The White Feather
THE MAJOR’S STORY.
IN the Thousand and One Nights the vizier’s daughter, Shahrazdd, told all the stories ; but in our single stance the tales were told by five men, gathered round the hearthstone of a New England roadside tavern, in which they had sought shelter from a blizzard and were snow-bound for the night. The sleighing party thus circumstanced found themselves, after supper, in a comfortable sitting-room with a blazing fire of hemlock logs in front of them, and for lack of more original entertainment fell to story-telling. Though each of the five narratives which then took shape in the firelight had its own proper raison d’être, I shall reproduce only one of them here. The narrative so specialized owes its consequence, such as it is, to the fact that the narrator — nearly a personal stranger to me — was obliged to leave it in a manner unfinished, and that I, by singular chance, was able to supply what might be called the sequel.
This story, which I have named The White Feather, was related by a Massachusetts veteran of the Civil War, who had left one arm behind him on the field and in the record of his regiment a reputation for great bravery. The Major, as I subsequently learned, had received a military education at a period when the army held out but scant inducements, and had turned aside from it to study law. At the beginning of hostilities in ’61 he offered his services to the Federal government, and was placed upon the staff of General —, with the rank of captain. The grade of major was afterward won in a Massachusetts regiment. Severely wounded at Spottsylvania Court House, and permanently disabled, he resigned his commission, and, after a long invalidism, took to the law again.
With the fullest claim to the later title of judge, he prefers to be thought of and addressed as the Major. Today, his sinewy, erect figure and clear blue eyes, gentle and resolute by turns behind their abattis of gray eyebrow, give no hint of his threescore years and ten, especially when he is speaking.
“Some men,” began the Major, setting his half emptied tumbler a little farther back from the edge of the table, “some men have a way of impressing us at sight as persons of indomitable will, or dauntless courage, or sterling integrity — in short, as embodiments of this or that latent quality, although they may have given no evidence whatever of possessing the particular attribute in question. We unhesitatingly assume how they would act under certain imaginable circumstances and conditions. A gesture, a glance of the eye, a something in the intonation of the voice, hypnotizes us, and we at once accept as real what may be only a figment of our own creating. My story, if it’s what you would call a story, deals incidentally with one of these curious prepossessions.”
The Major paused a moment, and beat a soft tattoo with two fingers on the arm of the chair, as if he were waiting for his thoughts to fall into line.
“At the outbreak of the war, Jefferson Kane was in his senior year at West Point. The smoke of that first gun fired in Charleston harbor had hardly blown away when he withdrew from the Academy — to cast his lot, it was surmised, with that of his native state, as many another Southron in like circumstances was doing; for Kane belonged to an old Southland family. On the contrary, he applied for service in the army of the North — in the then nebulous Army of the Potomac. Men of his training were sorely needed at the moment, and his application was immediately granted.
“Kane was commissioned first lieutenant and provisionally assigned for duty in a camp of instruction somewhere in Massachusetts, at Readville, if I recollect. There he remained until the early part of ’62, doing important work, for the recruits that passed through his hands came out finished soldiers, so far as drill was involved. Then Kane was ordered to the front, and there I fell in with him — a tall, slender young man, with gray eyes and black hair, which he wore rather long, unlike the rest of us, who went closely cropped, Zouave fashion. I ought to say here that though I saw a great deal of him at this time, I am now aware that the impression he produced upon me was somewhat vague. His taking sides with the North presumably gave mortal offense to his family ; but he never talked of himself or of the life he had left behind him in the South. Without seeming to do so, he always avoided the topic.
“From the day Kane joined our regiment, which formed part of Stahl’s brigade, he was looked upon as a young fellow destined to distinguish himself above the common. It was no ordinary regiment into which he had drifted. Several of the companies comprising it were made up of the flower of New England youth — college seniors, professional men, men of wealth and social rating. But Kane was singled out from the throng, and stood a shining figure.
“I cannot quite define what it was that inspired this instant acceptance of him. Perhaps it was a blending of several things — his judicial coolness, his soldierly carriage, the quiet skill and tact with which he handled men drawn from peaceful pursuits and new to the constraints of discipline; men who a brief space before were persons of consideration in their respective towns and villages, but were now become mere pawns on the great chessboard of war. At times they had to be handled gingerly, for even a pawn will turn. Kane’s ready efficiency, and the modesty of it — the modesty that always hitches on to the higher gifts — naturally stimulated confidence in him. His magnetic Southern ways drew friends from right and left. Then he had the prestige of the West Pointer. But allowing for all this, it is not wholly clear what it was that made him, within the space of a month, the favorite of the entire regiment and the idol of Company A, his own company. That was the position he attained with apparently no effort on his part. Company A would have died for him, to a man. Among themselves, round the mess table, they didn’t hide their opinion of Jeff Kane, or their views on the situation at large. The chief command would have been his could the question have been put to vote. ‘ I would n’t like to lose the kid out of the company, ’ observed Sergeant Berwick one day, ‘ but it would be a blessed good thing if he could change shoulder straps with the colonel.’ ”
Here the Major suddenly remembered the unfinished Bourbon and Apollinaris in his glass and reached out for it.
“ The colonel alluded to, ” he resumed, “was a colonel of politics, and ought to have stuck to his glue factory down East. In those days we had a good many generals and colonels, and things, with political pulls. I think there were more than a few of that kidney in our recent little scrimmage with Spain. I don’t believe in putting protégés and hangers-on out of employment over the heads of men who have been trained to the profession of arms. Some fine day we ’ll be convinced of the expediency of stowing the politicians. We ought to have a National Cold Storage Warehouse on purpose. But that ’s another story, as our friend Kipling remarks — too frequently.”
The Major flicked off a flake of cigar ash from the looped-up empty sleeve that constantly gave him the oratorical air of having one hand thrust into his shirt-bosom, and went on with his narrative.
“We were as yet on only the outer edge of that lurid battle-summer which no man who lived through it, and still lives, can ever forget. Meanwhile vast preparations were making for another attempt upon Richmond. The inertia of camp-life with no enemy within reach tells on the nerves after a while. It appeared to be telling on young Kane’s. Like the regiment, which hitherto had done nothing but garrison duty in forts around Washington, he had seen no active service, and was ready for it. He was champing on the bits, as the boys said. His impatience impressed his comrades, in whose estimation he had long since become a hero — with all the heroism purely potential.
“For months the monotony of our existence had been enlivened only by occasional reconnaissances, with no result beyond a stray minié ball now and then from some outlying sharpshooter. So there was widespread enthusiasm, one night, when the report came in that a large Confederate force, supposed to be Fitz-Hugh Lee, was in movement somewhere on our left. In the second report, which immediately telescoped the first, this large force dwindled down to a small squad thrown forward — from an Alabama regiment, as we found out later — to establish an advanced picket line. A portion of Company A was selected to look into the move, and dislodge or capture the post. I got leave to accompany Lieutenant Kane and the thirty-five men detailed for duty.
“We started from camp at about four o’clock of an ugly April morning, with just enough light in the sky to make a ghastly outline of everything, and a wind from the foothills that pricked like needles. Insignificant and scarcely noticed details, when they chance to precede some startling event, have an odd fashion of storing themselves away in one’s memory. It all seems like something that happened yesterday, that tramp through a landscape that would have done credit to a nightmare — the smell of the earth thick with strange flowering shrubs; the overleaning branches that dashed handfuls of wet into our faces; the squirrel that barked at us from a persimmon tree, and how private Duffy raised a laugh by singing out, ‘ Shut up, ye young rebil! ’ and brought down upon himself a curt reprimand from Kane; for we were then beyond our own lines, and silence was wholesome. The gayety gradually died out of ns as we advanced into the terra incognita of the enemy, and we became a file of phantoms stealing through the gloaming.
“Owing to a stretch of swamp and a small stream that tried to head us off in a valley, it was close upon sunrise when we reached the point aimed at. The dawn was already getting in its purple work behind the mountain ranges; very soon the daylight would betray us — and we had planned to take the picket by surprise. For five or ten minutes the plan seemed a dead failure; but presently we saw that we had them. Our approach had evidently not been discovered. The advantages were still in our favor, in spite of the daybreak having overtaken us.
“A coil of wet-wood smoke rising above the treetops, where it was blown into threads by the wind, showed us our nearness to the enemy. Their exact position was ascertained by one of our scouts who crawled through the underbrush and got within a hundred feet of the unsuspecting bivouac.
“On the flattened crest of a little knoll, shut in by dwarf cedars and with a sharp declivity on the side opposite us, an infantry officer and twelve or fifteen men were preparing to breakfast. In front of a hut built of boughs and at some distance from the spot where the rifles were stacked, a group in half undress was sniffing the morning air. A sentinel, with his gun leaning against a stump, was drinking something out of a gourd as unconcernedly as thank you. Such lack of discipline and utter disregard of possible danger were common enough in both armies in the early days of the war. ‘The idea of burning damp wood on a warpath! ’ growled the scout. ‘If them tenderfoots was in the Indian country their scalps would n’t be on their empty heads a quarter of an hour.’
“We did n’t waste a moment preparing to rush the little post. A whispered order was passed along not to fire before we sprang from cover, and then the word would be given. There was a deathly stillness, except that the birds began to set up a clatter, as they always do at dawn. I remember one shrill little cuss that seemed for all the world to be trying to sound a note of alarm. We scarcely dared draw breath as we moved stealthily forward and up the incline. The attacking party, on the right, was led by Kane and comprised about two thirds of the detachment; the remainder was to be held in reserve under me. The row of cedars hung with creeper hid us until we were within forty or fifty yards of the encampment, and then the assaulting column charged.
“What happened then — I mean the dark and fatal thing that happened — I did n’t witness; but twenty pairs of eyes witnessed it, and a score of tongues afterward bore testimony. I did not see Lieutenant Kane until the affair was over.
“Though the Confederates were taken wholly unawares, the first shot was fired by them, for just as our men came into the open the sentinel chanced to pick up his musket. A scattering volley followed from our side, and a dozen gray figures, seen for a moment scuttling here and there, seemed to melt into the smoke which had instantly blotted out nearly everything. When the air cleared a little, Kane’s men were standing around in disorder on the deserted plateau. A stack of arms lay sprawling on the ground and an iron kettle of soup or coffee, suspended from a wooden tripod, was simmering over the blaze of newly lighted fagots. How in the devil, I wondered, had the picket-guard managed to slip through their hands ? What had gone wrong ?
“It was only on the return march that I was told, in broken words, what had taken place. Lieutenant Kane had botched the business — he had shown the white feather! The incredible story took only a few words in the telling,
“Kane had led the charge with seeming dash and valor, far in advance of the boys, but when the Confederate officer, who was pluckily covering the flight of the picket, suddenly wheeled and with sweeping sabre rushed toward Kane, the West Pointer broke his stride, faltered, and squarely fell back upon the line hurrying up the slope to his support. The action was so unexpected and amazing that the men came to a dead halt, as if they had been paralyzed in their tracks, and two priceless minutes were lost. When the ranks recovered from their stupor not a gray blouse was anywhere to be seen, save that of the sentry lying dead at the foot of the oak stump.
“That was the substance of the hurried account given me by Sergeant Berwick. It explained a thing which had puzzled me not a little. When I reached the plateau myself, immediately after the occurrence of the incident, Kane’s men were standing there indecisive, each staring into his comrade’s face in a dazed manner. Then their eyes had turned with one accord upon Lieutenant Kane. That combined glance was as swift, precise, and relentless as a volley from a platoon. Kane stood confronting them, erect, a trifle flushed, but perfectly cool, with the point of his sabre resting on the toe of one boot. He could n’t have appeared cooler on a dress-parade. Something odd and dramatic in the whole situation set me wondering. The actors in the scene preserved their hesitating attitude for only twenty seconds or so, and then the living picture vanished in a Hash, like a picture thrown from the kinetoscope, and was replaced by another. Kane stepped forward two paces, and as his sword cut a swift half circle in the air, the command rang out in the old resonant, bell-like tones, ‘Fall in, men! ’ I shall never forget how he looked every inch the soldier at that moment. But they — they knew!
“There was no thought of pursuing the escaped picket with the chances of bringing up against an entire regiment, probably somewhere in the neighborhood. The men silently formed into line, a guard was detailed to protect the rear of the column, and we began our homeward march.
“That march back to Camp Blenker was a solemn business. Excepting for the fact that we were on the doublequick and the drum taps were lacking, it might have been a burial. Not a loud word was spoken in the ranks, but there was a deal of vigorous thinking. I noticed that Second Lieutenant Rollins and three or four others never took their eyes off of Jefferson Kane. If he had made a motion to get away, I rather fancy it would have gone hard with him.
“We got into camp on schedule time, and in less than fifteen minutes afterward Jefferson Kane’s name was burning on every lip. Marconi’s wireless telegraph was anticipated that forenoon in Camp Blenker. On a hundred intersecting currents of air the story of the lieutenant’s disgrace sped from tent to tent throughout the brigade.
“At first nobody would believe it — it was some sell the boys had put up. Then the truth began to gain ground; incredulous faces grew serious; it was a grim matter. The shadow of it gathered and hung over the whole encampment. A heavy gloom settled down upon the members of Company A, for the stigma was especially theirs. There were a few who would not admit that their lieutenant had been guilty of cowardice, and loyally held out to the end. While conceding the surface facts in the case, they contended that the lieutenant had had a sudden faint, or an attack of momentary delirium. Similar instances were recalled. They had happened time and again. Anybody who doubted the boy’s pluck was an idiot. A braver fellow than Jeff Kane never buckled a sword-belt. That vertigo idea, however, didn’t cut much ice, as you youngsters of to-day would phrase it. There were men who did not hesitate to accuse Lieutenant Kane with the intention of betraying the detachment into the hands of the Confederates. Possibly he did n’t start out with that purpose, it might have occurred to him on the spot; the opportunity had suggested it; if there had been more than a picket-guard on hand he would have succeeded. But the dominant opinion was summed up by Corporal Simms: ‘He just showed the white feather, and that’s all there is about it. He didn’t mean nothing, he was just scared silly.’
“In the meantime Kane had shut himself in his tent on the slant of a hill, and was not seen again, excepting for half a moment when he flung back the flap and looked down upon the parade ground with its radiating white-walled streets. What report he had made of the expedition, if he had made any report, did not transpire. Within an hour after our return to camp a significant meeting of the captains of the regiment had been convened at headquarters. Of course a court-martial was inevitable. Though Lieutenant Kane had not as yet been placed under actual arrest, he was known to be under surveillance. At noon that day, just as the bugle was sounding, Jefferson Kane shot himself. ”
The Major made an abrupt gesture with his one hand, as if to brush away the shadow of the tragedy.
“That was over forty years ago, ” he continued, meditatively, “but the problem discussed then has been discussed at odd intervals ever since. In a sort of spectral way, the dispute has outlasted nine tenths of those who survived the war. Differences of opinion hang on like old pensioners or the rheumatism. Whenever four or five graybeards of our regiment get together, boring one another with ‘ Don’t you remember,’ the subject is pretty sure to crop up. Some regard Kane’s suicide as a confession of guilt, others as corroborative proof of the mental derangement which first showed itself in his otherwise inexplicable defailance before a mere handful of the enemy — a West Pointer! So we have it, hot and heavy, over a man who nearly half a century ago ceased to be of any importance.”
“What is your own diagnosis of the case, Major?” asked young Dr. Atwood, who always carried the shop about with him.
“Personally,” returned the Major, “I acquit Kane of disloyalty, and I don’t believe that he was exactly a coward. He hadn’t the temperament. I will confess that I’m a little mixed. Sometimes I imagine that that first glimpse of his own people somehow rattled him for an instant, and the thing was done. But whether that man was a coward or a traitor, or neither, is a question which has never definitely been settled.”
“Major,” I said, hesitating a little, “I think I can, in a way, settle it— or, at least, throw some light upon it.”
“You?” — and the Major with a half amused air looked up at me from under his shaggy, overhanging eyebrows. “ Why, you were not born when all this happened. ”
“No, I was not born then. My knowledge in the matter is something very recent. While wintering in the South, two or three years ago, I became acquainted, rather intimately acquainted, with the family of Jefferson Kane — that is, with his brother and sister.”
“It was not until after the surrender of Lee that Jefferson’s death was known as a certainty to his family — the manner of it is probably not known to them to this hour. Indeed, I am positive of it. They have always supposed that he died on the field or in the hospital.”
“The records at the War Department could have enlightened them,” said the Major.
“They did not care to inquire. He had passed out of their lives; his defection never was forgiven. The Confederate officer before whose sword Lieutenant Kane recoiled that day was his father.”
“Captain Peyton Kane was a broken man after that meeting. He never spoke of it to a living soul, save one — his wife, and to her but once. Captain Peyton Kane was killed in the second day’s battle at Gettysburg.”
My words were followed by a long silence. The room was so still that we could hear the soft pelting of the snow against the window-panes.
Then the old Major slowly rose from the chair and took up the empty glass beside him, not noticing that it was empty until he had lifted it part way to his lips. 舠 Boys, ” he said, very gently, “ only blank cartridges are fired over soldiers’ graves. Here ’s to their memory — the father and the son ! ”
Other stories, mirthful and serious, were told later on; but the Major did not speak again. He sat there in the dying glow of the firelight, inattentive, seemingly remote in an atmosphere of his own, brooding, doubtless, on
And battles long ago.”
Thomas Bailey Aldrich.