With the deaths of Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy the specter of the star system is loose again in the land. “Who will be their successors? Who will pick up their mantle?” It’s a plaintive cry, predictable but genuine, largely journalistic and academic—a spume from the wave of canon-making—thinned by its basis in literary politics. It isn’t cast up, usually, by writers, at least not those writing, since their attention is centered elsewhere. They do lament, of course, the passing of the likes of Percy and Warren, some grieving the loss of the men more than the art. The living, however, aren’t meant to supplant the dead, but to fulfill their own destinies.
At a festival honoring his work in 1985, Fred Chappell was asked how it felt to be a Southern writer. “You’ve got to come from somewhere,” he replied. “Not everyone can be born in the Museum of Modern Art.” The breadth of reference in the apothegm, as well as the choices that Chappell has made as a writer that underlie it, make it hard to dismiss the answer as flippant. It suggests in part Chappell’s refusal to play the star-system game, to kowtow to the power centers of publication (fortunately dispersing), to court reviewers. It also points to the substantial shift in Chappell’s work over the past thirty years.
After trying on ill-fitting European costumes (Rimbaud, Mann), a Faustian sort of bargaining with interior devils that took derivative forms, he began facing and learning to be himself, developing his poems and stories and novels along lines laid out in his regional upbringing. This has involved a complex of emphases and engagements at a deep level of choice. Two of those seem pertinent here.
Chappell’s erudition, his extensive reading, his sophistication about fiction and about what can be done in general with language, are meant not to replace storytelling and its illusions of character, but to serve them, to deepen and enrich. In the history of our literature we may be in the muddled midst of learning this again. No compelling novelist has written without a complex theoretical sense of what he or she is doing, but that theory becomes part of subject matter at the desiccation of the fiction. There are other major differences, of course, between Chappell’s first four novels, and the work that begins with Midquest, but this one seems basic: he has chosen to be “unmodern” in his subordination of theoretical concerns to the immediate fabric of the work itself. We see the rug, not the weave in the rug.
Secondly, he has chosen to be a comic writer. It’s not my place here to define “Southern,” but Chappell’s work has certain characteristics that have, over the centuries, come to be associated with the region. Humor, thank God, transcends geographical and national boundaries. Chappell’s, however, is Southern in its pace—I don’t mean timing, but rather the accretive, almost shy way good will hides itself behind slyness. Southerners have had to become used to living with poisonous snakes and excessive heat, and the adaptation that has required leads to the kind of humor I’m alluding to. Joe Robert Kirkman, the central figure in Chappell’s last two novels, is an embodiment of this, coming to accept his difficult, discommoded self through the warmth of laughter not at, but with, who he is. A single passage can’t do justice to this because it builds; Joe Robert’s colloquy with the goat on the schoolhouse roof, his interview with Dora Stoner, or his growing realization that no matter how hard he tries he can’t tell a lie, are revealing instances in Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
This involves tone as much as detail or behavior. A Southerner plays verbally as part of everyday life. I’ve always been leery of the glibness with which people present the South as distinctive because it’s the only part of the country to have lost a war, to have endured an enemy’s ravaging a land and degrading an entire heritage. But I have come to think that experience has contributed to a sense of the gentle undoing of solemnity that is sometimes part of a Southerner’s tone of voice.
Blacks have contributed to this, too. There have been two slave races in the South, in the sense that the loss of the Civil War reduced white people of all classes to a similar humiliation. Being at the bottom can teach one to see daily existence from a wider perspective and to spread its intensity across that horizon.
Pace, heat, the experience of a beaten people, then, contribute to the humor of the South. They also, paradoxically, lead to focus and concentration, other qualities central to Chappell’s work. Hunkerin’ down some people call it, an expression that I’ve always liked for its inclusion of the body and the earth in the act of mental concentration. It’s also an uncomfortable position to get into. Chappell’s characters hunker; they pay attention, often out of the corners of their eyes. Here’s a relevant passage from one of Chappell’s stories, “Blue Dive.” Stovebolt Johnson, a blues guitarist, has returned to rural North Carolina after a stretch in the slammer. He decides to wait on the porch of the house he has come to to ask for information. He sits down with his coffee, his guitar lying beside him in its case.
He had been reflecting that if he was a woman’s husband driving up from work at noontime he might not be overcome with joy to find a strange man and a guitar in his house. He spat out his chew of tobacco and worked up all the juice he could and spat that out, too. The first sip of coffee he wallowed about in his mouth, rinsing, and then got rid of. He’d known any number of men who could chew and drink at the same time, but he’d never got the hang of it. He took a swallow. It was strong and sweet as molasses. “You mama makes a fine cup of coffee,” he said to the boy. “What kind of music do you like to listen?” He took the guitar out and fingered a few aimless notes.
But the notes are no more aimless than the passage. This is almost ritual. It involves a third characteristic I see as especially Southern—courtesy. Tony Hillerman admires the practice of the Navajo in which a visitor to a hogan keeps a distance until the person being visited has time to prepare. You don’t go right up and ring the doorbell, as it were. Southern courtesy involves much the same honoring of privacy and individuality.
Vladimir Nabokov said of his fictions that it wasn’t the parts that mattered, it was their combination. The same thing is true of the qualities I’m speaking of in Fred Chappell’s work. Gentle slyness, reserve, attention, all matter inestimably, but it is their combination that, shall we say, reveals the soul. In Chappell’s fiction especially this can take fantastic, fabulous turns, sometimes satirical, as if haunted at once by the ghosts of Mark Twain and H.P. Lovecraft.
By way of the negative here, I might say that some qualities often highlighted positively in reviews of fiction that don’t apply to Southern work might give my perspective some relief: zany, brash, fast-moving, or abrasive. Southern humor, in fact, doesn’t always make you laugh—though it often does. Its aim is more to comfort. It’s an embedded attitude, a perspective from which life is lived, and it is in that dimension that the word humor slides toward comic, the kind of writer I’ve suggested Fred Chappell has chosen to become. I mean this term, of course, in the old sense of its opposition to tragic.
Chappell’s vision has shifted from the hermetic, sweaty, foreboding darkness of his first novels, to a hopeful, expansive opening toward light. Midquest is the fulcrum in this change. That tetralogy’s use of the structures, assumptions, and even a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, is the best indication of Chappell’s new direction. Midquest closes with these lines:
The love that moves itself in light to loving
Flames up like dew
Here in the earliest morning of the world.
Out of context they lose the enormously complex and varied tapestry that precedes them, and through which Chappell earns the right to say them, But they are central to the essentially comic vision that informs his work since the late 70’s. Acceptance and affirmation are the keys, seen into and through in this world of violence and loss and deprivation. If you want a star, here’s one.
Harry and Lydie were enduring their third ancestor and finding it a rum go. Not that they were surprised—the first two ancestors had also proved to be enervating specimens—and now they regretted the hour they had joined the Ancestor Program of the Living History Series. Sitting at dinner, fed up with Wade Wordmore, Harry decided to return this curious creature to his congressman, Doy Collingwood, at his local office over in Raleigh, North Carolina.
They were goaded into joining the program by that most destructive of all human urges: the desire for self-improvement. When, as part of the celebration of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, the U.S. Archives and History Division called Harry Beacham and told him that the records showed he had no less than three ancestral relatives who had fought in the great conflict and asked if he’d be interested in meeting these personages, he replied that Yes, of course, he would love to meet them.
What Southerner wouldn’t say that?
It is also in the Southern manner to take the marvels of modern technology for granted. The crisp impersonal female voice in the telephone receiver explained that from the merest microscopic section of bone computers could dredge out of the past not only the physical lineaments of the person whom that bone once held perpendicular but the personality traits too, down to the last little tic and stammer. In their own house Harry and Lydie could engage with three flesh-and-blood examples of history come to life. Of course, it really wasn’t flesh, only a sort of protein putty, but it was real blood, right enough. It was pig blood: that was a biochemical necessity.
“Can they talk?” Harry asked and was assured that they spoke, remembered their former lives in sharp detail, and even told jokes—rather faded ones, of course. They also ate, slept, and shaved, were human in every way. “That is the Departmental motto,” the voice said. “Engineering Humanity for Historic Purpose.”
He asked casually about the cost, and she stated it and he was pleased, but still desired to think just a few days about whether to subscribe to the program.
“That will not be necessary,” said the woman’s voice. “The arrangements have already been taken care of and your first ancestor is on his way to you. The Archives and History Division of the United States Department of Reality is certain that you will find real satisfaction in your encounters with Living History. Good day, Mr. Butcher.”
“Wait a minute,” Harry said. “My name is Beacham.” But the connection was cut and when he tried to call back he was shunted from one office to another and put on hold so often and so long that he gave up in disgust.
So then as far as Harry was concerned all bets were off. He was a Beacham and no Butcher and proud of it and if some artificial entity from the Archives Division showed up at his door he would send the fellow packing.
But he didn’t have to do that. Lieutenant Aldershot’s papers were in apple-pie order when he presented them with a sharp salute to Lydie. She met him at the front door and was immediately taken with this swarthy brown-eyed man in his butternut uniform and broadbrimmed hat. A battered leatherbound trunk sat on the walk behind him.
“Oh, you must be the ancestor they sent,” she said.
“Lieutenant Edward Aldershot of the Northern Virginia reporting as ordered, ma’am.”
Confused, Lydie colored prettily and looked up and down the lane to see if any of her neighbors here in the Shining Acres development were observing her resplendent visitor. She took the papers he proffered, started to open them, but paused with her fingers on the knotted ribbon and said, “Oh, do come in,” and stepped back into the foyer. The lieutenant moved forward briskly, removing his hat just before he stepped over the threshold. “Honey,” she called, “Harry, honey. Our ancestor is here.”
He came downstairs in no pleasant frame of mind, but then stood silent and wide-eyed before Aldershot who snapped him a classy respectful salute and declared his name and the name of his army. “I believe the lady will be kind enough to present my papers, sir.”
But Harry and Lydie only stood gaping until the lieutenant gestured toward the packet in Lydie’s hands. She gave it to Harry, blushing again, and Harry said in a rather stiff tone, trying to hide his astonishment, “Ah yes. Of course . . . Your papers. . . . Of course.”
And for a wonder they were all correct. Here was the letter from History identifying Aldershot and congratulating the Beachams on the opportunity of enjoying his company for three weeks and telling them what a valuable experience they were in for. Then there was Aldershot’s birth certificate and a very sketchy outline of his military career and then a family tree in which Harry was relieved to discover not a single Butcher. It was all Beachams and Lawsons and Hollinses and Bredvolds and Aldershots and Harpers as far as the eye could see, all the way to the beginning of the 19th century. ,/p>
“This looks fine,” Harry said. “We’re glad to have you as one of us.”
“I’m proud to hear you say so, sir,” the lieutenant said and tore off another healthy salute.
,p>”You don’t need to be so formal,” Harry told him. “You don’t have to salute me or call me sir. We’re just friends here.”
“That’s very kind of you. I’m afraid it may take a little time for me to adjust, sir.”
“You’ll fit right in,” Lydie said. “I’m sure you will.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Aldershot. “I do take tobacco and a little whiskey now and then. I hope you won’t mind.”
“Oh no. If that’s what you did—I mean, if that’s what you’re used to. Please feel free.” A bashful woman, she blushed once more. She had almost said: If that’s what you did when you were alive. “Harry, you can bring in the lieutenant’s trunk, if you don’t mind.”
The Confederate officer had too modestly described his pleasures. He did not merely take tobacco, he engorged it, sawing off with his case knife black tarry knuckles of the stuff from a twist he carried in his trousers pocket and chewing belligerently, like a man marching against an opposing brigade. He was a veritable wellpump of tobacco juice, spitting inaccurately not only at the champagne bucket and other utensils the Beachams supplied him as spittoons but at any handy vessel that offered a concavity. The sofa suffered and the rugs, the tablecloths, the lieutenant’s bedding and his clothing—his clothing most of all.
In fact, his whole appearance deteriorated rapidly and ruinously. In three days he no longer wore his handsome butternut but had changed into the more familiar uniform of Confederate gray, a uniform which seemed to grow shabbier even as the Beachams gazed upon it. His sprightly black moustache, which Lydie had fancied as complementing his dark eyes perfectly, became first ragged, then shaggy. He would neglect to shave for four days running and he began to smell of sweat and stale underwear and whiskey.
For he had also understated the power of his thirst. On the first night and always afterward he never strayed far from the jug and when not actually pouring from it would cast amorous glances in its direction. He drank George Dickel neat or sometimes with sugar water and praised the quality of the bourbon in ardent terms, saying, for example, “If we’d a-had a little more of this at Chancellorsville it would’ve been a different story.” Liquor seemed to affect him little, however; he never lost control of his motor reflexes or slurred his speech.
Yet the quality of his address had changed since that sunny first moment with the Beachams. It was no more Yes sir and No sir to Harry, but our friend Harry here and Old Buddy and Old Hoss. He still spoke to Lydie as Ma’am, but when talking indirectly would refer to her as our mighty fine little female of the house. He was never rude or impolite, but his formal manner slipped into an easy camaraderie and then sagged into a careless intimacy. His social graces frayed at about the same rate as his gray uniform, which by the end of the second week was positively tattered.
The lieutenant, though, had not been ordered to the Beacham residence as a dancing master, but as a representative of History which, as the largest division of the Department of Reality, shared much of its parent organization’s proud autonomy. And of Living History Lieutenant Aldershot offered a spectacular cornucopia. The outline of his career that came with him from the government agency barely hinted at the range and length of his fighting experience. He had fought at Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg; he had survived Shiloh, Antietam, and Richmond; he had been brave at Bull Run, Rich Mountain, Williamsburg, and Cedar Mountain; he had won commendations from Zollicoffer, Beauregard, Johnston, Kirby-Smith, Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. The latter commander he referred to as “General Bobby” and described him as “the finest Southern gentleman who ever whupped his enemy.”
Harry’s knowledge of history was by no means as profound as his enthusiasm for it and he had not found time before Aldershot’s arrival to bone up on the battles and campaigns that occurred a century and a half past. Even so, the exploits of the ambeer-spattered and strongly watered lieutenant began to overstretch his credulity. In order to be on all the battlefields he remembered Aldershot must have spent most of the War on the backs of two dozen swift horses and to survive the carnage he had witnessed must have kept busy a fretting cohort of guardian angels. Any soldier of such courage, coolness, intelligence, and resourcefulness must have left his name in letters of red blaze in the history books, but Harry could not recall hearing of Aldershot. Of course, it had been some seven years since he had looked at the histories; perhaps he had only forgotten.
For in many ways it was hard to disbelieve the soldier’s accounts, he was so particular in detail and so vivid in expression. When telling of some incident that displayed one man’s valor or another’s timidity, he became brightly animated, and then heated, and would squirm in his chair at the table, sputtering tobacco and gulping bourbon, his eyes wild and bloodshot. He rocked back and forth in the chair as if he were in the saddle, leaping the brushy hurdles at the Battle of Fallen Timber. He broke two chairs that way, and his host supplied him a steel-frame lawn chair brought in from the garage.
He was vivid and particular most of all in his accounts of bloodshed. Although he spoke only plain language, as he averred a soldier should, he so impressed Harry’s imagination and Lydie’s trepidation that they felt extremely close to the great conflict. In Aldershot’s bourbonish sentences they heard the bugles at daybreak, the creak of munitions wagons, the crack of rifles and bellow of canon, the horses screaming in pain and terror. They saw the fields clouded over with gunsmoke and the hilltop campfires at night and the restless shuffle of pickets on the sunset perimeters. They could smell corn parching and mud waist deep and the stink of latrines and the worse stink of gangrene in the hospital tents.
The lieutenant’s accounts of battle went from bloody to chilling to gruesome, and the closeness with which he detailed blows and wounds and killings made the Iliad seem vague and pallid. He appeared to take a certain relish in demonstrating on his own body where a minnie ball had gone into a comrade and where it came out and what raw mischief it had caused during its journey. He spoke of shattered teeth and splintered bone and eyes gouged out. When he began to describe the surgeries and amputations, dwelling at great length on the mound of removed body parts at the Fredericksburg field hospital, Lydie pleaded with him to spare her.
“Please,” she said. “Perhaps we needn’t hear all this part.” Her eyes were large and teary in her whitened face and her voice trembled.
“Uh, yes,” Harry said. “I think Lydie has a point. Maybe we can skip a few of the gorier details now and then.” He too was obviously shaken by what he had heard.
“Well now,” Aldershot said, “of course I didn’t mean to alarm our mighty fine little female of the house. I hope you’ll forgive a plainspoken soldier, ma’am, one who never learned the orator’s art. You’re a brave un in my book, for there’s many a refined Southern lady who will faint when she hears the true story of things. Especially when I tell how it is to be gutshot.”
“Please, Lieutenant,” Lydie said. She took three sips of her chardonnay, recovering her composure pretty quickly, but looking with dismay at her plate of stewed pork.
“How about you?” Harry asked. “Were you ever wounded?”
“Me?” Aldershot snorted. “No, not me. I was always one too many for them bluebellies, not that they didn’t try plenty hard.”
This discussion took place at the end of the second week. At first Aldershot had referred to his ancient opponents as the enemy and then changed his term to the Northern invader. In the second week, though, it was bluebellies every time, and in the third week it was them goddam treacherous Yankee bastards, to which epithet he always appended a parenthetical apology to Lydie:—saving your presence, ma’am.
Even that small gesture toward the observance of chivalry seemed to cost him some effort. In the third week the weary Confederate appeared to have aged a decade; his clothes were now only threads and patches, his moustache a scraggly bristle, his eyes discolored and dispirited, and his speech disjoined, exhausted, and crumbling. It was clear that remembering had taken too much out of him, that he had tired himself almost past endurance. He had cut down on his tobacco intake, as if the exercise of a chaw drew off too much strength, and had increased his frequency of whiskey, although this spiritous surplus did not enliven his demeanor.
On the eve of his departure, Lieutenant Aldershot begged off telling of the destruction of Atlanta and gave only the most cursory sketch of the surrender at Appomattox. For the first time in three weeks, he retired early to bed.
Next morning he came down late and took only coffee for his breakfast. He had dragged his leatherbound trunk to the front door and stood with his foot propped on it as he bade the Beachams farewell. Gravely they shook hands. When he spoke to Lydie Aldershot held his hat over his heart. “Ma’am, your hospitality has been most generous and not something a plain soldier will forget.”
Lydie took his hand; she blushed, feeling that she ought to curtsey but not knowing how.
He looked straight into Harry’s eyes. “So long. Old Hoss,” he said. “It’s been mighty fine for me here.”
“We’ve been honored,” Harry said. “Believe me.”
Then the government van arrived and the driver came to load Aldershot’s trunk and they shook hands once more and the lieutenant departed. As they watched him trudging down the front walk Harry and Lydie were struck silent by the mournful figure he presented, his shoulders slumped, his head thrust forward, and his step a defeated shuffle. When he mounted to the van cab and rode away without waving or looking back, a feeling of deep sadness descended upon them, so that they stood for a minute or two holding each other for comfort and looking into the bright empty morning.
Finally Harry closed the door and turned away. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I feel tired. Tired in my bones.”
“Me too,” Lydie said. “And I’ve got to get this house cleaned up. There’s tobacco spit everywhere. Everything in the house is splattered.”
“I feel like we just lost the war.”
“Well, honey, that’s exactly what happened.”
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do—if you don’t mind, I mean. I’m going to call these government History people and tell them not to send the other ancestors. I’m utterly exhausted. I can’t imagine how I’d feel after two more visitors like the lieutenant.”
“I think you’re right,” she said. “Do it now.”
Harry got on the telephone and dialed a list of bureaucratic numbers, only to find that each and every one gave off a busy signal for hours on end.
So that on Monday morning, at ten-thirty on the dot. Private William Harper presented himself at the front door and handed his papers to Lydie with a shy bow. His was a diffident gray uniform that had seen better days, but it was clean and tidy. He was accompanied by no trunk; only a modest neatly turned bedroll lay at his feet. “Ma’am, I believe you are expecting me?” he said.
Her first impulse was to send him away immediately, but the van must have departed already since it was nowhere in sight, and, anyway, her second stronger impulse was to invite him into the house and feed him. Lieutenant Aldershot must have been in his early forties—though he had looked to be sixty years old when he departed—but Private Harper could hardly have been out of his teens.
He offered her his papers and gave her what he obviously hoped was a winning smile, but he was so young and clear-eyed and shy and apprehensive that his expression was more frightened than cordial.
Lydie’s heart went out to him entirely; she took the packet without looking at it, staring almost tenderly upon Harper with his big bright blue eyes and rosy complexion in which the light fuzz was evidence of an infrequent acquaintance with a razor. He was a slight young man, slender and well-formed and with hands as long-fingered and delicate as a pianist’s. He seemed troubled by her stare and shifted restlessly in his boots.
“Ma’am,” he asked, “have I come to the right house? Maybe I’m supposed to be somewhere else.”
“No,” Lydie said. “You come right in. This is the place for you.”
“I wouldn’t want to be a burden,” the private said. “Those government people said that you had invited me to come here. I wouldn’t want to impose on you.”
“We’re glad to have you. Don’t worry about a thing.”
He looked all about him, wonderstruck. “You belong to a mighty grand place. It’s hard for me to get used to the houses and everything that people have.”
“We feel lucky,” Lydie said. “Lots of people are not so well-off.” Then, seeing that he could formulate no reply, she stooped and picked up his bedroll. “Please come in. I was just getting ready to make some fresh coffee. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
In the kitchen Private Harper sat at the table and watched moonily every step and gesture Lydie made. His nervousness was subsiding, but he seemed a long way from being at ease. She took care to smile warmly and speak softly, but it was apparent to her from Harper’s worshipful gaze that she had already conquered the young man’s heart. When she set the coffee before him with the cream pitcher and sugar bowl alongside he didn’t glance down, looking instead into her face. “Now, Private Harper,” she said, “drink your coffee. And would you like something to eat? I can make a sandwich or maybe there’s a piece of chocolate cake left. You like chocolate cake, don’t you?”
“No ma’am. Just the coffee is all I want to wake me up. I was feeling a little bit tired.”
“Of course you are,” she said. “You finish your coffee and I’ll show you to your room and you can get some sleep.”
“You’re awful kind, ma’am. I won’t say No to that.”
When the private was tucked away, Lydie telephoned her spouse at his place of business, Harry’s Hot-Hit Vidrents, to tell him the news.
He was not happy. “Oh Lydie,” he said. “You were supposed to send him back where he came from. That was our plan.”
“I just couldn’t,” she said. “He’s so young. And he was tired out. He’s already asleep.”
“But we agreed. Don’t you remember? We agreed to send him packing.”
“Wait till you meet him. Then send him packing. If you can do it, it will be all right with me.”
And having met the young man, Harry no more than Lydie could order him away. Harper was so innocent and willing and openfaced that Harry could only feel sympathy for him when he saw what puppy eyes the young man made at his wife. He offered the lad a drink—Aldershot had overlooked a half bottle of Dickel in a lower cabinet—and was not surprised when he refused. “I promised my mother, sir, before I went off to war.”
“I see,” Harry said, and reflected gravely on the difference between the lieutenant and the private. “But in the army that must have been a hard promise to keep.”
“Oh no, sir. Not when I promised my mother. And to tell the truth, I don’t have much taste for liquor.”
He did accept a cup of tea, spooning into it as much sugar as would dissolve, and was profusely grateful.
Harry then readied himself with a gin and tonic for another stiff dose of History. “I suppose you must have fought in lots of battles,” he said.
Private Harper shook his head sadly. “Only two battles, sir.”
“Which were those?”
“Well, I fought at Bethel, sir, and then we were sent down toward Richmond.”
“You were at Manassas?” These were place-names that Aldershot had deeply imprinted on the Beacham memory.
“And what was that like?”
“Well, sir . . .” For the first time Private Harper lifted his eyes and looked directly into Harry’s face. His boyish countenance was a study in apologetic confusion as he steadied his teacup on his knee and said, “Well, sir, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk ’bout that.”
“You don’t want to talk about Manassas?” Harry asked. Then his surprise disappeared with the force of his realization: Manassas would have been where Private Harper had died.
“I don’t like to talk about the war at all, sir.”
“I know I’m supposed to, but I just can’t seem to make myself do it. It opens up old wounds.”
“That’s all right. I understand.”
“No, sir, I don’t believe that you do understand. It is too hard for me right now. It opens old wounds.”
“That’s quite all right. Where are you from originally?”
“Salem, Virginia,” Private Harper said. “We had a farm right outside town. I miss that place a great deal.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“I miss my folks too, sir. Something terrible.” And he went on to talk about his life before the war and his story was so idyllic and engaging that Harry called Lydie from the kitchen to hear it.
The private spoke rhapsodically of such ordinary tasks as planting corn, shoeing horses, repairing wagons, cutting hay, milking cows and so forth; his bright face glowed even friendlier as he spoke of these matters, and as he warmed to his stories his shyness melted and his language became almost lyrical.
He was the only male in a female family, his father having died when Billy was only eleven. He allowed that his mother and three sisters had rather doted on him, but it was obvious to the Beachams that he had no real idea how much they doted. He had not been required to join the army; he had done so only out of a sense of duty and from a fear of the shame he might feel later if he did not join. He had
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