Our Soldier

THERE was a door directly opposite my seat in the dining-room, and to it as we, the other guests of the house, sat at lunch or at dinner, a maid regularly went with a tray, waiting a moment until a key turned on the other side and she was admitted.

I asked the Signora if any one were ill.

On the contrary, she answered, the occupant of the room enjoyed most excellent health. He was an Englishman. He had been an inmate of her house a dozen years or more. He made no acquaintances, and had no associates unless one counted herself and the gondoliers and the Armenian brothers on the island of San Lazzaro, who had taught him Italian. Every morning he went out to paint, taking with him three campstools of different heights, that he might place himself most favorably to his work. He never showed what he had painted. A great many people made pictures in Venice which they did not care to show, at least not in Venice itself. She did not know his story. She never asked questions. There were plenty of reasons why one might wish to leave a past and its memories. She believed he had once lived in Australia, but she could give no exact information.

And did he never write or receive letters, or plan for the future ?

Oh yes, he wrote letters twice a year, when his money was sent from England. She did not think that he wrote them at any other time. Now and then, too, he went on little journeys for his pleasure, and he read many books, and he was most amiable and gentle, and they all loved him, she, and the maids, and the gondoliers, and the priests of San Lazzaro, and he was evidently intending to live as at present until the day when, according to a desire which he had communicated to her, he should be borne on his last little journey to the Campo Santo at San Michele ; and she wondered more people of means did not spend the evening of their life in a similar manner. Surely nothing could be so agreeable or so calm. Had I never heard a remark which some one had made speaking of St. Peter’s in Rome and their own St. Mark’s — “ In St. Peter’s the heart goes up to God, in St. Mark’s God comes down to the heart ” ?

Soon after this conversation I went into the garden. A man of elderly appearance was sitting on the bench under the jasmine bush. As I stopped to pick some of the white blossoms, I said to him, what every one that day, quite as a matter of course, was saying to every one else, “ It is very hot, is n’t it ? ”

“Yes,” he assented in a tone that was not unfriendly, yet not meant to encourage further intercourse.

Then I noticed by his side three campstools of different heights, and I understood who it was.

A week later we met again at the same place. He held in his hand a Venetian daily paper. On the first page, which he had evidently just finished reading, was a portrait and an account of a fireman, who, at the recent burning of a Franciscan monastery, had perished attempting to save a valuable manuscript. Thereupon, when my interest in the subject caused me to forget the possible danger of losing my listener, for the Signora had told me that if a stranger addressed her Englishman he would sometimes rise abruptly and go away, I began to relate how a friend and I, drifting that morning through a side canal, had seen coming out of a church a procession of priests and choir-boys, followed by the firemen of Venice, bearing the body of their comrade ; how at the watersteps a barge was waiting, hung with black cloth and garlands of flowers ; how the firemen placed their burden upon this, grouping themselves about it; how a gondola containing two priests in flowered satin robes and a third one in purple went on before, a few other gondolas, our own among them, forming in a line behind, and thus we glided across to San Michele, where Franciscan friars came to the landing to meet us; how we heard the good-by prayers in the chapel on the island, and stood by the grave, while a priest with a deep rich voice read a eulogy through which the words bravo, coraggiosissimo ran like a refrain ; how when the last mourner had turned away we came back from the other side of the Campo, to which we had wandered, and making a wreath of white clover left it on the fireman’s grave ; and how we had done this, partly because we recalled that it was Decoration Day in our own land, partly too because as little children we had been accustomed at this time to bring field flowers as our especial tribute, and that we used to have a great many decoration days in a summer, because we were so fond of observing them.

“ And did you have many graves to decorate ? ” inquired the Signora’s Englishman.

I answered that most of the people in our village were women, children, and old men, and that there had been only one man of suitable age to send at the call of our civil war, and that he also was bravo, coraggiosissimo. He had fallen in a great battle, the Battle of the Wilderness. It was in honor of his memory that we as children kept our frequent decoration days.

“ I suppose your graveyard is very different from the Campo Santo at San Michele ? ” said my companion.

“ Very different. On either side are old houses, not so old of course as these in Venice, but still very old. They are white, and have green blinds, and porches with little windows looking up and down the road. The doors are painted green like the blinds, and have shining brass knockers, and each house has its little front garden with a hedge of cinnamon roses, and a bed of lilies-of-the-valley, and lilac bushes, and a grass-grown path leading to the gate. Behind the graveyard flows a winding river with wooded shores, and there are willow-trees all about, and in front of the graveyard is a view toward a hollow where there is a second river, one that ebbs and flows with the sea, and here are salt marshes, and an old bridge and a mill, and on account of its situation the village is called Two Rivers.”

The man had turned towards me, and was listening intently.

Afterwards I remembered having noticed a curious change in his appearance, as if he had suddenly become much younger.

“ And beyond the bridge,” he said, speaking at first with a certain hesitation and always with an absent sound in his voice, — “ beyond the bridge, the road winds upward away from the village, past a rambling inn shaded by elmtrees, past more old houses until it comes to a corner where a mile-stone stands, and an old parsonage with a row of poplar-trees at the side, and behind the house is wet, swampy ground, always blue in June with fleurs-de-lys, and not far away is a church, also white with green blinds, and it too has a porch.”

“ The old inn was burned,” I said, “ many years ago, and the poplar-trees have been cut down. I am sorry, for I loved the poplar-trees.”

“ I am sorry, too,” said the man, “ it was wrong to destroy them.”

After this he related anecdotes connected with Two Rivers, some of which were familiar to me, some of which I had never heard. He told of going for pond-lilies on the river with wooded shores, and of fishing for smelt on the river that ebbed and flowed with the sea; and he told of another and larger river in a neighboring township where he had once, at the risk of life, swam his horse after a freshet.

The absent sound in his voice became more and more apparent. One felt that he was wholly unconscious of what he was saying. All at once he reached out gropingly as one lost in the dark, took my hand, raised it to his forehead, held it there for a moment in a strange silence, and presently put it gently down.

With the movement he seemed to recover his quiet distant self, folded his paper, wished me a grave good-morning, and with his three camp-stools under his arm he went into the house.

I told the Signora.

“ It is very simple,” she said; “if a man has once been in Australia, why not in America, which is so much nearer ? ”

“ But this is such a hidden village, no one ever goes there.”

“ How was it possible to know that ? One would think you had sat from morning till evening on the highway watching. See what occurred unceasingly in Venice. Was not one always arriving and giving one’s self much inconvenience in order to visit forgotten places, entirely in the country where the Venetians themselves never dreamed of going ? If one were a painter, no spot could be too remote or difficult of access. Was there nothing in your village to attract a painter ? ”

“Oh yes,” I said, “the willows, the river-banks, the old houses, the mill, the bridges, and the salt marshes, and people often went there to paint.”

“Then it is explained,” returned the Signora. “ See how easy of comprehension ! As for the sudden discontinuance of conversation and the little mental confusion, they do not astonish me. The astonishing thing is that there should have been a conversation, and that one does not more often become confused when speaking of events a long time past.”

When I related at Two Rivers what had been said that May morning in Venice, much discussion ensued. It was asserted that the only man likely to have expressed himself in the way described was at rest in the soldier’s grave under the willows, although some one remarked, his body had never been sent home. Yet since sufficient proof of his death existed for the erection of a stone, he was spoken of as resting there.

Next, an interesting bit of information was discovered in the form of a vague report which declared that our soldier, seen by the eyes of reliable witnesses to fall in battle, had been seen by the eyes of other witnesses, equally reliable, a prisoner at Andersonville, and reduced to so pitiable a condition through suffering and exposure as to be utterly unable to recall his own identity.

All light on the subject stopped here. There could be found no hint suggesting in what strange manner this life, the Venetian part of which had so curiously come to me, might have attained its present ease and forgetfulness of earlier experience. A few persons tried to fill the void with pages of their own invention, but the village as a whole preferred not to trouble itself about the matter. When one’s soldier had been actually seen to fall in battle, when his pension had been properly paid, his loss lamented, his memory honored, where was the use of discrediting a record of such apparent authenticity in order to put one’s trust in a supposition? Moreover, what was to be done about it, and who had the right to do anything, there being no near of kin to disturb a peace evidently enjoyed and desired ?

And thus it is that on Decoration Days at Two Rivers, and on make-believe decoration days as well, our village children continue to carry their flowers, and to spell out the inscription, “ Fell in the Battle of the Wilderness.” Meanwhile, in Venice a quiet elderly man goes on taking his meals in solitude behind a closed door, paints his pictures which no one sees, chats with the Armenian brothers under their cypress - trees and cedars, is cared for in his daily life and welcomed back from his little journeys by the Signora, and the maids, and the friendly gondoliers, goes on living in his pleasant unconscious exile, and will doubtless thus continue to live, until the day when he shall take his last journey, this time through the narrow canals across to the clover-scented meadow, the Holy Field of the Venetians, when he shall fall asleep and awake, it may be, to find that which he gave for his country has been given back, and that he was once a soldier of the Union, bravo, coraggiosissimo.

Harriet Lewis Bradley.