150 years ago this was the eve of Second Manassas – one of the worst disasters in American military history. After days of marching and counter-marching to conflicting orders from a general none of the men had ever seen – but despised by reputation – they camped in the fields of Northern Virginia, looked up in the northern sky and saw . . . .
“Would you look at that,” Ashford whispered, jackknifed his large frame off his chair, tottered a few paces away from our fire and stood transfixed by the northern sky.
We joined him, it took scant seconds for our eyes to adjust and spot the object of his wonder: the dirty-bright, dusty white smudge of a comet
“That,” Osgood, with respectful dread, economically summarizing a few millennia of human experience, ” just tops off the last week.”
“Bad omen,” Wycroft whispered in agreement.
“Never heard of a comet bringing good tidings,” Shay at least said it aloud, no whisper for him.
“Don’t be superstitious,” Ashford chided mildly, “the rebels are under the same sky, aren’t they?”
“But we’re the invaders,” Wycroft answered, not taking his eyes off the apostrophe in the night, “one would have to assume it is meant for us.”
“I got to agree with you there, Simon,” Shay, a little more reverently.
“I am surprised at you, Sean,” Ashford laughed, “you a professional soldier, how can –”
“I’m Irish, Padre, tha’ trumps the professional soldier . . an’ we’ve always been smart enough to accept certain… truths.”
“Amen,” Osgood agreed with passion.
“Osgood,” Ashford’s surprise was evident, “you’re the last person I’d expect to subscribe to old wives tales.”
“More ancient than any wives tale,” Osgood’s dispassionate voice cut through the night it with aclarity, “it’s too ancient to ignore, too –”
“’When beggars die’,” I began, lowly, “’there are no comments seen –‘”
“’The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’,” Shay finished hoarsely.
“Nice quote,” our Episcopalian voice of reason was not to be cowered, “but inappropriate, Caesar had other warnings – the soothsayer, Calpurnia’s entreaties to stay home – he chose to attend the Senate, it wasn’t preordained.”
“Ya’ can think that, Thomas,” Shay was respectfully unimpressed, “but it was probably preordained tha’ he ignore the warnings,” he put his hand on Ashford’s shoulder, “it was written in the heavens an’ that was it, the rest is… melodrama.”
“No, Sean,” Ashford persisted, “he ignored warnings from those around him perceptive enough to read the times, the conditions, and pick up on the brewing conspiracy, to –”
“Look up in tha’ sky and see a bloody large comet looming over the city,” Shay laughed.
“What of it, then, really, Sean?” Ashford asked
“Well, they could read the sign from God,” Shay replied.
“What about Halley?” Ashford asked with an edge
“What about Halley?” Shay replied in real wonder
“If comets are a sign from God, how could he predict when his would get here?”
“There’s a lot more comets out there than Halley’s,” Seth, with eminent good sense.
“Of course, but –” Ashford tried.
“Well then there you go…” Seth finished, “if this was Halley’s we wouldda’ knwn it was comin’ and even afta’ all the shite we’ve been through this week, it wouldna’ have meant much, but this, here, now, unexpected like . . .”.
“Halley’s or not, Sean,” Ashford, with emphasis as if talking over an unruly child during Easter services, “it’s just a coincidence we see it now, it does not affect our free will, we – ”
“All well and good, Thomas,” Sean laughingly cut him off, “but let me ask you – what bloody free will do we have in present circumstances?”
“Exactly, Padre.,” Shay, laughing hard then, “there’s one man out of our eighty thousand out here with any measure of free will – and he can’t seem to make up his fookin’ mind on anytin’.”
“Yes, but –”
“Unless, of course, you’re advocating mass desertion.”
“I’m not, of course, but –”
“I knew we should’ve enlisted a Calvinist,” I commented, could feel Ashford’s eyes burning through the night and into me.
“Makes fun all you like, Colonel.,” he said with great dignity, “all I’m trying to say is that comets are just natural occurrences, phenomena, random and –”
“Reverend,” Osgood interjected with friendliness, “everything you’re about to say is undoubtedly true, strongly rooted in naturalism, rationalism, good sense, philosophy, science, and all that but right now you’re preaching the gospel in Latin to Eskimos.”
“He’s right, Thomas,” I cut him off with gentleness, but firmly. I did not want him convincing me, I was in no rational state of mind nor did I wish to be, “we’re in the middle of a mix-and-match army, commanded by a general we wouldn’t know if he showed up for breakfast in the morning; a general who’s sending out conflicting orders every two damn minutes – all while rumors of treason and betrayal float everywhere and – just to make it so much more interesting – no one knows where the enemy is. I’d say, as one rationalist to another, it’s the time to bow to superstition.”
“Say it,. Brother!” Osgood.
“What he says, Reverend,” Wycroft.
“Normally, Reverend,” Griffin, speaking for the first time, offered. He tried to sound dispassionate, failed, “I am completely of your thinking – I am paid significantly well to write in that vein – but even I can… feel… something that my own rationalism –”
“Cynicism,” I corrected.
“Cynicism, fine,” Griffin snorted, “does not explain.”
“You’re agreeing with me?” I asked Griffin with expectation.
“Perhaps this once.”
“There really is something to this comet thing,” I stated with certainty.
“Well, gentlemen,” Ashford with acceptance, “then I will retire and say a prayer for us all.”
“Hey, Thomas,” Shay quipped in the dark, “ask God why he sent the damn thing in the first place.”
“Exactly, Sean,” Ashford called back, “I shall do exactly that.”