On thursday nights in Esterville was the weekly drill of the National Guard. And the country bucks from Flatwoods district, Stinchcombe and Dewy Rose, throttling their way over bad roads in tinny Fords, diked out in faded drab breeches and shirts, to sweat and stumble through drill and manoeuvre on the chance of being sent to the state encampment on St. Simon’s island, the free picnic of the year. They got mighty patriotic around July. “Hep, hep! Hep, hep! ‘Ten ‘shun!” From her side piazza, drawn up disdainfully on her cane in the dusk, terrible old Miss Maria Magett peered down her nose at the squad of them drilling on the public square. She had a high masculine nose built to snort like a blooded horse’s.
Look at them. Just look at them. Wa’n’t they a pretty sight? Soldiers, Slew-footed, knock-kneed, double-jointed. Her caustic mind made fine points of their disabilities as they, formed hollow squares and columns in earnest perspiration.
” ‘Ten ‘shun!” bawled the hoarse young sergeant fresh from the plow.
Twenty of them shuffled manfully into a wheeling line, barely illuminated by passing cars’ headlights in the tent of darkness above the square.
“P’sent arms!” Guns clattered in the deep, sweet-smelling night and shed the starlight from their metal.
“Halt! Here, you—” The captain strode up to the newest recruit and took his gun from him and cocked and shifted it for a pattern, cursing steadily the while. He had been sent down from Atlanta. Miss Maria cackled like a sardonic parrot every time she saw his wasp waist and the spiffy flare to his breeches pass her house.
When her cane quivered with the strain of standing, she dragged a helpless foot up the long piazza, back. But old Miss Maria had breasted eighty years always with some weight or another to retard her natural speed, and the foot merely symbolized handicaps that had before been intangible; she set her mouth in a grimmer line, slanted her tall bones on her stick, and dragged stubbornly forward inch by inch. In the dusk of her piazza, ten feet from the sidewalk, the street light blew through tree leaves working in a nightfall breeze. The old woman’s moving white dress glimmered like a body, tattooed all over in a floral design of black.
Miss Maria’s bedraggled dwelling sat right on the public square. Not by will of the town council, God knows, but by virtue of an unimpeachable title.
She knew that her lot was wanted passionately for the new hotel. But when the council visited her yearly in a body, all but in tears, she simply snorted in their faces, rampant on her cane. A new hotel! If the town had got so stingy they wouldn’t bed strangers, send ‘em to her house. She’d never seen a body go without lodging yet. Her house would stand where it had always stood until she was carried out of it. And let ‘em see what they could do about it! . . . But the town council, who wanted the new hotel to attract tourists to attract Northern industry, quailed at the foresight of the dreadful old woman’s influence on available capital, and went back to wait with feet hoisted on their desk tops for old Miss Maria Magett to pass out and for the Industrial Era to pass into Esterville. They were good at waiting.
Leaning sway-backed on his musket, his nose somewhat damaged under a forage cap, his uniform spotted by the pigeons, the granite Confederate soldier on his pedestal in the center of the square and the old woman on her piazza faced each other daily with constant, defiant eyes. She would never leave him. Miss Maria did not mind the street noise, as they tried to make her believe. To tell the truth, after dark the square grew as silent as the country. Frogs hollered from the spring that had once been in her back-yard and now was Niggertown; grasshoppers still zoomed under the oak at the corner, unawed by progress.
And on Thursday nights, when good-dark had settled and the square had grown empty and spacious, was the weekly drill. And the country bucks from Flatwoods. And the prissy young captain from Atlanta.
“Halt! ‘Ten ‘shun Hep, hep! Hep, hep!—”
At her banister in the water-oak-leaf shadows that wrapped her gaunt head in a quivering lace, old Miss Maria snickered bitterly.
War. What did they know about war, she’d like to ask? A war for a cause. A war gone into with prayer and rejoicing. And they, called this drill— Had they but seen men learning in a day what it took them a summer to absorb. Men in grey with feet swift toward death on those same bricks. Men!
Like a disgruntled parrot, with her beaked nose and ferocious eyes under hooded lids and her grey hair skewered in a topknot, Miss Maria drooped her head for a humble instant.
Would she never—no, not to the last releasing breath— get over her disappointment that she had not been a boy to join them? That she had not even been allowed to go and nurse? That was the life for a girl then. To dash in and get the wounded. To staunch blood and rally and knock them into shape. She was that sort of a girl. Built for long campaigns. . . . And what they said was, “Now look ahere. Your ma’s down. Here’s where your nursing comes in. Get busy.” And she had nursed ma and pa for fifty, years; they had dropped off just in considerate time for her to get helpless herself. Kept from the road that led away. Kept from spending herself. . . .
True, she was scarcely fifteen in war-time. Tall as a youth, as flat-chested and fiery. Nor would they let her and Mark McConnor marry when he wanted her to before he left. She hadn’t cared a thrip about marrying the creature, but how she had wanted to go with him. Away! She had planned to go with him in drummer’s clothing, to join him in Jeb Stuart’s outfit. Mark would never tell. . . .
Muttering, she tapped back and forth. The military had marched down Oliver Street. She had hoped it was over and that the square would settle back into vacant peace. Now their boots smacked the bricks, returning.
“Left, right. Left, right. Halt! Mark time—”
Here she’d had to stand every Thursday evening all her life and watch these dolts drill for exercise. No, she’d not move her house off the square. Let them move the square. She’d got there first. Trying to turn a homeplace into a hotel. They’d wait a spell. . . .
Rattle of guns from their cases and echoes spattered from the drug store to the Baptist church. “Ready,—Take aim—”
How the volley behind her split the web of age and dissolution, carried her wrenched heart back to the passion of youth at war:—a cause unparalleled, manhood flipped like a coin, gallant smiles on those left behind to walk upright dead for many years—the salt sting on her own cheeks and her hand waving as far as she could see when Mark’s company marched away (“The Years Go Slowly By, Lorena”!) down Oliver Street, out of Esterville, out of Georgia, to Jeb Stuart, to dusty death.
If she could have gone! If they had not left her here like this!
“What’s that? An accident? Careless with their firearms?—Fetch him in here. And mind you don’t dirty my front porch, neither,”
Wounded?—She is a nurse of the Confederacy. Get him in on the couch. Her first-aid kit is ready. Gauze, bandage? She will save him. Hold! She can face cannon fire. What is that to face?
Mark? Is it old Mark? Goose, you—why did you get in the way of the gun? Never mind, I’m here. I have joined the nurse’s corps, and oh, Mark, I love it! It’s so much better than wasting my life away all those years at home. Does this hurt? Well, just hush, sir; it has to for a second. And oh, Mark, Jeb Stuart is like I thought he’d be. The beautiful brown his beard is, and the red sash—I don’t blame you for wanting his command. Lie still. I missed you at home, so I came too, Mark. It was too awful. I wouldn’t endure it —sickness and age and creeping time—not mel No, sir, I won’t move. Let the bullets roar. I am proud to die for the Confederacy!
An incredibly quick old woman with a face like a liverish parrot, her stick thrown down, is ministering to the surface scratch on the temple of a sheepish recruit from Dewy Rose, whose blank cartridge had backfired to the jeers of his companions. One young buck behind the old woman’s back thumbs his nose at the patient on the couch; one leans against the door jamb, his liver white inside him at the blood; the rest of the outfit, jostling each other, gawk in from the porch at fabulous old Miss Maria Magett, too mean to move her house off the square.