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Secret Service Being the Happenings of a Night in Richmond in the Spring of 1865 Done into Book Form from the Play by WIlliam Gillette


The many people of the stage, personally known and unknown by me, who have so often interested, amused, instructed, and inspired me by their presentations of life in all its infinite variety. They are a much misunderstood people by the public generally, and I take this occasion to testify that, in my wide acquaintance with stage people, I have found them as gentle, as generous, as refined, and as considerate as any group of people with whom I have associated in my long and varied career.


Once upon a time a novel of mine was turned into a play. The dramatist who prepared the story for stage production sent me a copy of his efforts toward that end. About the only point of resemblance between his production and mine was the fact that they both bore the same title, the hero in each had the same name, and the action in both cases took place on this earth.

I was a young author then, and timid. I ventured humbly to enquire why the drama differed so entirely from the novel; and this ingenious, I might almost say ingenuous, explanation was vouchsafed me:

“Well, to tell you the truth, after I had read a chapter or two of your book, I lost it, and I just wrote the play from my own imagination.”

I do not wish to criticise the results of his efforts, for he has since proved himself to be a dramatist of skill and ability, but to describe that particular effort as a dramatisation of my book was absurd. Incidentally, it was absurd in other ways and, fortunately for the reputation of both of us, it never saw the light.

When my dear friends, the publishers, asked me to turn this play into a novel, I recalled my experience of by-gone days, and the idea flashed into my mind that here was an opportunity to get even, but I am a preacher as well as a story-writer, and in either capacity I found I could not do it. Frankly, I did not want to do it.

My experience, however, has made me perhaps unduly sensitive, and I determined, since I had undertaken this work, to make it represent Mr. Gillette’s remarkable and brilliant play as faithfully as I could, and I have done so. I have used my own words only in those slight changes necessitated by book presentation instead of production on the stage. I have entered into as few explanations as possible and have limited my own discussion of the characters, their motives, and their actions, to what was absolutely necessary to enable the reader to comprehend. On the stage much is left to the eye which has to be conveyed by words in a book, and this is my excuse for even those few digressions that appear.

I have endeavoured to subordinate my own imagination to that of the accomplished playwright. I have played something of the part of the old Greek Chorus which explained the drama, and there has been a touch of the scene-painter’s art in my small contribution to the book.

Otherwise, I have not felt at liberty to make any departure from the setting, properties, episodes, actions, or dialogue. Mine has been a very small share in this joint production. The story and the glory are Mr. Gillette’s, not mine. And I am cheerfully determined that as the author of the first, he shall have all of the second.

Cyrus Townsend Brady.
St. George’s Rectory,
Kansas City, Mo., November, 1911.



Outside, the softness of an April night; the verdure of tree and lawn, the climbing roses, already far advanced in that southern latitude, sweetly silvered in the moonlight. Within the great old house apparently an equal calm.

Yet, neither within nor without was the night absolutely soundless. Far away to the southward the cloudless horizon, easily visible from the slight eminence on which the house stood, was marked by quivering flashes of lurid light. From time to time, the attentive ear might catch the roll, the roar, the reverberation of heavy sound like distant thunder-peals intermingled with sharper detonations. The flashes came from great guns, and the rolling peals were the sound of the cannon, the detonations explosions of the shells. There was the peace of God in the heaven above; there were the passions of men on the earth beneath.

Lights gleamed here and there, shining through the twining rose foliage, from the windows of the old house, which stood far back from the street. From a room on one side of the hall, which opened from the broad pillared portico of Colonial fashion, a hum of voices arose.

A group of women, with nervous hands and anxious faces, working while they talked, were picking lint, tearing linen and cotton for bandages. Their conversation was not the idle chatter of other days. They “told sad stories of the death of kings!” How “Tom” and “Charles” and “Allen” and “Page” and “Burton” had gone down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, whence they had not come back. How this fort had been hammered yesterday, the other, the day before. How So-and-So’s wounds had been ministered to. How Such-a-One’s needs had been relieved. How the enemy were drawing closer and closer and closer, and how they were being held back with courage, which, alas! by that time was the courage of despair. And much of their speech was of their own kind, of bereft women and fatherless children. And ever as they talked, the busy fingers flew.

Upstairs from one of the front rooms the light shone dimly through a window partly covered by a half-drawn Venetian blind. One standing at the side of the house and listening would have heard out of the chamber low moanings, muttered words from feverish lips and delirious brain. The meaningless yet awful babble was broken now and again by words of tenderness and anguish. Soft hands were laid on the burning brow of the poor sufferer within, while a mother’s eyes dropped tears upon bloodstained bandages and wasted frame.

And now the gentle wind which swept softly through the trees bore a sudden sharper, stranger sound toward the old house in the garden. The tramp of horse, the creak of wheels, the faint jingling of arms and sabres drew nearer and rose louder. Sudden words of command punctured the night. Here came a battery, without the rattle of drum or the blare of bugles, with no sound but its own galloping it rolled down the street. Lean, gaunt horses were ridden and driven by leaner and gaunter men in dusty, worn, ragged, tattered uniforms. Only the highly polished brass guns – twelve-pounder Napoleons – gleamed bright in the moonlight.

The sewing women came out on the porch and the blind of the window above was lifted and a white-haired woman stood framed in the light.

No, those watchers did not cheer as the battery swept by on its way to the front. For one thing, a soldier lay upstairs dying; for another, they had passed the time when they cheered that tattered flag. Now they wept over it as one weeps as he beholds for the last time the face of a friend who dies. Once they had acclaimed it as the sunrise in the morning, now they watched it silently go inevitably to the sunset of defeat.

The men did not cheer either. They were not past cheering – oh, no! They were made of rougher stuff than the women, and the time would come when, in final action, they would burst forth into that strange, wild yell that struck terror to the hearts of the hearers. They could cheer even in the last ditch, even in the jaws of death – face the end better for their cheering perhaps; but women are more silent in the crisis. They bear and give no tongue.

The officer in command saw the little group of women on the porch. The moonlight shone from the street side and high-lighted them, turning the rusty black of most of the gowns, home-dyed mourning, – all that could be come at in those last awful days in Richmond, – into soft shadows, above which their faces shone angelic. He saw the woman’s head in the window, too. He knew who lay upon the bed of death within the chamber. He had helped to bring him back from the front several days before. He bit his lips for a moment and then, ashamed of his emotion, his voice rang harsh. With arm and sabre the battery saluted the women and passed on, while from the window of the great drawing-room, opposite the room of the lint-pickers and bandage-tearers, a slender boy stared and stared after the disappearing guns, his eyes full of envy and vexatious tears as he stamped his foot in futile protest and disappointment.

The noise made by the passing cannon soon died away in the distance. Stillness supervened as before; workers whispered together, realising that some of those passing upon whom they had looked would pass no more, and that they would look upon them never again. Upstairs the moans of the wounded man had died away, the only thing that persisted was the fearful thundering of the distant guns around beleaguered Petersburg. Within the drawing-room, the boy walked up and down restlessly, muttering to himself, evidently nerving himself to desperate resolution.

“I won’t do it,” he said. “I won’t stay here any longer.”

He threw up his hands and turned to the portraits that adorned the room, portraits that carried one back through centuries to the days of the first cavalier of the family, who crossed the seas to seek his fortune in a new land, and it was a singular thing that practically every one of them wore a sword.

“You all fought,” said the boy passionately, “and I am going to.”

The door at the other end was softly opened. The great room was but dimly lighted by candles in sconces on the wall; the great chandelier was not lighted for lack of tapers, but a more brilliant radiance was presently cast over the apartment by the advent of old Martha. She had been the boy’s “Mammy” and the boy’s father’s “Mammy” as well, and no one dared to speculate how much farther into the past she ran back.

“Is dat you, Mars Wilfred?” said the old woman, waddling into the room, both hands extended, bearing two many-branched candle-sticks, which she proceeded to deposit upon the handsome mahogany tables with which the long drawing-room was furnished.

“Yes, it is I, Aunt Martha. Did you see Benton’s Battery go by?”

“Lawd lub you, chile, Ah done seed so many guns an’ hosses an’ soljahs a-gwine by Ah don’t tek no notice ob ’em no mo’. ’Peahs lak dey keep on a-passin’ by fo’ebah.”

“Well, there won’t be many more of them pass by,” said the boy in a clear accent, but with that soft intonation which would have betrayed his Southern ancestry anywhere, “and before they are all gone, I would like to join one of them myself.”

“Why, my po’ li’l lamb!” exclaimed Martha, her arms akimbo, “dat Ah done nussed in dese ahms, is you gwine to de fight!”

The boy’s demeanour was anything but lamb-like. He made a fierce step toward her.

“Don’t you call me ‘lamb’ any more,” he said, “it’s ridiculous and – ”

Mammy Martha started back in alarm.

“’Peahs mo’ lak a lion’d be better,” she admitted.

“Where’s mother?” asked the boy, dismissing the subject as unworthy of argument.

“I reckon she’s upstaihs wid Mars Howard, suh. Yo’ bruddah – ”

“I want to see her right away,” continued the boy impetuously.

“Mars Howard he’s putty bad dis ebenin’,” returned Martha. “Ah bettah go an’ tell her dat you want her, but Ah dunno’s she’d want to leab him.”

“Well, you tell her to come as soon as she can. I’m awfully sorry for Howard, but it’s living men that the Confederacy needs most now.”

“Yas, suh,” returned the old nurse, with a quizzical look out of her black eyes at the slender boy before her. “Dey suah does need men,” she continued, and as the youngster took a passionate step toward her, she deftly passed out of the room and closed the door behind her, and he could hear her ponderous footsteps slowly and heavily mounting the steps.

The boy went to the window again and stared into the night. In his preoccupation he did not catch the sound of a gentler footfall upon the stairs, nor did he notice the opening of the door and the silent approach of a woman, the woman with white hair who had stood at the window. The mother of a son dead, a son dying, and a son living. No distinctive thing that in the Confederacy. Almost any mother who had more than one boy could have been justly so characterised. She stopped half-way down the room and looked lovingly and longingly at the slight, graceful figure of her youngest son. Her eyes filled with tears – for the dying or the living or both? Who can say? She went toward him, laid her hand on his shoulder. He turned instantly and at the sight of her tears burst out quickly:

“Howard isn’t worse, is he?” for a moment forgetful of all else.

The woman shook her head.

“I am afraid he is. The sound of that passing battery seemed to excite him so. He thought he was at the front again and wanted to get up.”

“Poor old Howard!”

“He’s quieter now, perhaps – ”

“Mother, is there anything I can do for him?”

“No, my son,” answered the woman with a sigh, “I don’t think there is anything that anybody can do. We can only wait – and hope. He is in God’s hands, not ours.”

She lifted her face for a moment and saw beyond the room, through the night, and beyond the stars a Presence Divine, to Whom thousands of other women in that dying Confederacy made daily, hourly, and momentary prayers. Less exalted, more human, less touched, the boy bowed his head, not without his own prayer, too.

“But you wanted to see me, Wilfred, Martha said,” the woman presently began.

“Yes, mother, I – ”

The boy stopped and the woman was in no hurry to press him. She divined what was coming and would fain have avoided it all.

“I am thankful there is a lull in the cannonading,” she said, listening. “I wonder why it has stopped?”

“It has not stopped,” said Wilfred, “at least it has gone on all evening.”

“I don’t hear it now.”

“No, but you will – there!”

“Yes, but compared to what it was yesterday – you know how it shook the house – and Howard suffered so through it.”

“So did I,” said the boy in a low voice fraught with passion.

“You, my son?”

“Yes, mother, when I hear those guns and know that the fighting is going on, it fairly maddens me – ”

But Mrs. Varney hastily interrupted her boy. Woman-like she would thrust from her the decision which she knew would be imposed upon her.

“Yes, yes,” she said; “I know how you suffered, – we all suffered, we – ” She turned away, sat down in a chair beside the table, leaned her head in her hands, and gave way to her emotions. “There has been nothing but suffering, suffering since this awful war began,” she murmured.

“Mother,” said Wilfred abruptly, “I want to speak to you. You don’t like it, of course, but you have just got to listen this time.”

Mrs. Varney lifted her head from her hands. Wilfred came nearer to her and dropped on his knees by her side. One hand she laid upon his shoulder, the other on his head. She stared down into his up-turned face.

“I know – I know, my boy – what you want.”

“I can’t stay here any longer,” said the youth; “it is worse than being shot to pieces. I just have to chain myself to the floor whenever I hear a cannon-shot or see a soldier. When can I go?”

The woman stared at him. In him she saw faintly the face of the boy dying upstairs. In him she saw the white face of the boy who lay under the sun and dew, dead at Seven Pines. In him she saw all her kith and kin, who, true to the traditions of that house, had given up their lives for a cause now practically lost. She could not give up the last one. She drew him gently to her, but, boy-like, he disengaged himself and drew away with a shake of his head, not that he loved his mother the less, but honour – as he saw it – the more.

“Why don’t you speak?” he whispered at last.

“I don’t know what to say to you, Wilfred,” faltered his mother, although there was but one thing to say, and she knew that she must say it, yet she was fighting, woman-like, for time.

“I will tell you what to say,” said the boy.


“Say that you won’t mind if I go down to Petersburg and enlist.”

“But that would not be true, Wilfred,” said his mother, smiling faintly.

“True or not, mother, I can’t stay here.”

“Oh, Wilfred, Russell has gone, and Howard is going, and now you want to go and get killed.”

“I don’t want to be killed at all, mother.”

“But you are so young, my boy.”

“Not younger than Tom Kittridge,” answered the boy; “not younger than Ell Stuart or Cousin Steven or hundreds of other boys down there. See, mother – they have called for all over eighteen, weeks ago; the seventeen call may be out any moment; the next one after that takes me. Do you want me to stay here until I am ordered out! I should think not. Where’s your pride?”

“My pride? Ah, my son, it is on the battlefield, over at Seven Pines, and upstairs with Howard.”

“Well, I don’t care, mother,” he persisted obstinately. “I love you and all that, you know it, – but I can’t stand this. I’ve got to go. I must go.”

Mrs. Varney recognised from the ring of determination in the boy’s voice that his mind was made up. She could no longer hold him. With or without her consent he would go, and why should she withhold it? Other boys as young as hers had gone and had not come back. Aye, there was the rub: she had given one, the other trembled on the verge, and now the last one! Yes, he must go, too, – to live or die as God pleased. If they wanted her to sacrifice everything on the altar of her country, she had her own pride, she would do it, as hundreds of other women had done. She rose from her chair and went toward her boy. He was a slender lad of sixteen but was quite as tall as she. As he stood there he looked strangely like his father, thought the woman.

“Well,” she said at last, “I will write to your father and – ”

“But,” the boy interrupted in great disappointment, “that’ll take forever. You never can tell where his brigade is from day to day. I can’t wait for you to do that.”

“Wilfred,” said his mother, “I can’t let you go without his consent. You must be patient. I will write the letter at once, and we will send it by a special messenger. You ought to hear by to-morrow.”

The boy turned away impatiently and strode toward the door.

“Wilfred,” said his mother gently. The tender appeal in her voice checked him. She came over to him and put her arm about his shoulders. “Don’t feel bad, my boy, that you have to stay another day with your mother. It may be many days, you know, before – ”

“It isn’t that,” said Wilfred.

“My darling boy – I know it. You want to fight for your country – and I’m proud of you. I want my sons to do their duty. But with your father at the front, one boy dead, and the other wounded, dying – ”

She turned away.

“You will write father to-night, won’t you?”

“Yes – yes!”

“I’ll wait, then, until we have had time to get a reply,” said the boy.

“Yes, and then you will go away. I know what your father’s answer will be. The last of my boys – Oh, God, my boys!”


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Secret Service

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