>A RESUMED IDENTITY

Posted: February 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

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by Ambrose Bierce

 

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1: The Review as a Form of Welcome

 

ONE summer night a man stood on a low hill overlooking a wide expanse of forest and field. By the full moon hanging low in the west he knew what he might not have known otherwise: that it was near the hour of dawn. A light mist lay along the earth, partly veiling the lower features of the landscape, but above it the taller trees showed in well- defined masses against a clear sky. Two or three farmhouses were visible through the haze, but in none of them, naturally, was a light.

Nowhere, in- deed, was any sign or suggestion of life except the barking

of a distant dog, which, repeated with mechanical iteration, served

rather to accentuate than dispel the loneliness of the scene.

    The man looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among

familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part in

the scheme of things. It is so, perhaps, that we shall act when, risen

from the dead, we await the call to judgment.

    A hundred yards away was a straight road, show- ing white in the

moonlight. Endeavouring to orient himself, as a surveyor or navigator

might say, the man moved his eyes slowly along its visible length and at

a distance of a quarter-mile to the south of his station saw, dim and

grey in the haze, a group of horsemen riding to the north. Behind them

were men afoot, marching in column, with dimly gleaming rifles aslant

above their shoulders. They moved slowly and in silence. Another group

of horsemen, another regiment of infantry, another and another --all in

unceasing motion toward the man's point of view, past it, and beyond. A

battery of artillery followed, the cannoneers riding with folded arms on

limber and caisson. And still the interminable procession came out of

the obscurity to south and passed into the obscurity to north, with

never a sound of voice, nor hoof, nor wheel.

    The man could not rightly understand: he thought himself deaf; said

so, and heard his own voice, al- though it had an unfamiliar quality

that almost alarmed him; it disappointed his ear's expectancy in the

matter of timbre and resonance. But he was not deaf, and that for the

moment sufficed.

    Then he remembered that there are natural phe- nomena to which some

one has given the name 'acoustic shadows.' If you stand in an acoustic

shadow there is one direction from which you will hear nothing. At the

battle of Gaines's Mill, one of the fiercest conflicts of the Civil War,

with a hundred guns in play, spectators a mile and a half away on the

opposite side of the Chickahominy Valley heard nothing of what they

clearly saw. The bombardment of Port Royal, heard and felt at St.

Augustine, a hundred and fifty miles to the south, was inaudible two

miles to the north in a still atmosphere. A few days before the

surrender at Ap- pomattox a thunderous engagement between the commands

of Sheridan and Pickett was unknown to the latter commander, a mile in

the rear of his own line.

    These instances were not known to the man of whom we write, but less

striking ones of the same character had not escaped his observation. He

was profoundly disquieted, but for another reason than the uncanny

silence of that moonlight march.

    'Good Lord! ' he said to himself--and again it was as if another had

spoken his thought--'if those people are what I take them to be we have

lost the battle and they are moving on Nashville!'

    Then came a thought of self--an apprehension --a strong sense of

personal peril, such as in an- other we call fear. He stepped quickly

into the shadow of a tree. And still the silent battalions moved slowly

forward in the haze.

    The chill of a sudden breeze upon the back of his neck drew his

attention to the quarter whence it came, and turning to the east he saw

a faint grey light along the horizon--the first sign of return- ing day.

This increased his apprehension.

    'I must get away from here,' he thought, 'or I shall be discovered

and taken.'

    He moved out of the shadow, walking rapidly toward the greying east.

From the safer seclusion of a clump of cedars he looked back. The entire

column had passed out of sight: the straight white road lay bare and

desolate in the moonlight!

    Puzzled before, he was now inexpressibly astonished. So swift a

passing of so slow an army!--he could not comprehend it. Minute after

minute passed unnoted; he had lost his sense of time. He sought with a

terrible earnestness a solution of the mystery, but sought in vain. When

at last he roused himself from his abstraction the sun's rim was visi-

ble above the hills, but in the new conditions he found no other light

than that of day; his understanding was involved as darkly in doubt as

before.

    On every side lay cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war's

ravages. From the chimneys of the farmhouses thin ascensions of blue

smoke signalled preparations for a day's peaceful toil. Having stilled

its immemorial allocution to the moon, the watch-dog was assisting a

negro who, prefixing a team of mules to the plough, was flatting and

sharping contentedly at his task. The hero of this tale stared

stupidly at the pastoral picture as if he had never seen such a thing in

all his life; then he put his hand to his head, passed it through his

hair and, withdrawing it, attentively considered the palm--a singular

thing to do. Apparently reassured by the act, he walked confidently

toward the road.

 

2: When You have Lost Your Life Consult a Physician 

    Dr. Stilling Malson, of Murfreesboro, having visited a patient six

or seven miles away, on the Nash- ville road, had remained with him all

night. At daybreak he set out for home on horseback, as was the custom

of doctors of the time and region. He had passed into the neighbourhood

of Stone's River battlefield when a man approached him from the road-

side and saluted in the military fashion, with a movement of the right

hand to the hat-brim. But the hat was not a military hat, the man was

not in uniform and had not a martial bearing. The doctor nodded

civilly, half thinking that the stranger's uncommon greeting was

perhaps in deference to the historic surroundings. As the stranger

evidently desired speech with him he courteously reined in his horse

and waited.

    'Sir,' said the stranger, 'although a civilian, you are perhaps an

enemy.'

    'I am a physician,' was the non-committal reply.

    'Thank you,' said the other. 'I am a lieutenant, of the staff of

General Hazen.' He paused a moment and looked sharply at the person whom

he was addressing, then added, 'Of the Federal army.' The physician

merely nodded.

    'Kindly tell me,' continued the other, 'what has happened here.

Where are the armies? Which has won the battle?'

    The physician regarded his questioner curiously with half-shut eyes.

After a professional scrutiny, prolonged to the limit of politeness,

'Pardon me,' he said; 'one asking information should be willing to

impart it. Are you wounded?' he added, smiling.

    'Not seriously--it seems.'

    The man removed the unmilitary hat, put his hand to his head, passed

it through his hair and, withdrawing it, attentively considered the

palm.

    'I was struck by a bullet and have been unconscious. It must have

been a light, glancing blow: I find no blood and feel no pain. I will

not trouble you for treatment, but will you kindly direct me to my

command--to any part of the Federal army--if you know?'

    Again the doctor did not immediately reply: he was recalling much

that is recorded in the books of his profession--something about lost

identity and the effect of familiar scenes in restoring it. At length he

looked the man in the face, smiled, and said:

    'Lieutenant, you are not wearing the uniform of your rank and

service.'

    At this the man glanced down at his civilian attire, lifted his

eyes, and said with hesitation:

    'That is true. I--I don't quite understand.'

    Still regarding him sharply but not unsympathetically, the man of

science bluntly inquired:

    'How old are you?'

    'Twenty-three--if that has anything to do with it.'

    'You don't look it; I should hardly have guessed you to be just

that.'

    The man was growing impatient. 'We need not discuss that,' he said:

'I want to know about the army. Not two hours ago I saw a column of

troops moving northward on this road. You must have met them. Be good

enough to tell me the colour of their clothing, which I was unable to

make out, and I'll trouble you no more.'

    'You are quite sure that you saw them?'

    'Sure? My God, sir, I could have counted them!'

    'Why, really,' said the physician, with an amusing consciousness of

his own resemblance to the loquacious barber of the Arabian Nights,

'this is very in- teresting. I met no troops.'

    The man looked at him coldly, as if he had himself observed the

likeness to the barber. 'It is plain,' he said, 'that you do not care to

assist me. Sir, you may go to the devil!'

    He turned and strode away, very much at random, across the dewy

fields, his half-penitent tormentor quietly watching him from his

point of vantage in the saddle till he disappeared beyond an array of

trees.

 

3: The Danger of Looking into a Pool of Water 

    After leaving the road the man slackened his pace, and now went

forward, rather deviously, with a distinct feeling of fatigue. He

could not account for this, though truly the interminable loquacity of

that country doctor offered itself in explanation. Seating himself upon

a rock, he laid one hand upon his knee, back upward, and casually looked

at it. It was lean and withered. He lifted both hands to his face. It

was seamed and furrowed; he could trace the lines with the tips of his

fingers. How strange!--a mere bullet-stroke and a brief unconsciousness

should not make one a physical wreck.

    'I must have been a long time in hospital,' he said aloud. 'Why,

what a fool I am! The battle was in December, and it is now summer!' He

laughed. 'No wonder that fellow thought me an escaped luna- tic. He was

wrong: I am only an escaped patient.'

    At a little distance a small plot of ground enclosed by a stone wall

caught his attention. With no very definite intent he rose and went to

it. In the centre was a square, solid monument of hewn stone. It was

brown with age, weather-worn at the angles, spotted with moss and

lichen. Between the massive blocks were strips of grass the leverage of

whose roots had pushed them apart. In answer to the challenge of this

ambitious structure Time had laid his destroying hand upon it, and it

would soon be 'one with Nineveh and Tyre.' In an inscription on one side

his eye caught a familiar name. Shaking with excitement, he craned his

body across the wall and read: 

            HAZEN'S BRIGADE

                   to

      The Memory of Its Soldiers

              who fell at Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862. 

    The man fell back from the wall, faint and sick. Almost within an

arm's length was a little depression in the earth; it had been filled by

a recent rain--a pool of clear water. He crept to it to revive himself,

lifted the upper part of his body on his trembling arms, thrust forward

his head and saw the reflection of his face, as in a mirror. He uttered

a terrible cry. His arms gave way; he fell, face downward, into the pool

and yielded up the life that had spanned another life.

 

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