As has been indicated, the war with Mexico was not looked upon with favor by the inhabitants of Rivermouth, who clearly perceived its underlying motive—the extension of slave territory. The abolition element in the town had instantly been blown to a white heat. Moreover, war in itself, excepting as a defensive measure or on a point of honor, seemed rather poor business to the thrifty Rivermouthians. They were wholly of the opinion of Birdofredom Sawin, that
“Nimepunce a day fer killin’ folks comes kind o’ low fer murder.”
That old Nehemiah Dutton’s son should have any interest one way or the other in the questions involved was inconceivable, and the morning he presented himself at the recruiting-office a strong ripple of surprise ran over the group of idlers that hung day after day around the door of the crazy tenement, drawn thither by the drum-taps and a morbid sense of gunpowder in the air. These idlers were too sharp or too unpatriotic to enlist themselves, but they had unbounded enthusiasm for those who did. After a moment’s hesitation, they cheered Jemmy Dutton handsomely.
On the afternoon of his enlistment, he was met near the post-office by Marcellus Palfrey, the sexton of the Old Brick Church.
“What are you up to, anyhow, Jemmy?” asked Palfrey. “What’s your idee?”
“My idea is,” replied Dutton, “that I’ve never been able to live freely and respectably, as I’ve wanted to live; but I mean to die like a gentleman, when it comes to that.”
“What do you call a gentleman, Jemmy?”
“Well, a man who serves faithfully, and stands by to lay down his life for his duty—he’s a gentleman.”
“That’s so,” said Palfrey. “He needn’t have no silver-plated handles, nor much outside finish, if he’s got a satin linin’. He’s one of God’s men.”
What really sent James Dutton to the war? Had he some unformulated and hitherto unsuspected dream of military glory, or did he have an eye to supposable gold ingots piled up in the sub-basement of the halls of the Montezumas? Was it a case of despised love, or was he simply tired of re-heeling and re-soling the boots of Rivermouth folk; tired to death of the river that twice a day crept up to lap the strip of sandy beach at the foot of Nutter’s Lane; tired to death of being alone, and poor, and aimless? His motive is not positively to be known, only to be guessed at. We shall not trouble ourselves about it. Neither shall the war, which for a moment casts a lurid light on his figure, delay us long. It was a tidy, comfortable little war, not without picturesque aspects. Out of its flame and smoke leaped two or three fine names that dazzled men’s eyes awhile; and among the fortunate was a silent young lieutenant of infantry—a taciturn, but not unamiable young lieutenant—who was afterward destined to give the name of a great general into the keeping of history forever. Wrapped up somewhere in this Mexican war is the material for a brief American epic; but it is not to be unrolled and recited here.