by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Boston And New York Houghton Mifflin Company
Copyright, 1873, 1885, and 1901
Of course that was not his name. Even in the State of Maine, where
it is still a custom to maim a child for life by christening him Arioch
or Shadrach or Ephraim, nobody would dream of calling a boy Quite So.
It was merely a nickname which we gave him in camp; but it stuck to him
with such bur-like tenacity, and is so inseparable from my memory of
him, that I do not think I could write definitely of John Bladburn if I
were to call him anything but Quite So.
It was one night shortly after the first battle of Bull Run. The
Army of the Potomac, shattered, stunned, and forlorn, was back in its
old quarters behind the earthworks. The melancholy line of ambulances
bearing our wounded to Washington was not done creeping over Long
Bridge; the blue smocks and the gray still lay in windrows on the field
of Manassas; and the gloom that weighed down our hearts was like the
fog that stretched along the bosom of the Potomac, and enfolded the
valley of the Shenandoah. A drizzling rain had set in at twilight, and,
growing bolder with the darkness, was beating a dismal tattoo on the
tentthe tent of Mess 6, Company A, th Regiment, N. Y. Volunteers.
Our mess, consisting originally of eight men, was reduced to four.
Little Billy, as one of the boys grimly remarked, had concluded to
remain at Manassas; Corporal Steele we had to leave at Fairfax
Court-House, shot through the hip; Hunter and Suydam we had said
good-by to that afternoon. Tell Johnny Reb, says Hunter, lifting up
the leather side-piece of the ambulance, that I 'll be back again as
soon as I get a new leg. But Suydam said nothing; he only unclosed his
eyes languidly and smiled farewell to us.
The four of us who were left alive and unhurt that shameful July day
sat gloomily smoking our brier-wood pipes, thinking our thoughts, and
listening to the rain pattering against the canvas. That, and the
occasional whine of a hungry cur, foraging on the outskirts of the camp
for a stray bone, alone broke the silence, save when a vicious drop of
rain detached itself meditatively from the ridge-pole of the tent, and
fell upon the wick of our tallow candle, making it cuss, as Ned
Strong described it. The candle was in the midst of one of its most
profane fits when Blakely, knocking the ashes from his pipe and
addressing no one in particular, but giving breath, unconsciously as it
were, to the result of his cogitations, observed that it was
considerable of a fizzle.
The 'on to Richmond' business?
I wonder what they 'll do about it over yonder, said Curtis,
pointing over his right shoulder. By over yonder he meant the North
in general and Massachusetts especially. Curtis was a Boston boy, and
his sense of locality was so strong that, during all his wanderings in
Virginia, I do not believe there was a moment, day or night, when he
could not have made a bee-line for Faneuil Hall.
Do about it? cried Strong. They 'll make about two hundred
thousand blue flannel trousers and send them along, each pair with a
man in itall the short men in the long trousers, and all the tall men
in the short ones, he added, ruefully contemplating his own leg-gear,
which scarcely reached to his ankles.
That's so, said Blakely. Just now, when I was tackling the
commissary for an extra candle, I saw a crowd of new fellows drawing
I say there, drop that! cried Strong. All right, sir, didn't know
it was you, he added hastily, seeing it was Lieutenant Haines who had
thrown back the flap of the tent, and let in a gust of wind and rain
that threatened the most serious bronchial consequences to our
discontented tallow dip.
You 're to bunk in here, said the lieutenant, speaking to some one
outside. The some one stepped in, and Haines vanished in the darkness.
When Strong had succeeded in restoring the candle to consciousness,
the light fell upon a tall, shy-looking man of about thirty-five, with
long, hay-colored beard and mustache, upon which the rain-drops stood
in clusters, like the night-dew on patches of cobweb in a meadow. It
was an honest face, with unworldly sort of blue eyes, that looked out
from under the broad visor of the infantry cap. With a deferential
glance towards us, the new-comer unstrapped his knapsack, spread his
blanket over it, and sat down unobtrusively.
Rather damp night out, remarked Blakely, whose strong hand was
supposed to be conversation.
Quite so, replied the stranger, not curtly, but pleasantly, and
with an air as if he had said all there was to be said about it.
Come from the North recently? inquired Blakely, after a pause.
From any place in particular?
People considerably stirred up down there? continued Blakely,
determined not to give up.
Blakely threw a puzzled look over the tent, and seeing Ned Strong on
the broad grin, frowned severely. Strong instantly assumed an
abstracted air, and began humming softly,
I wish I was in Dixie.
The State of Maine, observed Blakely, with a certain defiance of
manner not at all necessary in discussing a geographical question, is
a pleasant State.
In summer, suggested the stranger.
In summer, I mean, returned Blakely with animation, thinking he
had broken the ice. Cold as blazes in winter, thoughIsn't it?
The new recruit merely nodded.
Blakely eyed the man homicidally for a moment, and then, smiling one
of those smiles of simulated gayety which the novelists inform us are
more tragic than tears, turned upon him with withering irony.
Trust you left the old folks pretty comfortable?
The old folks dead!
Blakely made a sudden dive for his blanket, tucked it around him
with painful precision, and was heard no more.
Just then the bugle sounded lights out,bugle answering bugle in
far-off camps. When our not elaborate night-toilets were complete,
Strong threw somebody else's old boot at the candle with infallible
aim, and darkness took possession of the tent. Ned, who lay on my left,
presently reached over to me, and whispered, I say, our friend 'quite
so' is a garrulous old boy! He'll talk himself to death some of these
odd times, if he is n't careful. How he did run on!
The next morning, when I opened my eyes, the new member of Mess 6
was sitting on his knapsack, combing his blonde beard with a horn comb.
He nodded pleasantly to me, and to each of the boys as they woke up,
one by one. Blakely did not appear disposed to renew the animated
conversation of the previous night; but while he was gone to make a
requisition for what was in pure sarcasm called coffee, Curtis ventured
to ask the man his name.
Bladburn, John, was the reply.
That's rather an unwieldy name for every-day use, put in Strong.
If it would n't hurt your feelings, I 'd like to call you Quite
Sofor short. Don't say no, if you don't like it. Is it agreeable?
Bladburn gave a little laugh, all to himself, seemingly, and was
about to say, Quite so, when he caught at the words, blushed like a
girl, and nodded a sunny assent to Strong. From that day until the end,
the sobriquet clung to him.
The disaster at Bull Bun was followed, as the reader knows, by a
long period of masterly inactivity, so far as the Army of the Potomac
was concerned. McDowell, a good soldier, but unlucky, retired to
Arlington Heights, and McClellan, who had distinguished himself in
Western Virginia, took command of the forces in front of Washington,
and bent his energies to reorganizing the demoralized troops. It was a
dreary time to the people of the North, who looked fatuously from week
to week for the fall of Richmond; and it was a dreary time to the
denizens of that vast city of tents and forts which stretched in a
semicircle before the beleaguered Capitolso tedious and soul-wearing
a time that the hardships of forced marches and the horrors of battle
became desirable things to them.
Roll-call morning and evening, guard-duty, dress-parades, an
occasional reconnoissance, dominoes, wrestling-matches, and such rude
games as could be carried on in camp made up the sum of our lives. The
arrival of the mail with letters and papers from home was the event of
the day. We noticed that Bladburn neither wrote nor received any
letters. When the rest of the boys were scribbling away for dear life,
with drum-heads and knapsacks and cracker-boxes for writing-desks, he
would sit serenely smoking his pipe, but looking out on us through
rings of smoke with a face expressive of the tenderest interest.
Look here, Quite So, Strong would say, the mail-bag closes in
half an hour. Ain't you going to write?
I believe not to-day, Bladburn would reply, as if he had written
yesterday, or would write to-morrow: but he never wrote.
He had become a great favorite with us, and with all the officers of
the regiment. He talked less than any man I ever knew, but there was
nothing sinister or sullen in his reticence. It was sunshine,warmth
and brightness, but no voice. Unassuming and modest to the verge of
shyness, he impressed every one as a man of singular pluck and nerve.
Do you know, said Curtis to me one day, that that fellow Quite So
is clear grit, and when we come to close quarters with our Palmetto
brethren over yonder, he'll do something devilish?
What makes you think so?
Well, nothing quite explainable; the exasperating coolness of the
man, as much as anything. This morning the boys were teasing Muffin Fan
[a small mulatto girl who used to bring muffins into camp three times a
week,at the peril of her life!] and Jemmy Blunt of Company Kyou
know himwas rather rough on the girl, when Quite So, who had been
reading under a tree, shut one finger in his book, walked over to where
the boys were skylarking, and with the smile of a juvenile angel on his
face lifted Jemmy out of that and set him down gently in front of his
own tent. There Blunt sat speechless, staring at Quite So, who was back
again under the tree, pegging away at his little Latin grammar.
That Latin grammar! He always had it about him, reading it or
turning over its dog's-eared pages at odd intervals and in
out-of-the-way places. Half a dozen times a day he would draw it out
from the bosom of his blouse, which had taken the shape of the book
just over the left breast, look at it as if to assure himself it was
all right, and then put the thing back. At night the volume lay beneath
his pillow. The first thing in the morning, before he was well awake,
his hand would go groping instinctively under his knapsack in search of
A devastating curiosity seized upon us boys concerning that Latin
grammar, for we had discovered the nature of the book. Strong wanted to
steal it one night, but concluded not to. In the first place,
reflected Strong, I haven't the heart to do it, and in the next place
I have n't the moral courage. Quite So would placidly break every bone
in my body. And I believe Strong was not far out of the way.
Sometimes I was vexed with myself for allowing this tall,
simple-hearted country fellow to puzzle me so much. And yet, was he a
simple-hearted country fellow? City bred he certainly was not; but his
manner, in spite of his awkwardness, had an indescribable air of
refinement. Now and then, too, he dropped a word or a phrase that
showed his familiarity with unexpected lines of reading. The other
day, said Curtis, with the slightest elevation of eyebrow, he had the
cheek to correct my Latin for me. In short, Quite So was a daily
problem to the members of Mess 6. Whenever he was absent, and Blakely
and Curtis and Strong and I got together in the tent, we discussed him,
evolving various theories to explain why he never wrote to anybody and
why nobody ever wrote to him. Had the man committed some terrible
crime, and fled to the army to hide his guilt? Blakely suggested that
he must have murdered the old folks. What did he mean by eternally
conning that tattered Latin grammar? And was his name Bladburn, anyhow?
Even his imperturbable amiability became suspicious. And then his
frightful reticence! If he was the victim of any deep grief or crushing
calamity, why did n't he seem unhappy? What business had he to be
It's my opinion, said Strong, that he 's a rival Wandering Jew;
the original Jacobs, you know, was a dark fellow.
Blakely inferred from something Bladburn had said, or something he
had not saidwhich was more likelythat he had been a schoolmaster at
some period of his life.
Schoolmaster be hanged! was Strong's comment. Can you fancy a
schoolmaster going about conjugating baby verbs out of a dratted little
spelling-book? No, Quite So has evidently been aaBlest if I can
imagine what he 's been!
Whatever John Bladburn had been, he was a lonely man. Whenever I
want a type of perfect human isolation, I shall think of him, as he was
in those days, moving remote, self-contained, and alone in the midst of
two hundred thousand men.
The Indian summer, with its infinite beauty and tenderness, came
like a reproach that year to Virginia. The foliage, touched here and
there with prismatic tints, drooped motionless in the golden haze. The
delicate Virginia creeper was almost minded to put forth its scarlet
buds again. No wonder the lovely phantomthis dusky Southern sister of
the pale Northern Junelingered not long with us, but, filling the
once peaceful glens and valleys with her pathos, stole away rebukefully
before the savage enginery of man.
The preparations that had been going on for months in arsenals and
foundries at the North were nearly completed. For weeks past the air
had been filled with rumors of an advance; but the rumor of to-day
refuted the rumor of yesterday, and the Grand Army did not move.
Heintzelman's corps was constantly folding its tents, like the Arabs,
and as silently stealing away; but somehow it was always in the same
place the next morning. One day, at last, orders came down for our
brigade to move.
We 're going to Richmond, boys! shouted Strong, thrusting his head
in at the tent; and we all cheered and waved our caps like mad. You
see, Big Bethel and Bull Run and Ball's Bluff (the bloody B's, as we
used to call them) had n't taught us any better sense.
Rising abruptly from the plateau, to the left of our encampment, was
a tall hill covered with a stunted growth of red-oak, persimmon, and
chestnut. The night before we struck tents I climbed up to the crest to
take a parting look at a spectacle which custom had not been able to
rob of its enchantment. There, at my feet, and extending miles and
miles away, lay the camps of the Grand Army, with its camp-fires
reflected luridly against the sky. Thousands of lights were twinkling
in every direction, some nestling in the valley, some like fire-flies
beating their wings and palpitating among the trees, and others
stretching in parallel lines and curves, like the street-lamps of a
city. Somewhere, far off, a band was playing, at intervals it seemed;
and now and then, nearer to, a silvery strain from a bugle shot sharply
up through the night, and seemed to lose itself like a rocket among the
starsthe patient, untroubled stars. Suddenly a hand was laid upon my
I 'd like to say a word to you, said Bladburn.
With a little start of surprise, I made room for him on the fallen
tree where I was seated.
I may n't get another chance, he said. You and the boys have been
very kind to me, kinder than I deserve; but sometimes I 've fancied
that my not saying anything about myself had given you the idea that
all was not right in my past. I want to say that I came down to
Virginia with a clean record.
We never really doubted it, Bladburn.
If I did n't write home, he continued, it was because I had n't
any home, neither kith nor kin. When I said the old folks were dead, I
said it. Am I boring you? If I thought I was
No, Bladburn. I have often wanted you to talk to me about yourself,
not from idle curiosity, I trust, but because I liked you that rainy
night when you came to camp, and have gone on liking you ever since.
This is n't too much to say, when Heaven only knows how soon I may be
past saying it or you listening to it.
That's it, said Bladburn, hurriedly, that's why I want to talk
with you. I 've a fancy that I sha' n't come out of our first battle.
The words gave me a queer start, for I had been trying several days
to throw off a similar presentiment concerning hima foolish
presentiment that grew out of a dream.
In case anything of that kind turns up, he continued, I 'd like
you to have my Latin grammar hereyou 've seen me reading it. You
might stick it away in a bookcase, for the sake of old times. It goes
against me to think of it falling into rough hands or being kicked
about camp and trampled underfoot.
He was drumming softly with his fingers on the volume in the bosom
of his blouse.
I did n't intend to speak of this to a living soul, he went on,
motioning me not to answer him; but something took hold of me to-night
and made me follow you up here, Perhaps if I told you all, you would be
the more willing to look after the little book in case it goes ill with
me. When the war broke out I was teaching school down in Maine, in the
same village where my father was schoolmaster before me. The old man
when he died left me quite alone. I lived pretty much by myself, having
no interests outside of the district school, which seemed in a manner
my personal property. Eight years ago last spring a new pupil was
brought to the school, a slight slip of a girl, with a sad kind of face
and quiet ways. Perhaps it was because she was n't very strong, and
perhaps because she was n't used over well by those who had charge of
her, or perhaps it was because my life was lonely, that my heart warmed
to the child. It all seems like a dream now, since that April morning
when little Mary stood in front of my desk with her pretty eyes looking
down bashfully and her soft hair falling over her face. One day I look
up, and six years have gone byas they go by in dreamsand among the
scholars is a tall girl of sixteen, with serious, womanly eyes which I
cannot trust myself to look upon. The old life has come to an end. The
child has become a woman and can teach the master now. So help me
Heaven, I did n't know that I loved her until that day!
Long after the children had gone home I sat in the school-room with
my face resting on my hands. There was her desk, the afternoon shadows
falling across it. It never looked empty and cheerless before. I went
and stood by the low chair, as I had stood hundreds of times. On the
desk was a pile of books, ready to be taken away, and among the rest a
small Latin grammar which we had studied together. What little despairs
and triumphs and happy hours were associated with it! I took it up
curiously, as if it were some gentle dead thing, and turned over the
pages, and could hardly see them. Turning the pages, idly so, I came to
a leaf on which something was written with ink, in the familiar girlish
hand. It was only the words 'Dear John,' through which she had drawn
two hasty pencil linesI wish she had n't drawn those lines! added
Bladburn, under his breath.
He was silent for a minute or two, looking off towards the camps,
where the lights were fading out one by one.
I had no right to go and love Mary. I was twice her age, an
awkward, unsocial man, that would have blighted her youth. I was as
wrong as wrong can be. But I never meant to tell her. I locked the
grammar in my desk and the secret in my heart for a year. I could n't
bear to meet her in the village, and kept away from every place where
she was likely to be. Then she came to me, and sat down at my feet
penitently, just as she used to do when she was a child, and asked what
she had done to anger me; and then, Heaven forgive me! I told her all,
and asked her if she could say with her lips the words she had written,
and she nestled in my arms all a-trembling like a bird, and said them
over and over again.
When Mary's family heard of our engagement, there was trouble. They
looked higher for Mary than a middle-aged schoolmaster. No blame to
them. They forbade me the house, her uncles; but we met in the village
and at the neighbors' houses, and I was happy, knowing she loved me.
Matters were in this state when the war came on. I had a strong call to
look after the old flag, and I hung my head that day when the company
raised in our village marched by the school-house to the railroad
station; but I couldn't tear myself away. About this time the
minister's son, who had been away to college, came to the village. He
met Mary here and there, and they became great friends. He was a likely
fellow, near her own age, and it was natural they should like one
another. Sometimes I winced at seeing him made free of the home from
which I was shut out; then I would open the grammar at the leaf where
'Dear John' was written up in the corner, and my trouble was gone. Mary
was sorrowful and pale these days, and I think her people were worrying
It was one evening two or three days before we got the news of Bull
Run. I had gone down to the burying-ground to trim the spruce hedge set
round the old man's lot, and was just stepping into the enclosure, when
I heard voices from the opposite side. One was Mary's, and the other I
knew to be young Marston's, the minister's son. I did n't mean to
listen, but what Mary was saying struck me dumb. We must never meet
again, she was saying in a wild way. We must say good-by here,
for ever,good-by, good-by! And I could hear her sobbing. Then,
presently, she said, hurriedly, No, no; my hand, not my lips!
Then it seemed he kissed her hands, and the two parted, one going
towards the parsonage, and the other out by the gate near where I
I don't know how long I stood there, but the night-dews had wet me
to the bone when I stole out of the graveyard and across the road to
the school-house. I unlocked the door, and took the Latin grammar from
the desk and hid it in my bosom. There was not a sound or a light
anywhere as I walked out of the village. And now, said Bladburn,
rising suddenly from the tree-trunk, if the little book ever falls in
your way, won't you see that it comes to no harm, for my sake, and for
the sake of the little woman who was true to me and did n't love me?
Wherever she is to-night, God bless her!
As we descended to camp with our arms resting on each other's
shoulder, the watch-fires were burning low in the valleys and along the
hillsides, and as far as the eye could reach the silent tents lay
bleaching in the moonlight.
We imagined that the throwing forward of our brigade was the initial
movement of a general advance of the army; but that, as the reader will
remember, did not take place until the following March. The
Confederates had fallen back to Centreville without firing a shot, and
the national troops were in possession of Lewinsville, Vienna, and
Fairfax Court-House. Our new position was nearly identical with that
which we had occupied on the night previous to the battle of Bull
Runon the old turnpike road to Manassas, where the enemy was supposed
to be in great force. With a field-glass we could see the Rebel pickets
moving in a belt of woodland on our right, and morning and evening we
heard the spiteful roll of their snare-drums.
Those pickets soon became a nuisance to us. Hardly a night passed
but they fired upon our outposts, so far with no harmful result; but
after a while it grew to be a serious matter. The Rebels would crawl
out on all-fours from the wood into a field covered with underbrush,
and lie there in the dark for hours, waiting for a shot. Then our men
took to the rifle-pitspits ten or twelve feet long by four or five
deep, with the loose earth banked up a few inches high on the exposed
sides. All the pits bore names, more or less felicitous, by which they
were known to their transient tenants. One was called The Pepper-Box,
another Uncle Sam's Well, another The Reb-Trap, and another, I am
constrained to say, was named after a not-to-be-mentioned tropical
locality. Though this rude sort of nomenclature predominated, there was
no lack of softer titles, such as Fortress Matilda and Castle Mary,
and one had, though unintentionally, a literary flavor to it, Blair's
Grave, which was not popularly considered as reflecting unpleasantly
on Nat Blair, who had assisted in making the excavation.
Some of the regiment had discovered a field of late corn in the
neighborhood, and used to boil a few ears every day, while it lasted,
for the boys detailed on the night-picket. The corn-cobs were always
scrupulously preserved and mounted on the parapets of the pits.
Whenever a Rebel shot carried away one of these barbette guns,
there was swearing in that particular trench. Strong, who was very
sensitive to this kind of disaster, was complaining bitterly one
morning, because he had lost three pieces the night before.
There's Quite So, now, said Strong, when a Minie-ball comes
ping! and knocks one of his guns to flinders, he merely smiles, and
does n't at all see the degradation of the thing.
Poor Bladburn! As I watched him day by day going about his duties,
in his shy, cheery way, with a smile for every one and not an extra
word for anybody, it was hard to believe he was the same man who, that
night before we broke camp by the Potomac, had poured out to me the
story of his love and sorrow in words that burned in my memory.
While Strong was speaking, Blakely lifted aside the flap of the tent
and looked in on us.
Boys, Quite So was hurt last night, he said, with a white tremor
to his lip.
Shot on picket.
Why, he was in the pit next to mine, cried Strong.
I knew he was; I need not have asked the question. He never meant to
go back to New England!
Bladburn was lying on the stretcher in the hospital-tent The surgeon
had knelt down by him, and was carefully cutting away the bosom of his
blouse. The Latin grammar, stained and torn, slipped, and fell to the
floor. Bladburn gave me a quick glance. I picked up the book, and as I
placed it in his hand, the icy fingers closed softly over mine. He was
sinking fast. In a few minutes the surgeon finished his examination.
When he rose to his feet there were tears on the weather-beaten cheeks.
He was a rough outside, but a tender heart.
My poor lad, he blurted out, it's no use. If you 've anything to
say, say it now, for you 've nearly done with this world.
Then Bladburn lifted his eyes slowly to the surgeon, and the old
smile flitted over his face as he murmured,