SAUL OF TARSUS Edit
By Henry Holcomb Bennett Edit
Originally published in Short Stories 1899
Thornton— Mr. E. G. Thornton, of the Daily Trumpet, detailed to gather strike news — was angry and unhappy. He was angry because his new brown derby had been smitten from his head, and the side crushed in by a hard-thrown lump of coal. He was unhappy in that he could not get at the thrower to properly reward him. An aged and disreputable tomato had burst upon the shoulder of his light serge coat. This also he had to endure, not in silence, for he swore at the thrower with fluent vigor; but many other men were swearing also, swearing loudly, so that there was no individuality in his own efforts, and to feel that his efforts were wasted on the air was an added injury.
About him railway tracks ran everywhere, and a bewildering confusion of interlacing switches. From the gleaming steel of the rails and from the hard-packed cinders which made the ground between the tracks, the reflected heat of the July noon arose in a sweltering shimmer. Fine dust lodged in the throat and nostrils, and the water in the canteens of the soldiers of the escort was warm and unpleasant. Along the tracks were overturned freight-cars, near which a wrecking-train, with a wheezing engine, stood motionless, the thick smoke from the stack rising lazily, or drifting heavily down beside the train to make worse the choking in the throat. At either side of the space of tracks was a smoke-dried, unpainted, rough board fence, scorched and blackened in spots, where live coals from passing locomotives had kindled creeping fires; beyond the fences, behind and ahead of the wreck train, surged a crowd which filled the parallel side streets, and which was never still. "If I can catch a reporter I will take him with me," Captain Maurice Brady had declared three hours before. This was the reason why Thornton, of the Trumpet, was with C Company, Twenty-second Infantry, escort and guard to one of the wreck trains, which was endeavoring to straighten out the tangle of wrecked cars along the vast network of tracks which threaded and encircled the city. Captain Brady had caught him, and had bidden him, with great apparent geniality, to "come along and get a good story for your paper." And Thornton, seeing a chance to get a first-class inside account of what promised to be a "good thing," had accompanied him joyfully.
Attached to the wreck train was a passenger coach. The deputy marshals rode in this; a gondola, in which, it was plainly evident, moist clay had been carried recently, was provided for the soldiers of the escort. Thornton had wished to go in the coach, but went on the gondola instead when he heard the second lieutenant say something about a "soft snap." He wanted to know why the soldiers went on the open car, and learned that it was "orders."
Here and there along the way stones and pieces of coal had been thrown at them by a gathering crowd of hooting roughs. Seeing that the officers remained standing instead of sitting down flat in the bottom of the car to avoid the missiles, as most of the men did, Thornton stood likewise. The deputies in the coach were well protected from the flying stones, but they now and then fired ineffective revolvers at the crowd which followed the slowly moving train. The soldiers did not fire, and the sides of the gondola were low. When Thornton asked why "They stood and took it like sheep," he learned that being sheep was also orders.
An obstruction was removed here, a car replaced upon the tracks there, a broken switch repaired elsewhere, and their progress was slow. At a street crossing the train stopped to allow the crew to right an overturned flat car, which had been thrown sidewise across the tracks.
"We'll get out here," said the captain, and the men clambered down from the gondola under a fire of missiles, and stood in line along the train, while the wreckers worked with the car.
The crowd was packed against the low fences on either side ; a part of it swept through the street crossing and spread across the tracks in the rear of the train ; another part did the same in front at the next crossing. They cursed and jeered, but did not interfere with the proceedings of the wreck crew further than by the hurling of stones.
Thornton pulled out his notebook to make a memorandum of the street names. Some one in the crowd cast aspersions on his descent, designating him in terms uncomplimentary to his personal appearance, and some one else threw coal at him. At a particularly pungent remark he raised his voice to reply, but the captain laid a remonstrating hand on his shoulder.
"Easy, be easy," said Brady, with a carefully repressed smile, "tis against orders to reply to anything the mob may be pleased to call us, and you are with us now. We are forbidden to excite or irritate these 'peaceful citizens, watching the operations of the troops out of simple curiosity.' "
Thornton winced. This was a quotation from an article in the Trumpet of the (Jay before, concerning the treatment of a mob at the hands of the soldiers and police. It did not sound as well as he thought it did when he wrote it. He remarked that the crowd was a lot of thieves and thugs and ruiHans, but Brady said it was just such another crowd as the one "wantonly fired upon by a reckless and undisciplined militia," and that crowd, he reminded Thornton, was composed of "honest workmen and reputable citizens." When he went on to ask Thornton if he did not recognize the "honest workmen" before him, Thornton growled that an honest workman would not "be found dead with such a crowd," and moved down to the other end of the car. He walked back when he saw the foreman of the wrecking crew go up to where the captain was standing. The foreman wanted the crowd cleared away from the rear of the train, where the men were working, and Brady, walking back to the end of the last car, told the mob to "get out of that !" They laughed at him, and called him unsavory names.
"What will you do — shoot?" asked Thornton, as the captain came back. Brady grinned.
"Take your platoon and clear those tracks," he commanded the first lieutenant, without answering Thornton's question. "When you get 'em cleared," he continued, "keep 'em that way."
A platoon of the escort moved out in line and pushed the crowd before it. They held their rifles athwart their bodies, at "arms port," or hammered placidly with the butt at reluctant rioters. A man struggled with a soldier for the possession of a rifle ; a sharp poke from the bayonet of the next-rank man convinced the struggler that he had lost no rifle, and he backed into the mob, swearing. The crowd being pushed back half a dozen soldiers formed a line of wide intervals across the space gained, while the rest returned to their positions by the train. The mob still threw stones and an occasional bottle. One of the guards at the crossing dropped his rifle and clasped his hands to his head. Thornton saw a thin trickle of blood creep down from beneath his fingers, and started forward. Before he could reach him the sentry tied a handkerchief around his head, pulled his slouched hat down over his eyes, picked up his rifle and stood there as before, seemingly oblivious to anything or anybody. Thornton looked at him curiously, then at the rest of the little squad of guards, and then at the main body of the company, leaning on their rifles in the scanty shade of the wreck train, here and there dodging a stone, some of them struck by the flying missiles, but making no reply, no movement of retaliation. A puzzled look came into Thornton's eyes — ^he walked up to the captain.
"Do you have much of this sort of thing?" he asked. "Are all the crowds as mean as this?"
"This is the regular programme," the captain said, "only this gang has scarcely commenced to be really ugly yet. Ought to have been with us day before yesterday if you wanted to see an ugly mob. Maybe this will get worse, though ; shouldn't wonder."
The wrecked car had been righted, and the whistle of the wreck train gave a warning blast.
"What is it now?" Brady asked the foreman.
"I don't know," he answered dubiously.
"Why don't you know? You're supposed to be running this thing. Are we going forward or back? Or will we stay here and be hit with rocks for another half-hour?"
"Go ahead, I guess, if you can get that crowd away from the crossing in front."
"All right; we'll look after the crowd. Tell your enigneer to follow us slowly."
The squad of guards from the rear came in and joined the others. The blue line swung out to the right, then to the left, and halted ahead of the locomotive, stretching from fence to fence. Going to the front the captain commanded the crowd to clear the crossing.
The only answer to his command was a chorus of howls and yells. Every moment fresh accessions swelled the crowd, stones and coal and rough pieces of iron from about the tracks hurtled through the shimmering air. A soldier fell out of the ranks, and another. From a house beyond the fence at the right came the crack of a revolver. One of the file-closers took off his hat and looked curiously at two little holes in the crown. A sharp order snapped down the line, and the motionless figures sprang to instant life and action.
Thornton was busy tying up the head of one of the soldiers who had fallen back. As the order came the private broke from his grasp and ran, bareheaded, after the advancing line. He overtook and pushed his way into the crowding files. Thornton stared after him in amazement. He could see the faces of the officers, running in the rear, as they half turned to yell at the flank men. Perspiration was streaming down their cheeks. The mouth of the captain was opening and shutting, but no sound seemed to be issuing from it. The men ran with hands hard-gripped on their rifles and their bodies swaying forward from their hips. The crowd at the crossing was scornful and defiant.
The interval grew rapidly less. On one side a thousand howled and jeered, with threatening hands and arms upraised ; on the other was the blue line, running silently. Almost without conscious volition Thornton followed. The engine, with sudden, panting bursts of steam, like labored breath, began to move slowly. The blue rank was closing with the motley mass before it. Execrations and curses changed to howls of rage and pain. Thornton saw the blue-clad bodies heave forward and the blue arms jerk back and forth with sharp, vicious movements. The gleam of a white chevron caught his eye. He watched it in a fascinated daze, as though there were nothing else. The noise of the engine, close at his elbow, made him glance hastily around. When he turned his eyes to the front again the gleam of the chevron was lost to sight and the whole scene and movement of the struggle flashed upon him in a swiftly vivid impression. The blue line was still pushing forward ; the arms still jerked to and fro irregularly. Here and there a rifle swung up over a shoulder and came "butt to the front" as its wielder struck at the mob before him. Against the dark background of the swaying crowd, faces here and there sprang for an instant into pale relief. The line moved faster. There was a new note in the yells of the mob, and the flanks of it melted away through the gaps in the fences at either side. Thornton began to hear the voices of the officers : "Stead-y! Stead-yl Stead-yl" in a high-pitched, cadenced monotone.
A swift panic seized the mob and it scattered to right and left, from the crossing to the streets, leaving the track clear. The line halted; handkerchiefs came out, mopping hot faces. The private whom Thornton had been assisting came back and asked for his hat. Here and there in the ranks men looked strangely at the points of their bayonets.
"How was that?" the captain asked, as Thornton came up to him.
"I never saw anything like it before."
"No?" grinned the first lieutenant. "I have noticed that the trouble is generally over before you newspaper men get on the ground."
"Well," said Thornton, defensively, "it isn't because we do not want to be there. We can't be everywhere, and how do we know when and where trouble is going to happen? We do the best we can."
"Where do you get your information, then?" asked the lieutenant.
"From some of the people in the vicinity who saw the row."
"Reliable eye-witnesses?' " queried the captain.
This was another quotation, and Thornton's hot face grew a little hotter as he recognized it.
"Your point of view is rather from the other side of the fence, isn't it?" and the captain waved his hand toward the crowd in the street.
"Well, yes," said Thornton, slowly.
A shriek from the engine made them look up. The train, which had been switching back and forth, rolled past them and over the crossing — there it stopped.
"What on earth are they stopping for?" the captain asked. "Why don't they go on now that the way is clear?"
Before any one could answer a sudden crash and jeering yells from the rear made them turn sharply.
"Damn 'em," said the foreman, "they've tipped over that flat again."
His right hand described small circles in the air, and the train backed toward them from beyond the crossing. The whistle gave three short, sharp shrieks, and triumphant yells broke from the crowd as though in answer.
"What's this for?" Brady demanded.
"Going to handle the flat again, of course. Can't let it stay there across the Grand Trunk tracks."
"You'll have to be quick about it, then," the captain said sharply. "Fm not going to keep my men here to be made targets of much longer. There'll be big trouble if we loaf around here. That mob is getting bigger and uglier, and if we are to handle it without firing we've got to have more men. Can't one of your gang slip through the crowd to a telephone somewhere?"
"I reckon so."
"Send him here, then."
A grimy man in a blue jumper came up in response to the hail of the foreman. To him the captain delivered a message, and the grimy man walked slowly toward the crossing and disappeared up the tracks.
In the rear there was trouble. The crowd around the overturned flat refused to move for the men of the wreck crew, and the foreman appealed to the captain. Brady turned to the first lieutenant.
"Got to bring the men back," he said. "Go up and do it. Tommy."
The first lieutenant swore at the foreman for not knowing his own mind, and walked up to where the men stood. They came to attention and swung back over the ground they had just gained. At sight of them the rioters about the fiat car fell back. In front the crowd instantly surged across the tracks again.
The guard once more took up its position by the train, or moved here and there at intervals, pushing back the crowd, which, grown to larger proportions, was grown proportionately bolder, more defiant and harder to handle. As fast as it was pushed from one place it swarmed in another. The shower of missiles came more sharply, soldiers were struck every moment, but the men in dusty blue were silent and unreplying.
Thornton was struck in the side by a stone. There were little gaps in the blue line, where men, cut about the face and head, had fallen out and leaned against the train. The deputy marshals, in the passenger coach, who had remained in its safe shelter, began firing at the crowd again, despite the remonstrances of the captain. Some of the train crew pulled revolvers from their pockets and answered the shots which were coming more and more frequently from the houses which faced the tracks. With a shriek of the whistle the train again moved slowly toward the crossing, but came to a stop before reaching it, and again backed down the track.
With hoots and yells the mob followed it, pressing closer and closer. The captain's warning to disperse before he ordered his men to fire was answered by louder howls and defiant assertions that he dare not shoot. He looked up the tracks in the direction in which the grimy man in the blue jumper had gone; then he climbed upon the gondola to look beyond the crowd. With a shake of the head he jumped down, disregarding the stones which spanged about him against the car.
"Why don't you shoot?" asked Thornton, nervously, aware of a swiftly growing threat in the attitude of the mob.
The captain shook his head without answering and turned away. Thornton looked at the guard. More gaps were in the line, but the men stood there as tensely indifferent as before. He followed the captain along the train. The foreman came up with a frightened face.
"We can't do nothing," he said. "The crowd's too much for us. Did you send for more soldiers?"
"Yes ; they ought to be here, if the message reached them. That man of yours got back?"
"Then we don't know whether he got to a telephone or not. Well, I'll wait a little longer on the chance of reinforcements, but if they do not come we'll have to get out of here the best way we can."
The apparent irresolution of the wrecking crew encouraged the mob to bolder action. It closed up on the train and a bayonet charge produced but a momentary effect, for those who fell away in one place came up in another. The scattering shots grew to a fusillade; the wreck crew gave up the struggle and climbed on board the train, an action hailed with shouts of fierce triumph by the rioters. Before and behind the train switches had been thrown so that its course in either direction was cut off. Revolvers were leveled at the engineer and fireman. Uglier and fiercer grew the yells of the crowd. Men with hate-drawn faces and brandished weapons threatened the lives of troops and train crew.
At a low command the guard swung out to face the mob on three sides — on the fourth was the train.
The captain clambered up the side of the gondola once more. When he jumped to the ground his face was white and set. He walked to the front of the train and held up his hand. Those of the crowd who saw the gesture ceased their shouts for a moment.
"I will give you three minutes to disperse," he said firmly, pulling out his watch as he spoke. "At the end of that time I shall order my men to fire."
He walked half-way back to the lines, his watch still in his hands.
"One minute !" he cried.
"Two minutes !"
The mob shouted threats and curses and derisive epithets. A stone struck him on the shoulder. The second lieutenant staggered blindly back against a car, with the blood running from a long, ragged gash across his forehead. On the ground a private lay outstretched, another bent above him, canteen in hand.
Thornton saw it all as in a picture, a scene in a drama — the lieutenant's bloody face, the man on the ground ; others, here and there, with rough bandages about their heads ; the scowling threat in the faces of the mob ; the motionless figure of the captain, facing the crowd, watch in hand — it seemed unreal. He saw the captain shut his watch and walk back to the waiting ranks.
The sharp command shattered the haze of unreality.
"At will, begin firing !"
Dropping shots ran swiftly along the ranks, with a ragged crackle of spiteful sound. Here, a man aimed deliberately; there, another tugged feverishly at his cartridge-box, jerked his rifle to his shoulder, and fired blindly, reloading in mad haste. The officers stood within the square, their drawn swords in their hands.
In the front of the mob a man wheeled sharply to face the crowd. His hands were thrown up as though commanding silence. He wavered slightly as he stood, and fell backward, as a stick falls, swiftly, and lay outstretched, with blind eyes gazing at the sun. Another slid to the ground, slowly, sinking gradually, and turned upon his side. The ugly red of blood followed a shivering gasp, and he lay quite still, in a little, huddled heap. In another place one who fell was upborne by a man behind him, and dragged backward into the crowd. A fourth caught the top of the fence with groping hands, and hung there for a moment ; then his grasp gave way and he fell, with his head bent forward against the boards.
Before the angry rifles of the guard a gray-blue wall had grown, slowly rising and spreading out upon the sluggish air. A whistle rang high above the thud-thud of the musketry ; the orange flashes ceased, the firing dropped to silence.
The mob was shouting yet, but the shouting was terrorstricken. Men with frightened faces pushed their way through the crowd. The action grew contagious. More and more they dropped away. Wounded men staggered toward the houses, alone, or upheld by others. The crossings were swiftly cleared. A man of the train crew ran back and threw a switch, signaling to the engineer. The foreman came to the captain hastily, and the guard clambered back into the gondola. The engine wheezed and puffed, and the train moved backward. A curve hid the rags and fragments of the mob from sight, and Thornton drew a long breath.
He looked about the car. Men with awkwardly adjusted .bandages sat upon the floor or leaned against the sides. Here and there a red stain showed. The second lieutenant tried to wipe the blood from his eyes. A man lay flat, his head upon another's knee.
There came a gleam of white tents beyond the tracks and the train slowed to a stop. The captain came to where Thornton climbed over the side of the car.
"Well," he said, "did you get your story?"
"Yes," said Thornton, "and something else."
Thornton stopped as he clambered down and looked into the face of the captain.
"Some changed ideas," he said, slowly.