Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How to See the Elephant - Part IV

Thetis finds a boatman willing to take her and Sheba downriver. They are accompanied by Mrs. Ayers, who has decided to volunteer as a nurse. Louisville is under military occupation and they are arrested by a military patrol and held at a hotel while a decision is made about what to do with them.

The sun had long since set and the hours slipped by. We had a plate of dinner in one of the hotels, served by a waiter who leaned against the wall and picked his teeth, watching us sternly. We were supposed to be seen, in a few hours, by another general. From time to time soldiers walked through the lobby, making their way to the bar with steady footsteps, only to stagger back a little while later. Once we heard gunshots in the street outside, followed by a window going up and someone calling down the wrath of heaven on the next person who made any noise. The soldiers in the bar began to improvise verses of “John Brown’s Body.” Mrs. Ayers, calm as ever, was eating with attention, as if it were her last meal. Sheba, finished, had put her head on the table and closed her eyes.
I got up and left.
I saw no other way. I knew it was wrong, unsafe and disloyal. I knew that I should trust to Mrs. Ayers to sort everything out. But I also knew that Pa was close. From the moment we had set foot on shore, from the moment I had begun to explain myself to the army, and heard about the hospital camp, I had begun to dread that my father was dying somewhere near by, and I was not there. It had been my intention from the first to find him as fast as possible, and I had been sidetracked, and now I would be punished for my neglect. I had come so far. I was so close. I could not stand to be held back by passivity and caution, by pats on the head and assurances that everything would be cleared up if I was patient. I had to go, even if it just meant walking and walking and walking until I found him. When I had left Miss Veda’s through that broken window, I had put certain things behind me for good. There was no point trying to jump back now. I had begun this adventure running through the streets of Philadelphia without thought or direction, and I would end it by doing the same on the streets of Louisville.
A drunken officer was beating on the door of the hotel, calling “Le’ me in, Sophie, le’ me in.” I opened the door and stepped over him when he fell down. Then, a moment of inspiration. His horse was tied to the rail outside. I took his gun from his holster, tucked it under my arm, heavy great thing that it was, then stepped to the rail and untied the horse. I put my foot in the stirrup and – how I did this without shooting myself I’ll never know – launched up into the saddle. The horse was a monster, far bigger than anything I had ever ridden – a blood mare, suitable for an officer. I didn’t even have to say “Get along.” I just squeezed my legs and the beast took off, with me holding the reins like I knew what I was doing, and the gun bouncing and jolting under my arm.

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