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The Battle of Aiken by Gouverneur Morris

 

At the Palmetto Golf Club one bright, warm day in January they held a tournament which came to be known as the Battle of Aiken. Colonel Bogey, however, was not in command.

Each contestant's caddie was provided with a stick cleft at one end and pointed at the other. In the cleft was stuck a square of white card-board on which was printed the contestant's name, Colonel Bogey's record for the course, the contestant's handicap, and the sum of these two. Thus:

     A. B. Smith
     78 + 9 = 87

And the winner was to be he who travelled farthest around the links in the number of strokes allotted to him.

Old Major Jennings did not understand, and Jimmy Traquair, the professional, explained.

“Do you know what the bogey for the course is?” said he. “It's seventy-eight. Do you know what your handicap is? It's twenty.”

Old Major Jennings winced slightly. His handicap had never seemed quite adequate to him.

“Well?” he said.

“Well,” said Jimmie, who ever tempered his speech to his hearer's understanding, “what's twenty added to seventy-eight?”

“Eighty-eight—ninety-eight,” said old Major Jennings (but not conceitedly).

“Right,” said Jimmie. “Well, you start at the first tee and play ninety-eight strokes. Where the ball lies after the ninety-eighth, you plant the card with your name on it. And that's all.”

“Suppose after my ninety-eighth stroke that my ball lies in the pond?” said old Major Jennings with a certain timid conviction. The pond hole is only the twelfth, and Jimmie wanted to laugh, but did not.

“If that happens,” he said, “you'll have to report it, I'm afraid, to the Green Committee. Who are you going around with?”

“I haven't got anybody to go around with,” said the major. “I didn't know there was going to be a tournament till it was too late to ask any one to play with me.”

This conversation took place in the new shop, a place all windows, sunshine, labels, varnishes, vises, files, grips, and clubs of exquisite workmanship. At one of the benches a grave-eyed young negro, aproned and concentrated, was enamelling the head of a driver with shellac. Sudden cannon fire would not have shaken his hand. In one corner a rosy lad with curly yellow hair dangled his legs from the height of a packing-case and chewed gum. He had been born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and was learning golf from the inside. Sometimes he winked with one eye. But these silent comments were hidden from the major.

“I don't care about the tournament,” said the latter, his loose lip trembling slightly. “I'll just practice a little.”

“Don't be in a hurry, sir,” said Jimmie sympathetically; “General Bullwigg hasn't any one to go around with either. And if you don't mind——”

“Bullwigg,” said the major vaguely; “I used to know a Bullwigg.”

“He's a very fine gentleman indeed, sir,” said Jimmie. “Same handicap as yourself, sir, and if you don't mind——”

“Where is he from?” asked the major.

“I don't know, sir. Mr. Bowers extended the privileges of the club to him. He's stopping at the Park in the Pines.”

“Oh!” said the major, and then with a certain dignity and resolution: “If Mr. Bowers knows him, and if he doesn't mind, I'm sure I don't. Is he here?”

“He's waiting at the first tee,” said Jimmie, and he averted his face.

At the first tee old Major Jennings found a portly, red-faced gentleman, with fierce, bushy eyebrows, who seemed prepared to play golf under any condition of circumstance and weather. He had two caddies. One carried a monstrous bag, which, in addition to twice the usual number of clubs, contained a crook-handled walking-stick and a crook-handled umbrella; the other carried over his right arm a greatcoat, in case the June-like weather should turn cold, and over his left a mackintosh, in case rain should fall from the cloudless, azure heavens. The gentleman himself was swinging a wooden club, with pudgy vehemence, at an imaginary ball. Upon his countenance was that expression of fortitude which wins battles and championships. Old Major Jennings approached timidly. He was very shy. In the distance he saw two of his intimate friends finishing out the first hole. Except for himself and the well-prepared stranger they had been the last pair to start, and the old major's pale blue eyes clung to them as those of a shipwrecked mariner may cling to ships upon the horizon. Then he pulled himself together and said:

“General Bullwigg, I presume.”

“The very man,” said the general, and the two gentlemen lifted their plaid golfing caps and bowed to each other. Owing to extreme diffidence, Major Jennings did not volunteer his own name; owing to the fact that he seldom thought of anything but himself, General Bullwigg did not ask it.

Major Jennings was impatient to be off, but it was General Bullwigg's honor, and he could not compel that gentleman to drive until he was quite ready. General Bullwigg apostrophized the weather and the links. He spoke at some length of “My game,” “My swing,” “My wrist motion,” “My notion of getting out of a bunker.” He told an anecdote which reminded him of another. He touched briefly upon the manufacture of balls, the principle of imparting pure back-spin; the best seed for Northern greens, the best sand for Southern. And then, by way of adding insult to injury, he stepped up to his ball and, with due consideration for his age and stomach, drove it far and straight.

“Fine shot, sir,” was Major Jennings's comment.

“I've seen better, sir,” said General Bullwigg. “But I won't take it over.”

Major Jennings teed up his ball, and addressed it, and waggled, and shifted his feet, and had just received that sudden inner knowledge that the time was come to strike, when General Bullwigg interrupted him.

“My first visit to Aiken,” said he, “was in the 60's. But that was no visit of pleasure. No, sir. Along the brow of this hill upon which we are standing was an earthwork. In the pines yonder, back of the first green, was a battery. In those days we did not fight it out with the pacific putter, but with bullets and bayonets.”

“Were you in the battle of Aiken?” asked the major, so quietly as to make the question sound purely perfunctory.

General Bullwigg laughed, as strong men laugh, from the stomach, and with a sweeping gesture of his left hand appeared to dismiss a hundred flatterers.

“I have heard men say,” said he, “that I was the battle of Aiken.”

With an involuntary shudder Major Jennings hastily addressed his ball, swung jerkily, and topped it feebly down the hill. Then, smiling a sickly smile, he said:

“We're off.”

“Get a good one?” asked General Bullwigg. “I wasn't looking.”

“Not a very good one,” said Major Jennings, inwardly writhing, “but straight—perfectly straight. A little on top.”

They sagged down the hill, the major in a pained silence, the general describing, with sweeping gestures, the positions of the various troops among the surrounding hills at the beginning of the battle of Aiken.

“In those days,” he went on, “I was second lieutenant in the gallant Twenty-ninth; but it often happens that a young man has an old head on his shoulders, and as one after the other of my superior officers—superior in rank—bit the dust——That ball is badly cupped. You will hardly get it away with a brassy; if I were you I should play my niblick. Well out, sir! A fine recovery! On this very spot I saw a bomb burst. The air was filled with arms and legs. It seemed as if they would never come down. I shall play my brassy spoon, Purnell, the one with the yellow head. I see you don't carry a spoon. Most invaluable club. There are days when I can do anything with a spoon. I used to own one of which I often said that it could do anything but talk.”

Major Jennings shuddered as if he were very cold; while General Bullwigg swung his spoon and made another fine shot. He had a perfect four for the first hole, to Major Jennings's imperfect and doddering seven.

“The enemy,” said General Bullwigg, “had a breastwork of pine logs all along this line. I remember the general said to me: 'Bullwigg,' he said, 'to get them out of that timber is like getting rats out of the walls of a house.' And I said: 'General——'”

“It's your honor,” the major interrupted mildly.

But General Bullwigg would not drive until he had brought his anecdote to a self-laudatory end. And his ball was not half through its course before he had begun another. The major, compelled to listen, again foozled, and a dull red began to mantle his whole face. And in his peaceful and affable heart there waxed a sullen, feverish rage against his companion.

The battle of Aiken was on.

Sing, O chaste and reluctant Muse, the battle of Aiken! Only don't sing it! State it, as is the fashion of our glorious times, in humble and perishable prose. Fling grammar of which nothing is now known to the demnition bow-wows, and state how in the beginning General Bullwigg had an advantage of many strokes, not wasted, over his self-effacing companion. State how, because of the general's incessant chatter, the gentle and gallant major foozled shot after shot; how once his ball hid in a jasmine bower, once behind the stem of a tree, and once in a sort of cavern over which the broom straw waved. But omit not, O truthful and ecstatic one, to mention that dull rage which grew from small beginnings in the major's breast until it became furious and all-consuming, like a prairie fire. At this stage your narrative becomes heroic, and it might be in order for you, O capable and delectable one, to switch from humble stating to loud singing. Only don't do it. State on. State how the rage into which he had fallen served to lend precision to the major's eye, steel to his wrist, rhythm to his tempo, and fiery ambition to his gentle and retiring soul. He is filled with memories of daring: of other battles in other days. He remembers what times he sought the bubble reputation in the cannon's mouth, and spiked the aforementioned cannon's touch-hole into the bargain. And he remembers the greater war that he fought single-handed for a number of years against the demon rum.

State, too, exquisite Parnassian, and keep stating, how that General Bullwigg did incessantly talk, prattle, jabber, joke, boast, praise himself, stand in the wrong place, and rehearse the noble deeds that he himself had performed in the first battle of Aiken. And state how the major answered him less and less frequently, but more and more loudly and curtly—but I see that you are exhausted, and, thanking you kindly, I shall resume the narrative myself.

They came to the pond hole, which was the twelfth; the general, still upon his interminable reminiscences of his own military glory, stood up to drive, and was visited by his first real disaster. He swung—and he looked up. His ball, beaten downward into the hard clay tee, leaped forward with a sound as of a stone breaking in two and dove swiftly into the centre of the pond. The major spoke never a word. For the first time during the long dreary round his risibles were tickled and he wanted to laugh. Instead he concentrated all his faculties upon his ball and made a fine drive.

Not so the general with his second attempt. Again he found water, and fell into a panic at the sudden losing of so many invaluable strokes (not to mention two brand-new balls at seventy-five cents each).

It was at the pond hole that the major's luck began to ameliorate. For the first time in his life he made it in three—a long approach close to the green; a short mashie shot that trickled into the very cup. And it was at the pond hole that the general, who had hitherto played far above his ordinary form, began to go to pieces. He was a little dashed in spirit, but not in eloquence.

Going to the long fourteenth, they found the first evidence of those who had gone before. In the very midst of the fair green they saw, shining afar, like a white tombstone, stuck in its cleft stick, the card of the first competitor to use up the whole of his allotted strokes. They paused a moment to read:

     Sacred to the Memory of
          W. H. Lands
          78 + 6 = 84
       Who Sliced Himself
          to Pieces

Forty yards beyond, another obituary confronted them:

       In Loving Memory of
         J. C. Nappin
         78 + 10 = 88
     Died of a Broken Mashie
       And of Such is the
       Kingdom of Heaven

“Ha!” said General Bullwigg. “He little realizes that here where he has pinned his little joke in the lap of mother earth I have seen the dead men lie as thick as kindlings in a wood-yard. Sir, across this very fair green there were no less than three desperate charges, unremembered and unsung, of which I may say without boasting that Magna Pars Fui. But for the desperation of our last charge the battle must have been lost——”

             Damn the memory of
                 E. Hewett
                78 + 10 = 88
                Couldn't Put

                  Here Lies
                  G. Norris
                78 + 10 = 88
     A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted

The little tombstones came thick and fast now. The fairway to the seventeenth, most excellent of all four-shot holes, was dotted with them, and it actually began to look as if General Bullwigg or Major Jennings (they were now on even terms) might be the winner.

It was that psychological moment when of all things a contestant most desires silence. Major Jennings was determined to triumph over his boastful companion. And he was full of courage and resolve. They had reached the seventeenth green in the same number of strokes from the first tee. That is to say, each had used up ninety-five of his allotted ninety-eight. Neither holed his approach put, and the match, so far as they two were concerned, resolved itself into a driving contest. If General Bullwigg drove the farther with his one remaining stroke he would beat the major, and vice versa. As for the other competitors, there was but one who had reached the eighteenth tee, and he, as his tombstone showed, had played his last stroke neither far nor well.

For the major the suspense was terrible. He had never won a tournament. He had never had so golden an opportunity to down a boaster. But it was General Bullwigg's honor, and it occurred to him that the time was riper for talk than play.

“You may think that I am nervous,” he said. “But I am not. During one period of the battle of Aiken the firing between ourselves on this spot and the enemy intrenched where the club-house now stands, and spreading right and left in a half-moon, was fast and furious. Once they charged up to our guns; but we drove them back, and after that charge yonder fair green was one infernal shambles of dead and dying. Among the wounded was one of the enemy's general officers; he whipped and thrashed and squirmed like a newly landed fish and screamed for water. It was terrible; it was unendurable. Next to me in the trench was a young fellow named—named Jennings——”

“Jennings?” said the major breathlessly. “And what did he do?”

“He,” said General Bullwigg. “Nothing. He said, however, and he was careful not to show his head above the top of the trench: 'I can't stand this,' he said; 'somebody's got to bring that poor fellow in.' As for me, I only needed the suggestion. I jumped out of the trench and ran forward, exposing myself to the fire of both armies. When, however, I reached the general officer, and my purpose was plain, the firing ceased upon both sides, and the enemy stood up and cheered me.”

General Bullwigg teed his ball and drove it far.

Major Jennings bit his lip; it was hardly within his ability to hit so long a ball.

“This—er—Jennings,” said he, “seems to have been a coward.”

General Bullwigg shrugged his shoulders.

“Have I got it straight?” asked Major Jennings. “It was you who brought in the general officer, and not—er—this—er—Jennings who did it?”

“I thought I had made it clear,” said General Bullwigg stiffly. And he repeated the anecdote from the beginning. Major Jennings's comment was simply this:

“So that was the way of it, was it?”

A deep crimson suffused him. He looked as if he were going to burst. He teed his ball. He trembled. He addressed. He swung back, and then with all the rage, indignation, and accuracy of which he was capable—forward. It was the longest drive he had ever made. His ball lay a good yard beyond the General's. He had beaten all competitors, but that was nothing. He had beaten his companion, and that was worth more to him than all the wealth of Ormuzd and of Ind. He had won the second battle of Aiken.

In silence he took his tombstone from his caddie's hand, in silence wrote upon it, in silence planted it where his ball had stopped. General Bullwigg bent himself stiffly to see what the fortunate winner had written. And this was what he read:

            Sacred to the Memory of
                E. O. Jennings
                 78 + 20 = 98
     Late Major in the Gallant 29th, Talked to
               Death by a Liar

As for the gallant major (still far from mollified), he turned his back upon a foe for the first time in his life and made off—almost running.

 
 
 

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