Three and One are One by Ambrose Bierce
In the year 1861 Barr Lassiter, a young man of twenty-two, lived with
his parents and an elder sister near Carthage, Tennessee. The
family were in somewhat humble circumstances, subsisting by cultivation
of a small and not very fertile plantation. Owning no slaves,
they were not rated among “the best people” of their neighborhood;
but they were honest persons of good education, fairly well mannered
and as respectable as any family could be if uncredentialed by personal
dominion over the sons and daughters of Ham. The elder Lassiter
had that severity of manner that so frequently affirms an uncompromising
devotion to duty, and conceals a warm and affectionate disposition.
He was of the iron of which martyrs are made, but in the heart of the
matrix had lurked a nobler metal, fusible at a milder heat, yet never
coloring nor softening the hard exterior. By both heredity and
environment something of the man’s inflexible character had touched
the other members of the family; the Lassiter home, though not devoid
of domestic affection, was a veritable citadel of duty, and duty - ah,
duty is as cruel as death!
When the war came on it found in the family, as in so many others in
that State, a divided sentiment; the young man was loyal to the Union,
the others savagely hostile. This unhappy division begot an insupportable
domestic bitterness, and when the offending son and brother left home
with the avowed purpose of joining the Federal army not a hand was laid
in his, not a word of farewell was spoken, not a good wish followed
him out into the world whither he went to meet with such spirit as he
might whatever fate awaited him.
Making his way to Nashville, already occupied by the Army of General
Buell, he enlisted in the first organization that he found, a Kentucky
regiment of cavalry, and in due time passed through all the stages of
military evolution from raw recruit to experienced trooper. A
right good trooper he was, too, although in his oral narrative from
which this tale is made there was no mention of that; the fact was learned
from his surviving comrades. For Barr Lassiter has answered “Here”
to the sergeant whose name is Death.
Two years after he had joined it his regiment passed through the region
whence he had come. The country thereabout had suffered severely
from the ravages of war, having been occupied alternately (and simultaneously)
by the belligerent forces, and a sanguinary struggle had occurred in
the immediate vicinity of the Lassiter homestead. But of this
the young trooper was not aware.
Finding himself in camp near his home, he felt a natural longing to
see his parents and sister, hoping that in them, as in him, the unnatural
animosities of the period had been softened by time and separation.
Obtaining a leave of absence, he set foot in the late summer afternoon,
and soon after the rising of the full moon was walking up the gravel
path leading to the dwelling in which he had been born.
Soldiers in war age rapidly, and in youth two years are a long time.
Barr Lassiter felt himself an old man, and had almost expected to find
the place a ruin and a desolation. Nothing, apparently, was changed.
At the sight of each dear and familiar object he was profoundly affected.
His heart beat audibly, his emotion nearly suffocated him; an ache was
in his throat. Unconsciously he quickened his pace until he almost
ran, his long shadow making grotesque efforts to keep its place beside
The house was unlighted, the door open. As he approached and paused
to recover control of himself his father came out and stood bare-headed
in the moonlight.
“Father!” cried the young man, springing forward with outstretched
hand - “Father!”
The elder man looked him sternly in the face, stood a moment motionless
and without a word withdrew into the house. Bitterly disappointed,
humiliated, inexpressibly hurt and altogether unnerved, the soldier
dropped upon a rustic seat in deep dejection, supporting his head upon
his trembling hand. But he would not have it so: he was too good
a soldier to accept repulse as defeat. He rose and entered the
house, passing directly to the “sitting-room.”
It was dimly lighted by an uncurtained east window. On a low stool
by the hearthside, the only article of furniture in the place, sat his
mother, staring into a fireplace strewn with blackened embers and cold
ashes. He spoke to her - tenderly, interrogatively, and with hesitation,
but she neither answered, nor moved, nor seemed in any way surprised.
True, there had been time for her husband to apprise her of their guilty
son’s return. He moved nearer and was about to lay his hand
upon her arm, when his sister entered from an adjoining room, looked
him full in the face, passed him without a sign of recognition and left
the room by a door that was partly behind him. He had turned his
head to watch her, but when she was gone his eyes again sought his mother.
She too had left the place.
Barr Lassiter strode to the door by which he had entered. The
moonlight on the lawn was tremulous, as if the sward were a rippling
sea. The trees and their black shadows shook as in a breeze.
Blended with its borders, the gravel walk seemed unsteady and insecure
to step on. This young soldier knew the optical illusions produced
by tears. He felt them on his cheek, and saw them sparkle on the
breast of his trooper’s jacket. He left the house and made
his way back to camp.
The next day, with no very definite intention, with no dominant feeling
that he could rightly have named, he again sought the spot. Within
a half-mile of it he met Bushrod Albro, a former playfellow and schoolmate,
who greeted him warmly.
“I am going to visit my home,” said the soldier.
The other looked at him rather sharply, but said nothing.
“I know,” continued Lassiter, “that my folks have
not changed, but - ”
“There have been changes,” Albro interrupted - “everything
changes. I’ll go with you if you don’t mind.
We can talk as we go.”
But Albro did not talk.
Instead of a house they found only fire-blackened foundations of stone,
enclosing an area of compact ashes pitted by rains.
Lassiter’s astonishment was extreme.
“I could not find the right way to tell you,” said Albro.
“In the fight a year ago your house was burned by a Federal shell.”
“And my family - where are they?”
“In Heaven, I hope. All were killed by the shell.”