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- Aladdin O'Brien - 31/32 -
Then the gray men began to come up the slope, and there were thousands of them. But shell yielded to canister, and the muskets of the infantry sent out death in leaden showers, so that the great charge began to melt like wax over heat, and the flags hung close together like a trophy of battle in a chapel. But still the gray men came. And now, in a storm of flame and smoke, they reached the foremost cannons of the Union line, and planted their flags. So much were they permitted for the glory of a lost cause. For a little, men killed one another with the butts of guns, with bayonets, and with stones, and then, as the overdrip of a wave broken upon an iron coast trickles back through the stones of the beach to the ocean, so all that was left of Pickett's great charge trickled back down the slope, driblets of gray, running blood. For a little while longer the firing continued. Battle-flags were gathered, and thrown together in sheaves. There was a little broken cheering, and to all intents and purposes the great war was at an end.
Aladdin, broken with grief and fatigue, went picking his way among the dead and wounded. He had lost Peter and Hannibal in that battle, and Hamilton and John were dead; he alone remained, and it was not just. He felt that the Great Reaper had spared the weed among the flowers, and he was bitter against the Great Reaper. But there was one more sorrow reserved for Aladdin, and he was to blaspheme against the God that made him.
There was still desultory firing from both armies. As when, on the Fourth of July, you set off a whole bunch of firecrackers, there is at first a crackling roar, and afterward a little explosion here and a little explosion there, so Gettysburg must have sounded to the gods in Olympus. Thunder-clouds begotten of the intense heat rolled across the heavens from east to west, accentuating the streaming glory of the setting sun, and now distant thunder rumbled, with a sound as of artillery crossing a bridge. Drops of rain fell here and there.
Aladdin heard himself called by name, "'Laddin, 'Laddin."
As quickly as the brain is advertised of an insect's sting, so quickly did Aladdin recognize the voice and know that his brother. Jack was calling to him. He turned, and saw a little freckled boy, in a uniform much too big for him, trailing a large musket.
"Jack!" he cried, and rushed toward him with outstretched arms. "You little beggar, what are you doin' here?"
Jack grinned like one confessing to a successful theft of apples belonging to a cross farmer. And then God saw fit to take away his life. He dropped suddenly, and there came a rapid pool of blood where his face had been. With his arms wrapped about the little figure that a moment before had been so warlike and gay, Aladdin turned toward the heavens a face of white flint.
"I believe in one God, Maker of hell!" he cried.
Thunder rumbled and rolled slowly across the battle-field from east, to west.
"I believe in one God, Maker of hell!" cried Aladdin, "Father of injustice and doer of hellish deeds! I believe in two damnations, the damnation of the living and the damnation of the dead."
He turned to the little boy in his arms, and terrible sobs shook his body, so that it appeared as if he was vomiting. After a while he turned his convulsed face again to the sky.
"Come down," he cried, "come down, you--"
Far down the hill there was a puff of white smoke, and a merciful bullet, glancing from a rock, struck Aladdin on the head with sufficient force to stretch him senseless upon the ground.
When the news of Gettysburg reached the Northern cities, lights were placed in every window, and horns were blown as at the coming of a new year. Senator Hannibal St. John had lost his three boys and the hopes of his old age in that terrible fight, but he caused his Washington house to be illuminated from basement to garret.
And then he walked out in the streets alone, and the tears ran down his old cheeks.
There had been a wedding in the hospital tent. Margaret bent over Peter and kissed him goodby. She was in deep black, and by her side loomed a great, dark figure, whose eyes were like caverns in the depths of which burned coals. The great, dark man leaned heavily upon a stick, and did not seem conscious of what was going on. The minister who had performed the ceremony stood with averted face. Every now and then he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. The wounded in neighboring cots turned pitiful eyes upon the girl in black, for she was most lovely--and very sad. Occasionally a throat was cleared.
"When you come, darling," said the dying man, "there will be an end of sorrow."
"There will be an end of sorrow," echoed the girl. She bent closer to him, and kissed him again.
"It is very wonderful to have been loved," said Peter. Then his face became still and very beautiful. A smile, innocent like that of a little child, lingered upon his lips, and his blind eyes closed.
St. John laid his hand upon Margaret's shoulder.
A man, very tall and lean and homely, entered the tent. He was clad in an exceedingly long and ill-fitting frock-coat. Upon his head was a high black hat, somewhat the worse for wear. He turned a pair of very gentle and pitying eyes slowly over those in the tent.
Aladdin, his head almost concealed by bandages, sat suddenly upright in a neighboring cot. A wild, unreasoning light was in his eyes, and marking time with his hand, he burst suddenly into the "Battlehymn of the Republic"
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on.
He sang on, and the wounded joined him with weak voices:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.
The tall man who had entered, to whom every death was nearer than his own, and to whom the suffering of others was as a crucifixion, removed the silk hat from his head, and wiped his forehead with a colored handkerchief.
Margaret knelt by Aladdin and held his unconscious form in her arms.
Outside, the earth was bathing in exquisite sunshine.
It was not long before Aladdin got back the strength of his body, but the gray bullet which had come in answer to his cry against God, even as the lightning came to Amyas Leigh, in that romance to which it is so good to bow, had injured the delicate mechanism of his brain, so that it seemed as if he would go down to the grave without memory of things past, or power upon the hour. Indeed, the war ended before the surgeons spoke of an operation which might restore his mind. He went under the knife a little child, his head full of pictures, playthings, and fear of the alphabet; he came forth made over, and turned clear, wondering eyes to the girl at his side. And he held her hand while she bridged over the years for him in her sweet voice.
He learned that she had married Peter, making his death peaceful, and he God-blessed her for so doing, while the tears ran down his cheeks.
But much of Aladdin that had slept so long was to wake no more. For it was spring when he woke, and waking, he fell in love with all living things.
One day he sat with Margaret on the porch of a familiar house, and looked upon a familiar river that flowed silverly beyond the dark trees.
Senator St. John, very old and very moving, came heavily out of the house, and laid his hands upon the shoulders of Margaret and Aladdin. It was like a benediction.
"I have been thinking," said the senator, very slowly, and in the voice of an old man, "that God has left some flowers in my garden."
"Roses?" said Aladdin, and he looked at Margaret.
"Roses perhaps," said the senator, "and withal some bittersweet, but, better than these, and more, he has left me heart's-ease. This little flower," continued the senator, "is sown in times of great doubt and sorrow and trouble, and it
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