tell.”
Well, we had to give it up. We were convinced that he certainly would die rather than confess. So we took him down and imprisoned him, under strict guard.
Then for some hours we busied ourselves with sending telegrams to the War Department, and with making preparations for a descent upon No. 166.
It was stirring times, that black and bitter night. Things had leaked out, and the whole garrison was on the alert. The sentinels were trebled, and nobody could move, outside or in, without being brought to a stand with a musket levelled at his head. However, Webb and I were less concerned now than we had previously been, because of the fact that the conspiracy must necessarily be in a pretty crippled condition, since so many of its principals were in our clutches.
I determined to be at No. 166 in good season, capture and gag B. B., and be on hand for the rest when they arrived. At about a quarter past one in the morning I crept out of the fortress with half a dozen stalwart and gamy U. S. regulars at my heels — and the boy Wicklow, with his hands tied behind him. I told him we were going to No. 166, and that if I found he had lied again and was misleading us, he would have to show us the right place or suffer the consequences.
We approached the tavern stealthily and reconnoitred. A light was burning in the small bar-room, the rest of the house was dark. I tried the front door; it yielded, and we softly entered, closing the door behind us. Then we removed our shoes, and I led the way to the bar-room. The German landlord sat there, asleep in his chair. I woke him gently, and told him to take off his boots and precede us; warning him at the same time to utter no sound. He obeyed without a murmur, but evidently he was badly frightened. I ordered him to lead the way to 166. We ascended two or three flights of stairs as softly as a file of cats; and then, having arrived near the farther end of a long hall, we came to a door through the glazed transom of which we could discern the glow of a dim light from within. The landlord felt for me in the dark and whispered me that that was 166. I tried the door — it was locked on the inside. I whispered an order to one of my biggest soldiers; we set our ample shoulders to the door and with one heave we burst it from its hinges. I caught a half-glimpse of a figure in a bed — saw its head dart toward the candle; out went the light, and we were in pitch darkness. With one big bound I lit on that bed and pinned its occupant down with my knees. My prisoner struggled fiercely, but I got a grip on his throat with my left hand, and that was a good assistance to my knees in holding him down. Then straightway I snatched out my revolver, cocked it, and laid the cold barrel warningly against his cheek.
“Now somebody strike a light!” said I. “I`ve got him safe.”
It was done. The flame of the match burst up. I looked at my captive, and, by George, it was a young woman!
I let go and got off the bed, feeling pretty sheepish. Everybody stared stupidly at his neighbor. Nobody had any wit or sense left, so sudden and overwhelming had been the surprise. The young woman began to cry, and covered her face with the sheet. The landlord said, meekly,–
“My daughter, she has been doing something that is not right, nicht wahr?”
“Your daughter? Is she your daughter?”
“Oh, yes, she is my daughter. She is just to-night come home from Cincinnati a little bit sick.”
“Confound it, that boy has lied again. This is not the right 166; this is not B. B. Now, Wicklow, you will find the correct 166 for us, or — hello! where is that boy?”
Gone, as sure as guns! And, what is more, we failed to find a trace of him. Here was an awkward predicament. I cursed my stupidity in not tying him to one of the men; but it was of no use to bother about that now. What should I do in the present circumstances? — that was the question. That girl might be B. B., after all. I did not believe it, but still it would not answer to take unbelief for proof. So I finally put my men in a vacant room across the hall from 166, and told them to capture anybody and everybody that approached the girl`s room, and to keep the landlord with them, and under strict watch, until further orders. Then I hurried back to the fort to see if all was right there yet.
Yes, all was right. And all remained right. I stayed up all night to make sure of that. Nothing happened. I was unspeakably glad to see the dawn come again, and be able to telegraph the Department that the Stars and Stripes still floated over Fort Trumbull.
An immense pressure was lifted from my breast. Still I did not relax vigilance, of course, nor effort either; the case was too grave for that. I had up my prisoners, one by one, and harried them by the hour, trying to get them to confess, but it was a failure. They only gnashed their teeth and tore their hair, and revealed nothing.
About noon came tidings of my missing boy. He had been seen on the road, tramping westward, some eight miles out, at six in the morning. I started a cavalry lieutenant and a private on his track at once. They came in sight of him twenty miles out. He had climbed a fence and was wearily dragging himself across a slushy field toward a large old-fashioned mansion in the edge of a village. They rode through a bit of woods, made a detour, and closed up on the house from the opposite side; then dismounted and skurried into the kitchen. Nobody there. They slipped into the next room, which was also unoccupied; the door from that room into the front or sitting room was open. They were about to step through it when they heard a low voice; it was somebody praying. So they halted reverently, and the lieutenant put his head in and saw an old man and an old woman kneeling in a corner of that sitting-room. It was the old man that was praying, and just as he was finishing his prayer, the Wicklow boy opened the front door and stepped in. Both of those old people sprang at him and smothered him with embraces, shouting,–
“Our boy! our darling! God be praised. The lost is found! He that was dead is alive again!”
Well, sir, what do you think! That young imp was born and reared on that homestead, and had never been five miles away from it in all his life, till the fortnight before he loafed into my quarters and gulfed me with that maudlin yarn of his! It`s as true as gospel. That old man was his father — a learned old retired clergyman; and that old lady was his mother.
Let me throw in a word or two of explanation concerning that boy and his performances. It turned out that he was a ravenous devourer of dime novels and sensation-story papers — therefore, dark mysteries and gaudy heroisms were just in his line. Then he had read newspaper reports of the stealthy goings and comings of rebel spies in our midst, and of their lurid purposes and their two or three startling achievements, till his imagination was all aflame on that subject. His constant comrade for some months had been a Yankee youth of much tongue and lively fancy, who had served for a couple of years as “mud clerk” (that is, subordinate purser) on certain of the packet-boats plying between New Orleans and points two or three hundred miles up the Mississippi — hence his easy facility in handling the names and other details pertaining to that region. Now I had spent two or three months in that part of the country before the war; and I knew just enough about it to be easily taken in by that boy, whereas a born Louisianian would probably have caught him tripping before he had talked fifteen minutes. Do you know the reason he said he would rather die than explain certain of his treasonable enigmas? Simply because he could n`t explain them! — they had no meaning; he had fired them out of his imagination without forethought or afterthought; and so, upon sudden call, he was n`t able to invent an explanation of them. For instance, he could n`t reveal what was hidden in the “sympathetic ink” letter, for the ample reason that there was n`t anything hidden in it; it was blank paper only. He had n`t put anything into a gun, and had never intended to — for his letters were all written to imaginary persons, and when he hid one in the stable he always removed the one he had put there the day before; so he was not acquainted with that knotted string, since he was seeing it for the first time when I showed it to him; but as soon as I had let him find out where it came from, he straightway adopted it, in his romantic fashion, and got some fine effects out of it. He invented Mr. “Gaylord;” there was n`t any 15 Bond Street, just then — it had been pulled down three months before. He invented the “Colonel;” he invented the glib histories of those unfortunates whom I captured and confronted with him; he invented “B. B.;” he even invented No. 166, one may say, for he did n`t know there was such a number in the Eagle Hotel until we went there. He stood ready to invent anybody or anything whenever it was wanted. If I called for “outside” spies, he promptly described strangers whom he had seen at the hotel, and whose names he had happened to hear. Ah, he lived in a gorgeous, mysterious, romantic world during those few stirring days, and I think it was real to him, and that he enjoyed it clear down to the bottom of his heart.
But he made trouble enough for us, and just no end of humiliation. You see, on account of him we had fifteen or twenty people under arrest and confinement in the fort, with sentinels before their doors. A lot of the captives were soldiers and such, and to them I did n`t have to apologize; but the rest were first-class citizens, from all over the country, and no amount of apologies was sufficient to satisfy them. They just fumed and raged and made no end of trouble! And those two ladies, — one was an Ohio Congressman`s wife, the other a Western bishop`s sister, — well, the scorn and ridicule and angry tears they poured out on me made up a keepsake that was likely to make me remember them for a considerable time, — and I shall. That old lame gentleman with the goggles was a college president from Philadelphia, who had come up to attend his nephew`s funeral. He had never seen young Wicklow before, of course. Well, he not only missed the funeral, and got jailed as a rebel spy, but Wicklow had stood up there in my quarters and coldly described him as a counterfeiter, rigger-trader, horse-thief, and fire-bug from the most notorious rascal-nest in Galveston; and this was a thing which that poor old gentleman could n`t seem to get over at all.
And the War Department! But, O my soul, let`s draw the curtain over that part!
NOTE. — I showed my manuscript to the Major, and he said: “Your unfamiliarity with military matters has betrayed you into some little mistakes. Still, they are picturesque ones — let them go; military men will smile at them, the rest won`t detect them. You have got the main facts of the history right, and have set them down just about as they occurred.” — M. T.