GEORGE W. CABLE
CHAPTER I. She Wanted to Laugh II. Lieutenant Ferry III. She IV. Three Days' Rations V. Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty VI. A Handsome Stranger VII. A Plague on Names! VIII. Another Curtained Wagon IX. The Dandy's Task X. The Soldier's Hour XI. Captain Jewett XII. In the General's Tent XIII. Good-Bye, Dick XIV. Coralie Rothvelt XV. Venus and Mars XVI. An Aching Conscience XVII. Two Under One Hat-Brim XVIII. The Jayhawkers XIX. Asleep in the Death-Trap XX. Charlotte Oliver XXI. The Fight on the Bridge XXII. We Speed a Parting Guest XXIII. Ferry Talks of Charlotte XXIV. A Million and a Half XXV. A Quiet Ride XXVI. A Salute Across the Dead-Line XXVII. Some Fall, Some Plunge XXVIII. Oldest Game on Earth XXIX. A Gnawing in the Dark XXX. Dignity and Impudence XXXI. The Red Star's Warning XXXII. A Martyr's Wrath XXXIII. Torch and Sword XXXIV. The Charge in the Lane XXXV. Fallen Heroes XXXVI. "Says Quinn, S'e" XXXVII. A Horse! A Horse! XXXVIII. "Bear a Message and a Token" XXXIX. Charlotte Sings XL. Harry Laughs XLI. Unimportant and Confidential XLII. "Can I Get There by Candle-Light?" XLIII. "Yes, and Back Again" XLIV. Charlotte in the Tents of the Foe XLV. Stay Till To-Morrow XLVI. The Dance at Gilmer's XLVII. He's Dead—Is She Alive? XLVIII. In the Hollow of His Right Arm XLIX. A Cruel Book and a Fool or Two L. The Bottom of the Whirlwind LI. Under the Room Where Charlotte Lay LII. Same Book and Light-Head Harry LIII. "Captain, They've Got Us" LIV. The Fight in the Doorway LV. Rescue and Retreat LVI. Hotel des Invalides LVII. A Yes and a No LVIII. The Upper Fork of the Road LIX. Under Charlotte's Window LX. Tidings LXI. While Destiny Moved On LXII. A Tarrying Bridegroom LXIII. Something I Have Never Told Till Now LXIV. By Twos. March
"Stand, gentlemen! Every man is covered by two!"
"I surrender," he said, with amiable ease
"Well, you air in a hurry!"
With the rein dangling under the bits he went over the fence like a deer
Ferry saluted with his straight blade
"Don't you like him?" she asked, and tried to be very arch
Ferry fired under his flash and sent him reeling into the arms of his followers
Springing to the ground between our two candles, she bent over the open page
SHE WANTED TO LAUGH
Our camp was in the heart of Copiah County, Mississippi, a mile or so west of Gallatin and about six miles east of that once robber-haunted road, the Natchez Trace. Austin's brigade, we were, a detached body of mixed Louisiana and Mississippi cavalry, getting our breath again after two weeks' hard fighting of Grant. Grierson's raid had lately gone the entire length of the State, and we had had a hard, vain chase after him, also.
Joe Johnston's shattered army was at Jackson, about forty-five miles to northward; beleaguered Vicksburg was in the Northwest, a trifle farther away; Natchez lay southwest, still more distant; and nearly twice as far in the south was our heartbroken New Orleans. We had paused to recuperate our animals, and there was a rumor that we were to get new clothing. Anyhow we had rags with honor, and a right to make as much noise as we chose.
It was being made. The air was in anguish with the din of tree-felling and log-chopping, of stamping, neighing, braying, whooping, guffawing, and singing—all the daybreak charivari beloved of a camp of Confederate "critter companies." In the midst of it a chum and I sat close together on a log near the mess fire, and as the other boys of the mess lifted their heads from their saddle-tree pillows, from two of them at once came a slow, disdainful acceptance of the final lot of the wicked, made unsolicited on discovering that this chum and I had sat there talking together all night. I had the day before been wheedled into letting myself be detailed to be a quartermaster's clerk, and this comrade and I were never to snuggle under the one blanket again. The thought forbade slumber.
"If I go to sleep," I said,—"you know how I dream. I shall have one of those dreams of mine to carry around in my memory for a year, like a bullet in my back." So there the dear fellow had sat all night to give me my hourly powders of reassurance that I could be a quartermaster's clerk without shame.
"Certainly you can afford to fill a position which the leader of Ferry's scouts has filled just before you."
But my unsoldierly motive for going to headquarters kept my misgivings alive. I was hungry for the gentilities of camp; to be where Shakespeare was part of the baggage, where Pope was quoted, where Coleridge and Byron and Poe were recited, Macaulay criticized, and "Les Miserables"—Madame Le Vert's Mobile translation—lent round; and where men, when they did steal, stole portable volumes, not currycombs. Ned Ferry had been Major Harper's clerk, but had managed in several instances to display such fitness to lead that General Austin had lately named him for promotion, and the quartermaster's clerk was now Lieutenant Ferry, raised from the ranks for gallantry, and followed ubiquitously by a chosen sixty or so drawn from the whole brigade. Could the like occur again? And could it occur to a chap who could not comprehend how it had ever occurred at all?
By and by we breakfasted. After which, my precious horse not having finished his corn, I spread my blanket and let myself doze, but was soon awakened by the shouts of my companions laughing at me for laughing so piteously in my sleep.
"Would I not tell my dream, as nice young men in the Bible always did?"
"No, I would not!" But I had to yield. My dream was that our General had told me a fable. It was of a young rat, which seeing a cockerel, whose tail was scarcely longer than his own, leap down into a barrel, gather some stray grains of corn and fly out again, was tempted to follow his example, but having got in, could only stay there. The boys furnished the moral; it was not complimentary.
"Well, good-bye, fellows."
"Good-bye, Smith." I have never liked my last name, but at that moment the boys contrived to put a kindness of tone into it which made it almost pleasing. "Good-bye, Smith, remember your failings."
Remember! I had yet to make their discovery. But I was on the eve of making it.
As I passed up the road through the midst of our nearly tentless camp I met a leather-curtained spring-wagon to which were attached a pair of little striped-legged mules driven by an old negro. Behind him, among the curtains, sat a lady and her black maid. The mistress was of strikingly graceful figure, in a most tasteful gown and broad Leghorn hat. Her small hands were daintily gloved. The mules stopped, and through her light veil I saw that she was handsome. Her eyes, full of thought, were blue, and yet were so spirited they might as well have been black, as her hair was. She, or fate for her, had crowded thirty years of life into twenty-five of time.
For many a day I had not seen such charms of feminine attire, and yet I was not charmed. Every item of her fragrant drapery was from the world's open market, hence flagrantly un-Confederate, unpatriotic, reprehensible. Otherwise it might not have seemed to me that her thin nostrils had got their passionateness lately.
"Are you not a New Orleans boy?" she asked as I lifted my kepi and drew rein.
Boy! humph! I frowned, made myself long, and confessed I had the honor to be from that city. Whereupon she let her long-lashed eyes take on as ravishing a covetousness as though I had been a pretty baby.
"I knew it!" she said delightedly. "But tell me, honor bright,"—she sparkled with amusement—"you're not regularly enlisted, are you?"
I clenched my teeth. "I am nineteen, madam."
Her eyes danced, her brows arched. "Haven't you got"—she hid her smile with an embroidered handkerchief—"haven't you got your second figure upside down?" I glared, but with one look of hurt sisterliness she melted me. Then, pensive just long enough to say, "I was nineteen once," she shot me a sidelong glance so roguish that I was dumb with indignation and tried to find my mustache, forgetting I had shaved it off to stimulate it. She smiled in sweet propitiation and then came gravely to business. "Have you come from beyond the pickets?"
"Have you met any officer riding toward them?"
I had not. Her driver gathered the reins and I drew back.
"Good-bye, New Orleans soldier-boy," she said, gaily, and as I raised my cap she gave herself a fetching air and added, "I'll wager I know your name."
"Madam,"—my cap went higher, my head lower—"I never bet."
I could not divine what there was ridiculous about me, except a certain damage to my dress, of which she could not possibly be aware as long as I remained in the saddle. Yet plainly she wanted to laugh. I made it as plain that I did not.
"Good-day, sir," she said, with forced severity, but as I smiled apologetically and moved my rein, she broke down under new temptation and, as the wagon moved away, twittered after me unseen,—"Good-bye, Mr. Smith."
I passed on, flattered but scandalized, wasting no guesses on how she knew me—if she really knew me at all—but taking my revenge by moralizing on her, to myself, as a sign of the times, until brigade headquarters were in full view, a few rods off the road; four or five good, white wall-tents in a green bit of old field backed by a thicket of young pines.
Midway of this space I met Scott Gholson, clerk to the Adjutant-general. It was Gholson who had first spoken of me for this detail. He was an East Louisianian, of Tangipahoa; aged maybe twenty-six, but in effect older, having from birth eaten only ill-cooked food, and looking it; profoundly unconscious of any shortcoming in his education, which he had got from a small church-pecked college of the pelican sort that feed it raw from their own bosoms. One of his smallest deficiencies was that he had never seen as much art as there is in one handsome dinner-plate. Now, here he was, riding forth to learn for himself, privately, he said, why I did not appear. Yet he halted without turning, and seemed to wish he had not found me.
"Did you"—he began, and stopped; "did you notice a"—he stopped again.
"What, a leather-curtained spring-wagon?"
"No-o!" he said, as if nobody but a gaping idiot would expect anybody not a gaping idiot to notice a leather-curtained spring-wagon. "No-o! did you notice the brown horse that man was riding who just now passed you as you turned off the road?"
No, I barely remembered the rider had generously moved aside to let me go by. In pure sourness at the poverty of my dress and the perfection of his, I had avoided looking at him higher than his hundred-dollar boots. My feet were in uncolored cowhide, except the toes.
"He noticed you," said Gholson; "he looked back at you and your bay. Wouldn't you like to turn back and see his horse?"
"Why, hardly, if I'm behindhand now. Is it so fine as that?"
"Well, no. It's the horse he captured the time he got the Yankee who had him prisoner."
"Who?" I cried. "What! You don't mean to say—was that Lieutenant Ferry?"
"Yes, so called. He wa'n't a lieutenant then, he was a clerk, like you or me."
"Oh, I wish I had noticed him!"
"We can see him yet if you—"
"Do you want to see him?" I gathered my horse.
"Me!—No, sir. But you spoke as if—"
I shook my head and we moved toward the tents. This was worse than the dream; the rat had not seen the cockerel, but the cockerel had observed the rat—dropping into the barrel: the cockerel, yes, and not the cockerel alone, for I saw that Gholson was associating him with her of the curtained wagon. By now they were side and side. I asked if Ferry came often to headquarters. "Yes, quite as often as he's any business to." "Ah, ha!" thought I, and presently said I had heard he was a great favorite.
"Well,—yes,—he—he is,—with some."
"Don't you like him?"
"Who, me? Oh!—I—I admire Ned Ferry—for a number of things. He's more foolhardy than brave; he's confessed as much to me. Women call him handsome. He sings; beautifully, I suppose; I can't sing a note; and wouldn't if I could. Still, if he only wouldn't sing drinking-songs —but, Smith, I think that to sing drinking-songs—and all the more to sing them as well as some folks think he does—is to advocate drinking, and to advocate drinking is next door to excusing drunkenness!"
"Then Ned Ferry doesn't drink?"
"Indeed he does! I don't like to say it, and I don't say he drinks 'too much', as they call it; but, Smith, he drinks with men who do! Oh, I admire him; only I do wish—"
"Oh, I—I wish he wouldn't play cards. Smith, I've seen him play cards with the shells bursting over us!"
For my part I privately wished this saint wouldn't rub my uninteresting surname into me every time he spoke. As we dismounted near the tents I leaned against my saddle and asked further concerning the object of his loving anxiety. Was Ned Ferry generous, pleasant, frank?
"Why, in outward manner, yes; but, Smith, he was raised to be a Catholic priest. I could a heap-sight easier trust him if he'd sometimes show distrust, himself. If he ever does I've never seen it. And yet—Oh, we're the best of friends, and I'm speaking now only as a friend and toe a friend. Oh, if it wa'n't for just one thing, I could admit what Major Harper said of him not ten minutes ago to me; that you never finish talking to Ned Ferry without feeling a little brighter, happier and cleaner than when you began; whereas talking with some men it's just the reverse."
I looked carefully at my companion and asked him if the Major had said all of that. He had, and Gholson's hide had turned it without taking a scratch. "That's fine!—as to Ferry," I said.
"Oh, yes,—it would be—if it was only iso. Trouble is, you keep remembering he's such a stumbling-block to any real spiritual inquirer. Yes, and to himself; for, you know, spiritually there's so much less hope for the moralist than what there is for the up-and-down reprobate! You know that,—Smith."
My silence implied that I knew it, though I did not feel any brighter, happier or cleaner.
"Smith, Ned Ferry is not only a Romanist, he's a romanticist. We—you and me—are religionists. Our brightness and happiness air the brightness and happiness of faith; our cleanness is the cleanness of religious scruples. Worst of it with Ned is he's satisfied with the difference, I'm afraid! That's what makes him so pleasant to fellows who don't care a sou marquee about religion."
I said one might respect religion even if he did not—
"Oh, he's always polite to it; but he's—he's read Voltaire! Oh, yes, Voltaire, George Sand, all those men. He questions the Bible, Smith. Not to me, though; hah, he knows better! Smith, I can discuss religion and not get mad, with any one who don't question the Bible; but if he does that, I just tell you, I wouldn't risk my soul in such a discussion! Would you?"
I could hardly say, and we moved pensively toward Major Harper's tent. Evidently the main poison was still in Gholson's stomach, and when I glanced at him he asked, "What d'you reckon brought Ned Ferry here just at this time?"
I made no reply. He looked momentous, leaned to me sidewise with a hand horizontally across his mouth, and whispered a name. It was new to me. "Charlie Toliver?" I murmured, for we were at the tent door.
"The war-correspondent," whispered Gholson; "don't you know?" But the flap of the tent lifted and I could not reply.
Major Harper was the most capable officer on the brigade staff. I had never met a man of such force and dignity who was so modestly affable. His new clerk dined with him that first day, at noon in his tent, alone. Hot biscuits! with butter! and rock salt. Fried bacon also—somewhat vivacious, but still bacon. When the tent began to fill with the smoke of his meerschaum pipe, and while his black boy cleared the table for us to resume writing, we talked of books. Here was joy! I vaunted my love for history, biography, the poets, but spoke lightly of fiction.
The smoker twinkled. "You're different from Ned Ferry," he said.
"Has he a taste for fiction?" I asked, with a depreciative smirk.
"Yes, a beautiful story is a thing Ned Ferry loves with a positive passion."
"I suppose we might call him a romanticist," said I, "might we not?"
The patient gentleman smiled again as he said, "Oh—Gholson can attend to that."
I took up my pen, and until twilight we spoke thereafter only of abstracts and requisitions. But then he led me on to tell him all about myself. I explained why my first name was Richard and my second name Thorndyke, and dwelt especially on the enormous differences between the Smiths from whom we were and those from whom we were not descended.
And then he told me about himself. He was a graduate of West Point, the only one on the brigade staff; was a widower, with a widowed brother, a maiden sister, two daughters, and a niece, all of one New Orleans household. The brothers and sister were Charlestonians, but the two men had married in New Orleans, twin sisters in a noted Creole family. The brother's daughter, I was told, spoke French better than English; the Major's elder daughter spoke English as perfectly as her father; and the younger, left in her aunt's care from infancy, knew no French at all. I wondered if they were as handsome as their white-haired father, and when I asked their names I learned that the niece, Cecile, was a year the junior of Estelle and as much the senior of Camille; but of the days of the years of the pilgrimage of any of the three "children" he gave me no slightest hint; they might be seven years older, or seven years younger, than his new clerk.
To show him how little I cared for any girl's age whose father preferred not to mention it, I reverted to his sister and brother. She was in New Orleans, he said, with her nieces, but might at any moment be sent into the Confederacy, being one of General Butler's "registered enemies." The brother was—
"Out here somewhere. No, not in the army exactly; no, nor in the navy, but—I expect him in camp to-night. If he comes you'll have to work when you ought to be asleep. No, he is not in the secret service, only in a secret service; running hospital supplies through the enemy's lines into ours."
I was thrilled. I was taken into the staff's confidence! Me, Smith! That Major Harper would tell me part of a matter to conceal the rest of it did not enter my dreams, good as I was at dreaming. The flattery went to my brain, and presently, without the faintest preamble, I asked if there was any war-correspondent at headquarters just now. There came a hostile flash in his eyes, but instantly it passed, and with all his happy mildness he replied, "No, nor any room for one."
Just then entered an ordnance-sergeant, so smart in his rags that the Major's affability seemed hardly a condescension. He asked me to supper with his mess—"of staff attatchays," he said, winking one eye and hitching his mouth; at which the Major laughed with kind disapprobation, and the jocose sergeant explained as we went that that was only one of Scott Gholson's mispronunciations the boys were trying to tease him out of.
I found the clerks' mess a bunch of bright good fellows. After supper, stretched on the harsh turf under the June stars, with everyone's head (save mine) in some one's lap, we smoked, talked and sang. Only Gholson was called away, by duty, and so failed to hear the laborious jests got off at his expense. To me the wits were disastrously kind. Never had I been made a tenth so much of; I was even urged to sing "All quiet along the Potomac to-night," and was courteously praised when I had done so. But there is where affliction overtook me; they debated its authorship. One said a certain newspaper correspondent, naming him, had proved it to be the work—I forget of whom. But I shall never forget what followed. Two or three challenged the literary preeminence of that correspondent, and from as many directions I was asked for my opinion. Ah me! Lying back against a pile of saddles with my head in my hands, sodden with self-assurance, I replied, magnanimously, "Oh, I don't set up for a critic, but—well—would you call him a better man than Charlie Toliver?"
"Who—o?" It was not one who asked; the whos came like shrapnel; and when, not knowing what else to do, I smiled as one dying, there went up a wail of mirth that froze my blood and then heated it to a fever. The company howled. They rolled over one another, crying, "Charlie Toliver!—Charlie Toliver!—Oh, Lord, where's Scott Gholson!—Charlie Toliver!"—and leaped up and huddled down and moaned and rolled and rose and looked for me.
But, after all, fortune was merciful, and I was gone; the Major had summoned me—his brother had come. I went circuitously and alone. As I started, some fellow writhing on the grass cried, "Charlie Tol—oh, this is better than a tcharade!" and a flash of divination enlightened me. While I went I burned with shame, rage and nervous exhaustion; the name Scott Gholson had gasped in my ear was the name of her in the curtained wagon, and I cursed the day in which I had heard of Charlotte Oliver.
THREE DAYS' RATIONS
In the vocabulary of a prig, but in the wrath of a fishwoman, I execrated Scott Gholson; his jealousies, his disclosures, his religion, his mispronunciations; and Ned Ferry—that cockerel! Here was I in the barrel, and able only to squeal in irate terror at whoever looked down upon me. I could have crawled under a log and died. At the door of the Major's tent I paused to learn and joy of one to whom comes reprieve when the rope is on his neck, I overheard Harry Helm, the General's nephew and aide de-camp, who had been with us, telling what a howling good joke Smith had just got off on Gholson!
"We shall have to get Ned Ferry back here," the Major was saying as I entered, "to make you boys let Scott Gholson alone."
The young man laughed and turned to go. "Why doesn't Ned Ferry make her let Gholson alone? He can do it; he's got her round his finger as tight as she's got Gholson round hers."
"Harry," replied the Major, from his table full of documents, "don't you know that any man who's got a woman wrapped round his finger has also got her wrapped round his throat?"
The aide-de-camp laughed like a rustic and vanished. "Smith," said the Major, "your eyes are—"
"I've been awake for forty-eight hours, Major. But—oh, I'm not sleepy."
"Well, go get some sleep.—No, go at once; you'll be called when needed."
But I was not needed; while I slept, who should come back and do my work in my stead but Ned Ferry. When I awoke it was with a bound of alarm to see clear day. The command was breaking camp. I rushed out of the tent with canteen, soap and comb, and ran into the arms of the mess-cook. We were alone. "Oh, yass, seh," he laughed as he poured the water into my hands, "th'ee days' rairtion. Seh? Lawd! dey done drawed and cook' befo' de fus' streak o' light. But you all right; here yo' habbersack, full up. Oh, I done fed yo' hoss. Here yo' jacket an' cap; and here yo' saddle an' bridle—Oh, you welcome; I dess tryin' to git shet of 'em so's I kin strak de tent."
As I mounted, our wagonmaster rode by me, busy as a skipper in a storm. "Oh, here!" he cried, wheeled, and reaching something to me added, "that's your pass. Major Harper wants you as quick as you can show up. He says never mind the column, ride straight after him. Keep this road to Hazlehurst and then go down the main Brookhaven road till you overtake him. He's by himself—nearly."
As the rider wheeled away I blurted out with anxious loudness in the general hubbub, "Isn't his brother with him?"
He flashed back a glare of rebuke and then bellowed to heaven and earth, "Oh, the devil and Tom Walker! I don't keep run of sutlers and citizens!" He took a circuit, standing in his stirrups and calling orders to his teamsters, and as he neared me again he said very gently, "Good Lord! my boy, don't you know better than to shoot your mouth off like that? You'll find nobody with the Major but Ned Ferry, and I don't say you'll find him."
I galloped to the road. Away down through the woods it was full of horsemen falling into line. With the nearest colonel was Lieutenant Helm, the aide-de-camp. I turned away from them toward Hazlehurst, but looked back distrustfully. Yes, sure enough, the whole command was facing into column the other way! My horse and I whirled and stood staring and swelling with indignation—we ordered south, and the brigade heading westward! He fretted, tramped, neighed, and began hurriedly to paw through the globe to head them off on the other side. He even threatened to rear; but when I showed him I was ashamed of that, he bore me proudly, and I sat him as proudly as he bore me, for he made me more than half my friends. And now as the aide-de-camp wheeled about from the receding column and came our way saluting cordially, we turned and trotted beside him jauntily. Our first talk was of saddles, but very soon I asked where the General was.
"Out on the Natchez Trace waiting for the command. I'm carrying orders to Fisher's battery, down here by the cross-roads. Haven't you seen the General this morning? What! haven't seen him in his new uniform? Whoop! he's a blaze of glory! Look here, Smith, I believe you know who brought it to him!"
"How on earth should I know?"
"Oh, how innocent you always are! Look here! just tell me this; was it the Major's brother brought it, or was it Ned Ferry?"
"Suppose it wasn't either."
"I knew it! I knew it was her! Ah, you rogue, you know it was her!"
"Well, that might depend on who 'her' is." We had reached the cross-roads and he was turning south.
"Look!" he said, and gave the glance and smile of the lady in the curtained wagon so perfectly that I cackled like a small boy. "Oh, you know that, do you? I dare you to say she didn't bring it!"
"I give you my word I don't know!" called I as the distance grew between us. "And I give you my word I don't care!" he crowed back as we galloped apart. His speech was two or three words longer, but they are inappropriate at the end of a chapter, and I expurgate.
EIGHTEEN, NINETEEN, TWENTY
On entering Hazlehurst I observed all about the railway-station a surprising amount of quartermaster's stores. A large part were cases of boots and shoes. Laden with such goods, a train of shabby box-cars stood facing south, its beggarly wood-burner engine sniffing and weeping, while the cork-legged conductor helped all hands wood up. Though homely, the picture was a stirring one. Up through the blue summer morning came the sun, bringing to mind the words of the dying Mirabeau, "If that is not God, at least it's his first cousin."
Even in the character of the goods there was eloquence, and not a drollery in the scene, not even an ugliness, but was touched, was rife, with the woe of a war whose burning walls were falling in on us. And outward, too, upon others; a few up-ended cottonbales leaned against each other ragged and idle, while women and babes starved for want of them in far-away Lancaster.
One of the cars furthest from the engine had no freight proper, only a number of trunks; and these were nearly hidden by the widely crinolined flounces of an elegant elderly lady who sat on the middle one. And now she, too, was hidden, and the wide doorway in the side of the car more than filled, by the fashionable gowns of three girls. On the ground below there stood a lieutenant in a homemade gray uniform, and at his back half a dozen big, slouching, barefoot boys squirted tobacco juice and gazed at the ladies. The officer scanned me, spoke to the ladies, scanned me again, and threw up an arm. "Ho—o! Come here! Hullo! Come here—if you please."
If he had not said please he should have ho'd and hullo'd in vain, but at that word I turned. Before I had covered half the distance I read New Orleans! my dear, dear old New Orleans! in every line of those ladies' draperies, and at twenty-five yards I saw one noble family likeness in all four of their sweet faces. Oh, but those three maidens were fair! and I could name each by her name at a glance: Camille, Cecile, Estelle; eighteen, nineteen, twenty!
There was a hush of attention among them as the lieutenant and I saluted. His left hand was gone at the wrist and the sleeve pinned back on itself. He asked my name; I told him. In the car there was a stir of deepening interest. I inquired if he was the post-quartermaster here. He was.
"Ain't you Major Harper's quartermaster-sergeant?" he asked.
"I am his clerk." In the car a flash of joy and then great decorum.
As he handed me a writing he glowed kindly. It proved to be from Major Harper; a requisition upon this officer for shoes and clothing; not for a brigade, regiment or company, but for me alone, from hat to shoes. I tendered it back silently, and saw that he knew its purport already from the Major, and that the ladies knew it from him. The good fellow looked quite happy a moment, but then reddened as they joyfully crowded the car's doorway to see me fitted!
"We can select out sev'l pair—" he began, but heard a puerile titter and lost his nerve. "Now, you boys that ain't got any business here, jest clair out!—Go! I tell you, aw I'll—" The boys loitered off toward the engine. "We can select out sev'l si-izes," he drawled, uncovering a box, "and fit you ove' in my office. You ain't so pow'ful long nor so pow'ful slim, but these-yeh gov'ment contrac's they seldom ev' allow fo' anybody so slim in the waist bein' so long in the, eh,—so, eh,—so long f'om thah down. But yet still, if you'll jest light off yo' hoss and come and look into this-yeh box—"
Hmm! yes! I wouldn't have got off my horse and leaned over that box to save the Confederacy. "I thank you, Lieutenant, but I can't stop. If you'll hand me up a jacket and pair of shoes I'll sign for them and go. I don't want a hat, but I reckon I'd as well include shoes, although really,—" I glanced down brazenly at the stirrup-leathers that so snugly hid my naked toes.
As the quartermaster lifted out a pair of brogans as broad as they were long, there came a cry of protestation from the freight-car group, that brought the entire herd of rustics from the woodpile and the locomotive. Miss Harper rose behind her nieces, tall, slender, dark, with keen black eyes as kind as they were penetrating. "My boy!" she cried, "you cannot wear those things!"
Camille, the youngest, whispered to her, whereupon she beckoned. "Oh!—oh, do come here!—Mr. Smith, I am the sister of Major Harper. You're from New Orleans? Does your mother live in Apollo Street?"
"Yes, madam, between Melpomene and Terpsichore."
"Richard Thorndyke Smith! My dear boy," she cried, while the nieces gasped at each other with gestures and looks all the way between Terpsichore and Melpomene, and then the four cried in chorus, "We know your mother!"
"We've got a letter for you from her!" exclaimed Camille.
"And a suit of unie-fawm!" called Cecile, with her Creole accent.
"We smuggled it through!" chanted the trio, ready to weep for virtuous joy. And then they clasped arms like the graces, about their aunt, and let her speak.
"We all helped your mother make your uniform," she said. "In the short time we've known her we've learned to love her dearly." With military brevity she told how they had unexpectedly got a pass and were just out of New Orleans—"poor New Orleans!" put in Estelle, the eldest, the pensive one; that they had come up from Pontchatoula yesterday and last night, and had thrown themselves on beds in the "hotel" yonder without venturing to disrobe, and so had let her brother pass within a few steps of them while they slept! "Telegraph? My dear boy, we came but ten miles an hour, but we outran our despatch!" Now they had telegraphed again, to Brookhaven, and thanks to the post-quartermaster, were going down there at once on this train. While this was being told something else was going on. The youngest niece, Camille, had put herself entirely out of sight. Now she reappeared with very rosy cheeks, saying, "Here's the letter."
My thanks were few and awkward, for there still hung to the missive a basting thread, and it was as warm as a nestling bird. I bent low—everybody was emotional in those days—kissed the fragrant thing, thrust it into my bosom, and blushed worse than Camille.
"Poor boy!" said the aunt. "It's the first line you've had for months. Your sweet mother wrote, but her letters were all intercepted, and the last time she was warned that next time she'd be dealt with according to military usage! I'm glad we could give you this one at once. We can't give you the uniform, for we—why, girls, what—why, what nonsense!"
Maybe I did not say vindictive things inside me just then! The three nieces had turned open-mouthed upon one another and sunk down upon their luggage with averted faces.
"I say we can't give it to you now," Miss Harper persisted, with a motherly smile; "we're wearing it ourselves. We've had no time to take it off. I couldn't get the boots off me last night. And even if you had the boots, the other things—"
"Aunt Martha!" moaned some one. "Well, in short," said the aunt, twinkling like her brother, "we can't deliver the goods, and—" She started as though some one had slapped her between the shoulder-blades. It was the engine caused it, whistling in the old, lawless way, putting a whoop, a howl, a scream and a wail into one. The young ladies quailed, the train jerked like several collisions, the bell began tardily to clang, and my steed whirled, cleared a packing case, whirled again, and stood facing the train, his eyes blazing, his nostrils flapping, not half so much frightened as insulted. The post-quartermaster waved to the ladies and they to us. For a last touch I lifted my cap high and backed my horse on drooping haunches—you've seen Buffalo Bill do it—and then, with a leap like a cricket's, and to a clapping of maidens' hands that made me whooping drunk, we stretched away, my horse and I, on a long smooth gallop, for Brookhaven.
A HANDSOME STRANGER
Certainly no cricket ever dropped blither music from his legs than did my beautiful horse that glorious morning as we clattered in perfect rhythm on the hard clean road of the wide pine forest. Ah! the forest is not there now; the lumbermen—
For an hour or so the world seemed to have taken me for its center as smoothly as a sleeping top. Only after a good seven miles did my meditations begin to reveal any bitter in the sweet; but it was in recalling for the twentieth time the last sight of Camille, that I heard myself say, I know not whether softly or loudly,
"Oh, hang the uniform!"
The morning was almost sultry. As I halted in the clear ripples of a gravelly "branch" to let my horse drink, I heard no great way off the Harpers' train shrieking at cattle on the track, and looking up I noticed just behind me an unfrequented by-road carefully masked with brush, according to a new habit of the "citizens". The next moment my horse threw up his head to listen. Then I heard hoofs and voices, and presently there came trotting through the oak bushes and around the mask of brush two horsemen unusually well mounted, clad and armed. Their very dark gray uniforms were so trim and so nearly blue that my heart came into my throat; but then I noticed they carried neither carbines nor sabres, but repeaters only, a brace to each. They splashed lightly to either side of me, and the three horses drank together.
"Good-morning," we said. One of the men was a sergeant. He scanned my animal, and then me, with a dawning smile. "That's a fightin'-cock of a horse you've got, sonny."
"Yes, bub," I replied. The two men laughed so explosively that my horse lifted his head austerely.
"Jim," said the younger, "I don't believe all the conscripts we've caught these three days are worth the powder they've cost!"
"No," replied Sergeant Jim, "I doubt if the most of 'em are." I turned to him and drew down my under eyelid. "Will you kindly tell me, sir, if you see any unnatural discoloration in there?"
He smiled. "No, but I can put some there if you want it."
"Thank you, I couldn't let you take so much trouble—or risk."
The three of us pattered out of the stream abreast. "No trouble," replied the sergeant, "it wouldn't take half a minute."
"No," I rejoined, "the first step would be the last."
The men laughed again. "You must a-been born with all your teeth," said the private, as we quickened to a trot. "What makes you think we ain't after conscripts?"
"Oh, if you were you wouldn't say so. You'd let on to be looking for good crossings on Pearl River, so that if Johnston should get chewed up we needn't be caught here in a hole, Ferry's scouts and all."
The pair looked at each other behind my neck for full ten seconds. Then the younger man leaned to his horse's mane in a silent laugh while Sergeant Jim looked me over again and remarked that he would be horn-swoggled!
"I'm willing," I responded, and we all laughed. The younger horseman asked my name. "Smith," I said, with dignity, and they laughed again, their laugh growing louder when I would not smile.
"Well, say; maybe you'll tell us who this is we're about to meet up with."
Through the shifting colonnades of pine, a hundred yards in front of us, came two horsemen in the same blue-gray of the pair beside me. "Whoever he is," I said, "that gray he's riding is his second best, or it's borrowed," for his mount, though good, was no match for him.
"Borrowed!" echoed the sergeant. "If he doesn't own that mare no man does."
"Nor no woman?" I asked, and again across the back of my neck my two companions gazed at each other.
"By ganny!" exclaimed one, and—"You're a coon," murmured the other, as the new-comers drew near. The younger of these also was a private. Behind his elbow was swung a Maynard rifle. Both carried revolvers. The elder wore a long straight sword whose weather-dimmed orange sash showed at the front of a loose cut-away jacket. Under this garment was a shirt of strong black silk, made from some lady's gown and daintily corded with yellow. On the jacket's upturned collar were the two gilt bars of a first lieutenant, but the face above them shone with a combined intelligence and purity that drew my whole attention.
A familiar friendship lighted every countenance but mine as this second pair turned and rode with us, the lieutenant in front on Sergeant Jim Longley's right, and the two privates with me between them behind. For some minutes the sergeant, in under-tone, made report to his young superior. Then in a small clearing he turned abruptly into a neighborhood road, and at his word my two companions pricked after him westward. I closed up beside the lieutenant; he praised the weather, and soon our talk was fluent though broken, as we moved sometimes at a trot and often faster. In stolen moments I scanned him with the jealousy of my youth. Five feet, ten; humph! I was five, nine and a thirty-second. In weight he looked to be just what I always had in mind in those prayers without words with which I mounted every pair of commissary scales I came to. The play of his form as our smooth-gaited horses sped through the flecking shades was worth watching for its stanch and supple grace. Alike below the saddle and above it he was as light as a leaf and as firm as a lance. I had long yearned to own a pair of shoulders not too square for beauty nor too sloping for strength, and lo, here they were, not mine, but his. No matter; the slender mustache he sported he was welcome to, I had shaved off nearly as good a one; wished now I hadn't. As once or twice he lifted his kepi to the warm breeze I took new despair from the soft locks of darkest chestnut that lay on his head in manly order, ready enough to curl but waiving the privilege.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo," thought I; "if those are not the same hundred-dollar boots I saw yesterday morning, at least they are their first cousins!"
A PLAGUE ON NAMES!
Once more I measured my man. Celerity, valor, endurance, they were his iridescent neck and tail feathers. On a certain piece of road where we went more slowly I mentioned abruptly my clerkship under Major Harper and watched for the effect, but there was none. Did he know the Major? Oh, yes, and we fell to piling item upon item in praise of the quartermaster's virtues and good looks. Presently, with shrewdest intent, I said the Major was fine enough to be the hero of a novel! Did not my companion think so?
Yes, he thought so; but I believed the glow in his tone was for novels. I extolled the romance of actual life! I denounced that dullness which fails to see the poetry of daily experience, and goes wandering after the mirages of fiction! And I was ready to fight him if he liked. But he agreed with me most cordially.
"And yet," he began to add,—
"Yet what?" I snapped out, with horse eyes.
"Doesn't a good story revive the poetry of our actual lives?" He wiped the rim of his cap with a handkerchief of yellow silk enriched at one corner with needlework.
"Um-hm!" I thought; "Charlotte Oliver, eh?" I responded tartly that I had that very morning met four ladies the poetry of whose actual, visible loveliness had abundantly illustrated to me the needlessness and impertinence of fiction! By the way, did he not think feminine beauty was always in its ripest perfection at eighteen?
Well, he thought a girl might be prettiest at eighteen and handsomest much later. And again I said to myself, "Charlotte Oliver!" But when I looked searchingly into his eyes their manly sweetness so abashed me that I dropped my glance and felt him looking at me. I remembered my fable and flinched. "Isn't your name—" I cried, and choked, and when I would have said Ferry, another word slipped out instead. He did not hear it plainly:
"Cockerel, did you say?"
A sweet color was I. "Yes, that's what I said; Cockerel. Isn't your last name Cockerel?"
"No," he said, "my last name is Durand." He gave it the French pronunciation.
"Mine is Smith," I said, and we galloped.
A plague on names! But I was not done with them yet. We met other scouts coming out of the east, who also gave reports and went on westward, sometimes through the trackless woods. At a broad cross-road which spanned the whole State from the Alabama line to the Mississippi River stood another sergeant, with three men, waiting. They were the last.
Again we galloped alone; and as our horses' hoofs beat drummers' music out of the round earth our dialogue drifted into confessions of our own most private theories of conduct, character and creation. Now that this man's name was not—Cockerel, my heart opened to him and we began to admit to each other the perplexities of this great, strange thing called Life. Especially we confessed how every waking hour found us jostled and torn between two opposite, unappeasable tendencies of soul; one an upward yearning after everything high and pure, the other a down-dragging hunger for every base indulgence. I was warmed and fed. Yet I was pained to find him so steeped in presumptuous error, so wayward of belief and unbelief. The sweet ease with which he overturned and emptied out some of my arguments gave me worse failure of the diaphragm than a high swing ever did. Nevertheless I responded; and he rejoined; and I rejoined again, and presently he gave me the notion that he was suffering some cruel moral strain.
ANOTHER CURTAINED WAGON
Upon whatever fundamental scheme we perseveringly concentrate our powers, upon whatever main road of occupation we take life's journey,—art, politics, commerce, science,—if only we will take its upper fork as often as the road divides, then will that road itself, and not necessarily any cross-road, lead us to the noblest, truest plane of convictions, affections, aspirations. Such a frame of mind may be quite without religiosity, as unconscious as health; but the proof of its religious reality will be that, as if it were a lighthouse light and we its keeper, everybody else, or at any rate everybody out on the deep, will see it plainer than we. Such is the gist of what this young man was saying to me, when our speculations were brought to an end by our overtaking a man well mounted, and a woman whose rough-gaited was followed by a colt.
The pair took our pace, the man plying me with questions, and his wife, in front, telling Lieutenant Durand all the rumors of the day. Her scant hair was of a scorched red tone, she was freckled down into her collar, her elbows waggled to the mare's jog, and her voice was as flat as a duck's. Her nag had trouble to keep up, and her tiny faded bonnet had even more to keep on. Yet the day was near when the touch of those freckled hands was to seem to me kinder than the breath of flowers, as they bathed my foul-smelling wounds, and she would say, in the words of the old song, "Let me kiss him for his mother," and I should be helpless to prevent her. By and by the man raised his voice:—
"Why, yo' name is Smith, to be sho'! I thought you was jest a-tryin' to chaw me. Why, Major Harper alludened to you not mo'n a half-ow ago. Why, Miz Wall! oh, Miz Wall!"
But the wife was absorbed. "Yayse, seh," she was saying to the lieutenant, "and he told us about they comin' in on the freight-kyahs f'om Hazlehurst black with dust and sut and a-smuttyin' him all oveh with they kisses and goin's-on. He tol' me he ain't neveh so enjoyed havin' his face dirty sence he was a boy. He would a-been plumb happy, ef on'y he could a-got his haynds on that clerk o' his'n. And when he tol' us what a gay two-hoss turn-out he'd sekyo'ed for the ladies to travel in, s' I, Majo', that's all right! You jest go on whicheveh way you got to go! Husband and me, we'll ride into Brookhaven and bring 'em out to ow place and jest take ca'e of 'em untel yo' clerk is found."
"Miz Wall!" cried the husband—"She's busy talkin'.—Miz Wall!—she don't hyuh me. I hate to interrupt heh.—Oh, Miz Wall! hyuh's Majo' Harper's clerk, right now!"
"Law, you hain't!" cried Mrs. Wall, smiling back as she jounced. "If you air, the Majo's sisteh's got written awdehs fo' you."
I shot forward, but had hardly more than sent back my good-bye when around a bend of the road, in a wagon larger than Charlotte Oliver's, with the curtains rolled up, came the four Miss Harpers, unsooted and radiant. The aunt drove. We turned, all four, and rode with them, and while the seven chatted gaily I read to myself the Major's note. It bade me take these four ladies into my most jealous care and conduct them to a point about thirty miles west of where we then were. A dandy's task in a soldier's hour! I ground my teeth, but as I lifted my glance I found Camille's eyes resting on me and read anxiety in them before she could put on a smile of unemotional friendliness that faded rapidly into abstraction. She was as pretty as the bough of wild azaleas in her hand, yet moving forward I told her aunt the order's purport and that it implied the greatest despatch compatible with mortal endurance. The whole four seemed only delighted.
But Mrs. Wall protested. No, no, her hospitality first, and a basket of refreshments to be stowed in the vehicle, besides. "Why, that'll sa-ave ti-ime. You-all goin' to be supprised to find how hungry y'all ah, befo' you come to yo' journey's en', to-night, and them col' victuals goin' taste pow'ful fi-ine!"
Our acceptance was unanimous. I even decided not to inform Lieutenant Durand until after the repast, that ladies under my escort did not pick acquaintanceship with soldiers on the public highway. But before the brief meal was over I was wishing him hanged. Hang the heaven-high theories that had so lately put me in love with him! Hang his melodious voice, his modest composure, his gold-barred collar, his easy command of topics! Hang the women! they feasted on his every word and look! Ah, ladies! if I were mean enough to tell it—that man doesn't believe in hell! He has a down-dragging hunger for every base indulgence; he has told me so!
How fast acquaintance grew! When he addressed himself to Cecile, the cousin of the other two, her black eyes leapt with delight; for as calmly as if that were the only way, he spoke to her in French—asked her a question. She gave answer in happiest affirmation, and explained to her aunt that her Durand schoolmates of a year or two back were cousins to the Lieutenant. When the throng came out to the carry-all I was there and mounted. Squire Wall took me a few rods to point out where a fork of his private road led into the highway. Then the carry-all came merrily after, and with a regret that surprised me I answered our Lieutenant's farewell wave, forgave him all his charms, and saw him face westward and disappear by a bridle-path.
THE DANDY'S TASK
Westward likewise we soon were bickering. The morning sun shone high; the thin, hot dust blew out over the blackened ground of some forest "burn" or through the worm fence of some field where a gang of slave men and women might be ploughing or hoeing between the green rows of young cotton or corn. The level stretches were many, the slopes gradual, and to those sweet city-bird ladies everything was new and delightful; a log cabin!—with clay chimney on the outside!—a well and its well-sweep!—another cabin with its gourd-vines! They knew that blessed alchemy which turns all things into the poetry of the moment. Sweet they would have been anywhere to any eye or mind; but I was a homeless trooper lad, and sweeter to the soldier boy than water on the battlefield are short hours with ladies who love him for his banner and his rags.
These four were charmed with an old field given up to sedge, its deep rain-gullies as red as gaping wounds, its dead trees in tatters of long gray moss. Estelle became a student of flowers, Cecile of birds, Camille of trees. All my explanations were alike enchantingly strange. To their minds it had never occurred that the land sloped the same way the water ran! When told that these woods abounded in deer and wild turkey they began to look out for them at every new turn of the road. And the turns came fast. Happy miles, happy leagues; each hour was of a mellower sweetness than the last; they seemed to ripen in the sun. The only drawback was my shame of a sentimental situation, but once or twice I longed to turn the whole equipage into the woods—or the ditch. As, for instance, when three pine-woods cavalrymen had no sooner got by us than they set up that ribald old camp-song,
"We're going to get married, mamma, mamma; We're going to get married, but don't tell pa—"
"Deserters, I don't doubt!" was my comment to the ladies. Tongue revenge is poor, but it is something.
Except in such moments, however, the war seemed farther away than it had for months and months. But about eleven o'clock we began to find the way scored by the fresh ruts of heavy wheels and the dust deepened by hundred of hoofs. The tops and faces of the roadside banks were newly trampled and torn by clambering human feet. Here was a canteen, smashed in a wheel-track; yonder a fragment of harness; here lay a broken hame, there was the half of a russet brogan and yonder a ragged sock stained and bloody.
"Why, what does all this mean?" asked Miss Harper amid her nieces' cries.
I said it meant Fisher's battery hurrying to the front. Twenty miles since five that morning was a marvel, horse artillery though they were, for, as I pointed out by many signs, their animals were in ill condition. "We shall have to go round them by neighborhood roads," I said, and presently we were deeper than ever in woodland shades and sources of girlish wonderment. The humid depths showed every sort of green and gray, their trunks, bushes and boughs, bearded with hanging moss, robed with tangled vines and chapleted with mistletoe. We seemed to have got this earth quite to ourselves and very much to our liking.
One o'clock. Miss Harper suggested a halt to feed the horses. I, knowing what it would cost me to dismount and go walking about, said no, thrice no; let us first get back upon the main road in front of that battery. On, therefore, we hurried, and soon the reality of the war was vivid to us again. In a stretch of wet road where the team had mutely begged leave to walk and the ladies had urged me to sing we had at length paused in a pebbly rivulet to allow the weary animals to drink, and the girls and the aunt and the greenwood and I were all in chorus bidding somebody
"Unloose the west port and let us go free,"
when, just as our last note died among the trees one of us cried, "Listen!" and through the stillness there came from far away on our right the last three measures of a bugle sounding The March.
My eyes rested in Camille's and hers in mine. A musical license gave us the courage. At the last note our gaze did not sink but took on more glow, while out of the forest behind us a distant echo answered the last measure of the strain. Then our eyes slowly fell; and however it may have seemed to her, to me it was as if the vanished strains were not only or chiefly of bugle and echo, but as though our two hearts had called and answered in that melodious unison.
All that warm afternoon we paid the tiresome penalty of having pushed our animals too smartly at the outset. We grew sedate; sedate were the brows of the few strangers we met. We talked in pairs. When I spoke with Miss Harper the four listened. She asked about the evils of camp life; for she was one of that fine sort to whom righteousness seems every man's and woman's daily business, one of the most practical items in the world's affairs. And I said camp life was fearfully corrupting; that the merest boys cursed and swore and stole, or else were scorned as weaklings. Then I grew meekly silent and we talked in pairs again, and because I yearned to talk most with Camille I talked most with Estelle. Three times when I turned abruptly from her to Camille and called, "Hark!" the fagged-out horses halted, and as we struck our listening pose the bugle's faint sigh ever farther in our rear was but feebly proportioned to the amount of our gazing into each other's eyes.
Once, when we were not halted or harkening, we heard overmuch; heard that which brought us to an instant stand and caused even Miss Harper to gaze on me with dismayed eyes and parted lips, and the blood to go thumping through my veins. From a few hundred yards off in the northwest, beyond the far corner of an old field and the woods at its back, two gunshots together, then a third, with sharp, hot cries of alarum and command, and then another and another shot, rang out and spread wanderingly across the tender landscape.
THE SOLDIER'S HOUR
To regain the highroad we had turned into a northerly fork, and were in as lovely a spot as we had seen all day. Before us and close on our right were the dense woods of magnolia, water-oak, tupelo and a hundred other affluent things that towered and spread or clambered and hung. On the left lay the old field, tawny with bending sedge and teeming with the yellow rays of the sun's last hour. This field we overlooked through a fence-row of persimmon and wild plum. Among these bushes, half fallen into a rain-gully, a catalpa, of belated bloom, was loaded with blossoms and bees, and I was directing Camille's glance to it when the shots came. Another outcry or two followed, and then a weird silence.
"Some of our boys attacked by a rabbit," I suggested, but still hearkened.
"That was not play, Mr. Smith," Miss Harper had begun to respond, when a voice across the sedge-field called with startling clearness,
"Hi! there goes one of them!—Halt!—Halt, you blue—" pop!—pop!—pop!
"Prisoners making a break!" I forgot all my tatters and stood on tiptoe in the stirrups to overpeer the fence-row. The next instant—"Sh—sh!" said I and slid to the ground. "Hold this bridle!" I gave it to Camille. "Don't one of you make a sound or a motion; there's a Yankee coming across this field in the little gully just behind us."
I bent low, ran a few steps, cocking my revolver as I went. Then I rose, peeped, bent again, ran, rose, peeped, waited a few seconds behind the catalpa, and without rising peeped once more. Here he came! He was an officer. His uniform was torn and one whole side of him showed he had at some earlier hour ridden through a hedge and fallen from his horse. On he came! nearer—nearer—oh, what a giant! Quickly, warily, he crouched under the fence where it hung low across the gully, and half through it in that huddled posture he found my revolver between his astonished eyes. I did not yell at him, for I did not want the men he had escaped from to come and take him from me; yet when I said, "Halt, or you die!" the four ladies heard me much too plainly. For, frankly, I said more and worse. I felt my slenderness, my beardless youth, my rags, and his daring, and to offset them all in a bunch, I—I cursed him. I let go only one big damn and I've never spoken one since, though I've done many a worse thing, of course. I protest it was my modesty prompted it then.
"I surrender," he said, with amiable ease. I stepped back a pace and he drew out and straightened up—the tallest man I had ever seen. I laughed, he smiled, laughed; my eyes filled with tears, I blazed with rage, and in plain sight and hearing of those ladies he said, "That's all right, my son, get as scared as you like; only, you don't need to cry about it."
"Hold your tongue!" I barked my wrath like a frightened puppy, drawing back a stride and laying my eye closer along the pistol. "If you call me your son again I'll send you to your fathers."
His smile darkened. "I am your prisoner," he said, with a sudden splendid stateliness, and right then I guessed who he was.
"Yess, sir, you are!" I retorted. "Move to that wagon! And if you take one step out of common time you'll never take another."
The aunt and her nieces were standing in the carry-all, she majestic, they laughing and weeping in the one act. I waved them into their seats.
"Halt!" We halted. "About face!" As the prisoner eyed me both of us listened. His equanimity was almost winsome, and I saw that friendliness was going to be his tactics.
"Guess I'm the first Yankee y' ever caught, ain't I?" His smile was superior, but congratulatory.
"You'll be the first prisoner I ever shot if you get any funnier!"
We listened again. "They've gone the wrong way," I said, still savage.
"No," he replied, "I came the wrong way."
The ladies smiled; I glowered. "Take those horses by their heads and turn them to me!"
An instant his superb eye resented, but then he pleasantly did my bidding. "Suits me well; rather chance it with you than with those I've just left."
"Easier to get away, you think?" I asked, with a worse frown than ever, as he stepped into the carry-all and took the lines.
"No, not so easy; but those fellows are Arkansans, and they're in a bad humor with me."
I took the hint and grew less ferocious. "While you," I said, "are Captain Jewett."
"I am," was his reply, and my heart leaped for joy. We hurried away. My captive was the most daring Union scout between Vicksburg and New Orleans; these very Harpers knew that. The thing unknown to us was that already his fate was entangled with Ned Ferry's and Charlotte Oliver's, as yet more it would be, with theirs and ours, in days close at hand.
Once more we were in the by-road which had brought us westward parallel with the highway. The prisoner drove. Aunt Martha sat beside him, slim, dark, black-eyed, stately, her silver-gray hair rolled high a la Pompadour. With a magnanimity rare in those bitter days she incited him to talk, first of New Orleans, where he had spent a month in camp on one of the public squares, and then of his far northern home, and of loved ones there, mother, wife and child. The nieces, too, gave a generous attention. Only I, riding beside the hind wheels, held solemnly aloof.
"Front!" I once snapped out with a ring that made the trees reply and the ladies catch their breath. "If you steal one more look back here I'll put a ball into your leg."
He smiled, chirped the horses up and resumed his chat. I heard him praise my horse and compare him not unfavorably with his own which he had lost that morning'. He and a few picked men had been surprised in a farmhouse at breakfast. They had made a leap and a dash, he said, but one horse and rider falling dead, his horse, unhurt, had tumbled over them, and here was his rider.
I prompted Camille to ask if he had ever encountered Ned Ferry, and he laughed.
"No," he said, but Ned Ferry had lately restored to him, by proxy, some lost letters, with an invitation to come and see him.
I laughed insolently. The young ladies sparkled, and so did Miss Harper, as she asked him who had been the proxy.
He said the proxy was a young woman who had a knack of getting passes through the lines, and the three girls exchanged looks as knowing as they were delighted.
"I tell her as a friend," he said, "she'll get one into Fortress Monroe yet!"
Miss Harper's keen eyes glittered. "You northerners hardly realize our feelings concerning the imprisonment of women, I think."
"My dear madam, you don't realize ours. We don't want to imprison women."
So there came a silence, and then a gay laugh as three of us at once asked if he had ever heard of Lieutenant Durand. "Durand!" he cried, and looked squarely around at me. I lifted the cocked revolver, but he kept his fine eyes on mine and I rubbed my ear with my wrist. "What?" he said, "an elegant, Creole-seeming young fellow, very handsome? Why, that fellow saved my life this very afternoon."
The young ladies were in rapture. Miss Harper asked how he had done it.
"If I tell you that," said the Captain, "you won't like me the least bit."
Whereat Cecile replied, "Ah—well! we cou'n' like you the leaz bit any-'ow."
"I suppose that's so," laughed the officer. "I'll tell you how it was. My guard were just about to hang me for saying I thought we had a right to make soldiers of the darkies, when your friend came galloping along, saw the thing, and rushed in and cut the halter with his sword. And when they demanded to know who and what he was, he told them Durand, and that they'd hear it again, for he should report them."
"Oh, sir," cried Estelle, whose eyes, brows, lashes and hair were all of the same luminous red-brown, and in whose cheeks the rose seemed always to burn through the olive, "how can you and your people seek to kill such men as that?"
"Such as which?" asked the Yankee, with a twinkle. "There were two kinds."
"But, o-oh! sir!" exclaimed the trio, when Miss Harper waved them to forbear. There was yet some daylight left as we trundled into a broad highroad and turned northward. We passed a picket guard and then a whole regiment of cavalry going into camp. They scrambled to the sides of the road and stormed us with questions, chaffing us cruelly when I remained silent. "Lawd! look a' this-yeh Yank a-bringin' in ow desertehs!" "Hey, you big Yank, you jest let that po' little conscrip' go!"
Headquarters, we heard from a courier who said he was the third sent out to find us, were at the "Sessions house" two miles further on. We sent him galloping back there, and after a while here came Major Harper and three or four others of the staff, including Harry Helm. What a flood of mirthful compliment there was at sight of us and our captive; Harry was positively silly. In the series of introductions that followed he was left paired with Camille, and I said things to myself. Major Harper rode by the prisoner. "Well, Captain," he said, "you've had some experiences since you left me this morning. Don't you want to give us your parole this time, temporarily, for an hour or so, and be more comfortable?"
"Thank you, Major," the Federal affably replied, "that would be a great relief to this most extraordinary youngster that I've brought with me." He gave it and we turned into a lofty grove whitened with our headquarters tents.
"Smith," said the Major, "your part is done, and well done. You needn't report to me again to-night; the General wishes to see you a moment. Captain, will you go with this young man to General Austin's tent?"
IN THE GENERAL'S TENT
I went to Gholson. He told me I was relieved of my captive and bade me go care for my horse and return in half an hour. In going I passed close by the Sessions plantation house. Every door and window was thrown wide to the night air, and preparations were in progress for a dance; and as I returned, a slave boy ran across my path, toward the house, bearing a flaming pine torch and followed by two ambulances filled with daughters of the neighborhood in clouds of white gauze. I found the General in fatigue dress. His new finery hung on the tent-pole at his back. Old Dismukes, the bull-necked colonel of the Arkansans, lounged on a camp-cot. Both smoked cigars.
The General asked me a number of idle questions and then said my prisoner had called me a good soldier. Old Dismukes smiled so broadly that I grew hot, believing the Yankee had told them of my tears.
"Smith," said the Colonel, and then smoked and smiled again till my brow beaded,—"tired?"
"That's a lie," he pleasantly remarked, and lay back, enjoying my silent wrath. "Send him, General," he added, "he's your man."
The General looked at me between puffs of his cigar. "I hear you've ridden over fifty miles to-day."
"Yes, General." "If I give you a good fresh horse can you go twenty-three miles more by midnight?"
"Yes, General, if I don't have to save the horse."
"The horse may have to save you," drawled the Arkansan.
"I think you know Lieutenant Durand?" asked the General, with a quizzical eye.
"Well, Smith, on his suggestion approved by Major Harper, I have detailed another clerk to the Major."
Rills of perspiration tickled my back like flies. "Can't one man do the work?"
"Yes, the new man is detailed in your place."
I almost leaped from the ground in consternation. My whole frame throbbed, my mouth fell open, my tongue was tied.
The man who had got me into this thing—this barrel—lifted the tent-flap. "Mr. Gholson," said the General, "write an order assigning Smith to Ferry's scouts."
The flap fell again and my panic was turned into a joy qualified only by a reduced esteem for my general as a judge of character.
Old Dismukes rose. "Good-night. Shall I send this boy that Yankee's horse?"
"Oh I was forgetting that; yes, do!"
At the door the Colonel gave me a last look. "Good-night, Legs."
I dared not retort, but I looked so hard at his paunch that the General smiled. Then he asked me if I knew where we were then camped, and I said we were on the Meadville and Fayette road, near Franklin, twenty miles southeast of Fayette and—
"That will do. Now, beyond Fayette, about seven miles north, there's a place—"
"Don't interrupt me, Smith. Yes, Clifton. You're not to reach there to-night—"
"I can do it, General."
"You can do as you're told; understand?" I understood.
"The enemy are in Fayette to-night," he continued. "So when you get half-way to Fayette, just across Morgan's Creek, you'll take a dim fork on the right running north along the creek. Ever travel by the stars?"
I began to tell how well I knew the stars, but he stopped me. "Yes; well, keep straight north till you strike the road running east and west between Fayette and Union Church. You'll find there a little polling-place called Wiggins. Turn west, toward Fayette, and on the north side of the main road, opposite the blacksmith's shop, you'll come to a small—"
"What do you see?" His frown scared me to my finger-tips.
"Why, I suppose I'm to find there a road down Cole's Creek to Clifton."
"Smith, if you interrupt me again, sir, you'll find the road back to your regiment. Opposite that blacksmith's shop you'll see a white cottage. There's a young lady stopping there to-night, a stranger, a traveller. The old lady who lives there has taken her in at my request. See that the young lady gets this envelope. It's no great matter, merely a pass through our lines; but it's your ostensible business till you get there; understand?"
I thought I did until I glanced at the superscription: Miss Coralie Rothvelt.
"Now, here is another matter of much more importance." He showed, but retained, another envelope. "Behind the house where you're to find Miss Rothvelt there's a road into Cole's Creek bottom. The house you're to stop at to-night, say from twelve o'clock till three or half-past, is on that road, about five miles from Wiggins, from Clifton and from Fayette. I'm sending you there expecting the people in that house will rob you if you give them half a chance."
"I understand, General; they'll not get it."
"Smith, I want them to get it. I want them to rob you of this." He waggled the envelope. "I want this to fall into the hands of the enemy; as it will if those people rob you of it."
I snapped my eyes. He smiled and then frowned. "I don't want a clumsy job, now, mind! I don't want you to get captured if you can possibly avoid it; but all the same they mustn't get this so easily as to suspect it's a bait. So I want you to give those villains that half-chance to rob you, but not the other half, or they may—oh, it's no play! You must manage to have this despatch taken from you totally against your will! Then you must reach Clifton shortly after daylight. Ferry's scouts are there, and you'll say to Lieutenant Ferry the single word, Rodney. Understand?" He pretended to be reconsidering. "I—don't know but—after all—I'd better send one of my staff instead of you."
"Oh, General, if you send an officer they'll see the ruse! I can do it! I'll do it all right!"
"I'm most afraid," he said, abstractedly, as he read my detail, which Gholson brought in. "Here,"—he handed it to me—"and here, here's the despatch too."
"What's the name, General, of the man whose house I'm to go to?"
"You'd best not know; I want you to seem to have stumbled upon the place. You can't miss it; there's no other house within two miles of it. Good-bye, my lad;"—he gave me his hand;—"good luck to you."
Gholson, in the Adjutant-general's tent, told me Ned Ferry had named me to the General as a first-class horseman and the most insignificant- looking person he knew of who was fit for this venture.
"Ned Ferry! What does Ned Ferry know about my fitness?"
"Read the address on your despatch," said Gholson, resuming his pen.
I snatched the document from my bosom, into which I had thrust it to seize the General's hand "Oh, Gholson!" I said, in deep-toned grief, as I looked up from the superscription, "is that honest!"
He admitted that by the true religionist's standard it was not honest, but reminded me that Ned Ferry—in his blindness—was only a poor romanticist. The despatch was addressed to Lieutenant Edgard Ferry-Durand.
Major Harper's black boy brought me the Yankee's horse with my bridle and saddle on him; an elegant animal as fresh as a dawn breeze. Also he produced a parcel, my new uniform, and a wee note whose breath smelt of lavender as it said,—
"Papa tells us you are being sent off on courier duty to-night. What a heart-breaking thing is war! How full of cruel sepa'—"
That piece of a word was scored out and "dangers" written in its place. The missive ended all too soon, with the statement that I was requested to call, on my way out of camp, at the side gallery of the house— Sessions's—and let the writer and her sister and her cousin and her father and her aunt see me in my new uniform and bid me good-bye.
I found but one white figure under the dim veranda eaves. "Miss Camille?"
"Wh'—who is that?" responded a musical voice. "Why, is that Mr. Smith?" as if I were the last person in the world one should have expected to see there. The like of those moments I had never known. I saw her eyes note the perfect fit of my uniform, though neither of us mentioned it. I tried to tell her that Lieutenant Durand was Ned Ferry and that I was now one of his scouts, but she had already heard both facts, and would not tell me what her father had said about me, it was so good. Standing at the veranda's edge a trifle above me, with her cheek against one of the posts and her gaze on her slipper, she asked if I was glad I was going with Ned Ferry, and I had no more sense than to say I was; but she would neither say she was glad nor tell why she was not.
Through the open windows we could see the dancers. Now and then a pair of fanning promenaders came down the veranda, but on descrying us turned back. I said I was keeping her from the dance. To which she replied, drooping her head again, that she shouldn't dance that night.
"Oh, no, not too warm."
"Oh—I—just don't feel as if I could, that's all."
My heart beat wildly and I wanted to ask if it was on my account; but I was too pusillanimous a coward, and when I feebly tried to look into her eyes she would not let me, which convinced me that she lacked candor. A dance ended. Gold-laced fellows came and sat on the veranda rail wiping wrists and brows with over-tasked handkerchiefs, and explaining the small mishaps of the floor. Two promenaders mentioned the hour. I gasped my amazement and extended my hand. "Good-bye."
"Wait a moment," she murmured, and watched the promenading pair turn back. Then she asked if I had read my mother's letter. I said I had. And then, very pensively, with head bent and eyes once more down, she inquired if I liked to get letters. Which led, quite accidentally, to my asking leave to write to her.
She replied that she did not mean that. Nevertheless, I insisted, would she? She only bent lower still. I asked the third time; and with nothing but the parting of her hair for me to look at, she nodded, and one of her braids fell over in front, and I took the pink-ribboned live end of it timorously between thumb and finger and felt as if I had hold of an electric battery.
She backed half a step, and quite needlessly I let it go. Then she bade me not forget I had promised her the words of a certain song. "Want them? Indeed, yes! Did you not say it was an unpublished song written by a messmate of yours?—oh, Mr. Smith! I see why you stammer! You said 'a member of your mess'! oh!—oh!—oh!—you wrote it, yourself! And you wrote it to-day! That explains—" She drew an awesome breath, rose to her toes and knit her knuckles under her throat.
I was in the sweetest consternation. With the end of her braid once more in my fingers I made her promise to keep the dark secret, and so recited them.
"Maiden passing fair, turn away thine eyes! Turn away thine eyes ere my bosom burn, Lit with foolish hope to hear thy fondling sighs, Like yon twilight dove's, breathe, Return, return! Turn away thine eyes, maiden passing fair. O maiden passing fair, turn away thine eyes!
"Maiden passing fair, turn again thine eyes! Turn again thine eyes, love's true mercy learn. Breathe, O! breathe to me, as these love-languid skies To yon twilight star breathe, Return, return! Turn again thine eyes, maiden passing fair. O maiden passing fair, turn again thine eyes!"
"Mis-ter Smith! you wrote that?—to-day! Wh'—who is she?"
"One too modest," I murmured, "to know her own portrait." I clutched the braid emotionally and let it go intending to retake it; but she dropped it behind her and said I was too imaginative to be safe.
I stiffened proudly, turned and mounted my steed, but her eyes drew mine. I pressed close, bent over the saddle-bow, and said, "Good-bye, Camille."
"Good-bye." I could barely hear it.
"Oh!—good-bye, just anybody?" I asked; and thereupon she gathered up all her misplaced trust in me, all her maiden ignorance of what is in man, and all her sweet daring, to murmur—
I caught my breath in rapture and rode away. She was there yet when I looked back—once—and again—and again. And when I looked a last time still she had not moved. Oh, Camille, Camille! to this day I see you standing there in pink-edged white, pure, silent, motionless, a summer-evening cloud; while I, my body clad in its unstained—only because unused—new uniform, and my soul tricked out in the foolhardiness and vanity of a boy's innocence, rode forth into the night and into the talons of overmastering temptation.
The night was still and sultry. At one of the many camp-fires on the edge of the road I saw the Arkansas colonel sitting cross-legged on the ground, in trousers, socks and undershirt, playing poker.
Out in the open country how sweet was the silence. Not yet have I forgotten one bright star of that night's sky. My mother and I had studied the stars together. Lately Camille, her letter said, had learned them with her. Now the heavens dropped meanings that were for me and for this night alone. While the form of the maiden—passing fair—yet glimmered in the firmament of my own mind, behind me in the south soared the Virgin; but as some trees screened the low glare of our camp I saw, just rising into view out of the southeast, the unmistakable eyes of the Scorpion. But these fanciful oracles only flattered my moral self-assurance, and I trust that will be remembered which I forgot, that I had not yet known the damsel from one sun to the next.
I was moving briskly along, making my good steed acquainted with me, testing his education, how promptly for instance, he would respond to rein-touch and to leg-pressure, when I saw, in front, coming toward me, three riders. Two of them were very genteel chaps, though a hand of each was on the lock of his carbine. The third was a woman, veiled, and clad in some dark stuff that in the starlight seemed quite black and contrasted strongly with the paleness of her horse. Her hat, in particular, fastened my attention; if that was not the same soft-brimmed Leghorn I had seen yesterday morning, at least it was its twin sister. I halted, revolver in hand, and said, as they drew rein,—"Good-evening."
"Good-evening," replied the nearer man. "How far is it to camp—Austin's?"
"A short three miles."
"To what command do you belong?" he asked.
"Ferry's scouts. What command is yours, gentlemen?"
"Ferry's scouts." He scrutinized me. "What command do you say you—"
"Ferry's scouts," I repeated. "F-e-r-r-y-apostrophe s, Ferry's—s-k-o-w-t-s—scouts."
The trio laughed, the young woman most musically.
"How long have you belonged to Ferry's scouts?" sceptically demanded their spokesman.
"About an hour and a quarter."
"Yes," I replied, "in that direction."
The three laughed again and the men sank their carbines across their laps, while in a voice as refined as her figure their companion said, "Good-evening, Mr. Smith." She laid back her veil and even in the darkness I felt the witchery of her glance. "I was just coming to meet you," she continued, "to get the letter you're bringing me from General Austin. I feared you might try to come around by Fayette, not knowing the Yankees are there. These gentlemen didn't know it." "She just did save us!" laughed the man hitherto silent.
"I'm Miss Coralie Rothvelt," she added, and then how she sparkled in the dark as she said, "I see you remember me."
"I am but human."
"And yet you never take a lady's name for granted?"
"I am to know Miss Rothvelt by finding her in a certain place." My honeyed bow implied that her being just now very much out of place was no fault of mine.
"Nonsense!" muttered both men, and I liked them the better.
"My dear Smith," said Miss Rothvelt, "keep your trust. But if I part here with these two kind gentlemen—"
"Who don't belong to Ferry's scouts at all," I still more sweetly added.
"No," she laughed, "and if I go back with you to Wiggins—to the little white cottage, you know, opposite the blacksmith's shop,—you'll give me what you've got for me, won't you?" She dropped her head to one side and a mocking-bird chuckle rippled in her throat.
"I shall count myself honored," said I, and we went, together and alone.
VENUS AND MARS
Since those days men have made "fire-proof" buildings. You know them; let certain aggravations combine—they burn like straw. We had barely started when I began to be threatened with a conflagration against which I should have called it an insult to have been warned. The adroit beauty at my side set in to explain more fully her presence. From her window she had seen those two trim fellows hurrying along in a fair way to blunder into the Federal pickets within an hour, had cautioned them, and had finally asked leave to come with them, they under her guidance, she under their protection.
"You were so anxious to get the General's letter?" I asked.
"I was so anxious about you," she replied, with feeling, and then broke into a quizzical laugh.
I had not the faintest doubt she was lying. What was I to her? The times were fearfully out of joint; women as well as men were taking war's licenses, and with a boy's unmerciful directness I sprang to the conclusion that here was an adventuress. Yet I had some better thoughts too. While I felt a moral tipsiness going into all my veins, I asked myself if it was not mainly due to my own inability to rise in full manliness to a most exceptional situation. Her jaunty method of confronting it, was I not failing to regard that with due magnanimity? Was this the truth, or after all ought I really to see that at every turn of her speech, by coy bendings of the head, by the dark seductions of dim half-captive locks about her oval temples, and by many an indescribable swaying of the form and of the voice, I was being—to speak it brutally—challenged? Even in the poetic obscurity of the night I lost all steadiness of eye as I pertly said—
"And so here you are in this awful fix."
"I'm enjoying one advantage," she replied, "which you do not."
"What is that?"
"Why, I can read my safety in your face. You can't read anything in mine; you're afraid to look."
All I got by looking then was a mellow laugh from behind her relowered veil; but we were going at a swift trot, nearing a roadside fire of fence-rails left by some belated foraging team, and as she came into the glare of it I turned my eyes a second time. She was revealed in a garb of brown enriched by the red beams of the fire, and was on the gray mare I had seen that morning under Lieutenant Edgard Ferry-Durand.
"You recognize her?" the rider asked, delightedly. "She's not stolen, she's only served her country a little better than usual to-day; haven't you, Cousin Sallie?" (Cousin Sallie was short for Confederate States.)
The note of patriotism righted me and I looked a third time. The one art of dress worth knowing in '63 was to slight its fashions without offending them, and this pretty gift I had marked all day in the Harpers. But never have I seen it half so successful as in the veiled horsewoman illumined by the side-lights of those burning fence-rails. The white apparition at the veranda's edge gleamed in my mind, yet swiftly faded out, and a new fascination, more sudden than worthy heaved at my heart. Then the fire was behind us and we were in the deep night.
On the crest of a ridge we slackened speed and my fellow-traveller lifted her veil and asked exultantly what those two splendid stars were that overhung yonder fringe of woods so low and so close to each other. The less brilliant one, I said, the red one, was Mars.
"And the one following, almost at his side?"
"Don't you know?" I asked.
Her eyes flashed round upon me like stars themselves. "Not—Venus?" she whispered, snatched in her breath, bit her lip, and half averting her face, shot me through with both "twinklers" at once. Then she took a long look at the planets and suddenly exclaimed with a scandalized air—
"They're going down into the woods together!"
"Yes," I responded, "and without even waiting for Diana."
She dropped the rein and lifted both arms toward them. "Oh, blessings on your glorious old heathen hearts, what do you want of Diana, or of any one in heaven or earth except each other!"
Foolish, idle cry, and meant for no more, by a heart on fire with temptations of which I knew nothing. But then and there my poor adolescent soul found out that the preceptive stuff of which it had built its treasure-house and citadel was not fire-proof.
AN ACHING CONSCIENCE
Yet great is precept. Precept is a well. Up from its far depths by slow, humble, constant process you may draw, in a slender silver thread, and store for sudden use, the pure waters of character.
It has happened, however, that a man's own armor has been the death of him. So the moral isolation of a young prig of good red blood who is laudably trying to pump his conduct higher than his character—for that's the way he gets his character higher—has its own peculiar dangers. Take this example: that he does not dream any one will, or can, in mere frivolity, coquette, dally, play mud-pies, with a passion the sacredest in subjection, the shamefulest in mutiny, and the deepest and most perilous to tamper with, in our nature. As hotly alive in the nethermost cavern of his heart as in that of the vilest rogue there is a kennel of hounds to which one word of sophistry is as the call to the chase, and such a word I believed my companion had knowingly spoken. I was gone as wanton-tipsy as any low-flung fool, and actually fancied myself invited to be valiant by this transparent embodiment of passion whose outburst of amorous rebellion had been uttered not because I was there, but only in pure recklessness of my presence. Of course I ought to have seen that this was a soul only over-rich in woman's love; mettlesome, aspiring, but untrained to renunciation; consciously superior in mind and soul to the throng about her, and caught in some hideous gin of iron-bound—convention-bound—or even law-bound—foul play. But I was so besotted as to suggest a base analogy between us and those two sinking stars.
Unluckily she retorted with some playful parry that just lacked the saving quality of true resentment. How I rejoined would be small profit to tell. I had a fearful sense of falling; first like a wounded squirrel, dropping in fierce amazement, catching, holding on for a panting moment, then dropping, catching and dropping again, down from the top of the great tree where I had so lately sat scolding all the forest; and then, later, with an appalling passivity. And at every fresh exchange of words, while she laughed and fended, and fended and laughed, along with this passivity came a yet more appalling perversity; a passivity and perversity as of delirium, and as horrid to her as to me, though I little thought so then.
We came where a line of dense woods on our left marked the bottom-lands of Morgan's Creek. With her two earlier companions my fellow-traveller had crossed a ford here shortly after sunset, seeing no one; but a guard might easily have been put here since, by the Federals in Fayette. Pretty soon the road, bending toward it, led us down between two fenced fields and we stealthily walked our horses. Close to a way-side tree I murmured that if she would keep my horse I would steal nearer on foot and reconnoitre, and I had partly risen from the saddle, when I was thrilled by the pressure of her hand upon mine on the saddle-bow. "Don't commit the soldier's deadliest sin, my dear Mr. Smith," she said under her breath, and smiled at my agitation; "I mean, don't lose time."
I was about to put a false meaning even on that, when she added "We don't need the ford this time of year; let us ride back as if we gave up the trip—for there may be a vidette looking at us now in the edge of those bushes—and as soon as we get where we can't be seen let us take a circuit. We can cross the creek somewhere above and strike the Wiggins road up in the woods. You can find your way by the blessed stars, can't you—being the angel you are?"
My whole nature was upheaved. You may smile, but my plight was awful. In the sultry night I grew cold. My bridle-hand, still lying under her palm, turned and folded its big stupid fingers over hers. Then our hands slid apart and we rode back. "I wish I were good enough to know the stars," she said, gazing up. "Tell me some of them."
I told them. Two or three times my voice stuck in my throat, I found the sky so filled, so possessed, by constellations of evil name. At our back the Dragon writhed between the two Bears; over us hung the Eagle, and in the south were the Wolf, the Crow, the Hydra, the Serpent—"Oh, don't tell any more," she exclaimed. "Or rather—what are those three bright stars yonder? Why do you skip them?"
"Those? That one is the Virgin's sheaf; and those two are the Balances."
I failed to catch her reply. She spoke in a tone of pain and sunk her face in her hand. "Head ache?" I asked. "No." She straightened, and from under her coquettish hat bent upon me such a look as I had never seen. In her eyes, in her tightened lips, and in the lift of her head, was a whole history of hope, pride, pain, resolve, strife, bafflement and defiance. She could not have chosen to betray so much; she must have counted too fully on the shade of her hat-brim. The beautiful frown relaxed into a smile. "No," she repeated, "only an aching conscience. Ever have one?"
I averted my face and answered with a nod.
"I don't believe you! I don't believe you ever had cause for one!" She laid a hand again upon mine.
I covered it fiercely and sunk my brow upon it. And thereupon the wave of folly drew back, and on the bared sands of recollection I saw, like drowned things, my mother's face, and Gholson's and the General's, and Major Harper's, and Ned Ferry's, and Camille's. Each in turn brought its separate and peculiar pang; and among those that came a second time and with a crueler pang than before was Camille's.
"You're tired!" murmured the voice beside me, and the wave rolled in again. I lifted my brow and moved one hand from hers to make room on it for my lips, but her fingers slipped away and alighted compassionately on my neck. "You must be one ache from head to foot!" she whispered.
I turned upon her choking with anger, but her melting beauty rendered me helpless. Black woods were on our left. "Shall we turn in here?" I asked.
"Yes." She stooped low under the interlacing boughs and plunged with me into the double darkness.
TWO UNDER ONE HAT-BRIM
"Is this the conservatory?" playfully whispered Miss Rothvelt; and if a hot, damp air, motionless, and heavy with the sleeping breath of countless growths could make it so, a conservatory it was. Every slightest turn had to be alertly chosen, and the tangle of branches and vines made going by the stars nearly impossible. The undergrowth crowded us into single file. We scarcely exchanged another word until our horses came abreast in the creek and stopped to drink. Conditions beyond were much the same until near the end of our detour, when my horse swerved abruptly and the buzz of a rattlesnake sounded almost under foot. The mare swerved, too, and hurried forward to my horse's side.
"That was almost an adventure, itself," laughingly murmured my companion, as if adventures were what we were in search of. While she spoke we came out into a slender road and turned due north. "Did you," she went on, childishly, "ever take a snake up by the tail, in your thumb and finger, and watch him try to double on himself and bite you? I have, it's great fun; makes you feel so creepy, and yet you know you're safe!"
She laughed under her breath as if at hide-and-seek. Then we galloped, then trotted again, galloped, walked and trotted again. Two miles, three, four, we reckoned off, and slowed to a walk to come out cautiously upon the Union Church and Fayette road. A sound brought us to a halt. From the right, out on the main road, it came; it was made by the wheels of a loaded wagon. I leaned sidewise until her hat-brim was over me and whispered "Yankee foragers;" but as I drew my revolver we heard voices, I breathed a sigh of relief, and with her locks touching mine we chuckled to each other in the dark. The passers were slaves escaping to the Federal camp.
Now they came into view, on the broader road, two whole ragged families with a four-mule team. They passed on. And then all at once the whole situation was too much for me. In the joy of release I groped out caressingly and touched my companion's cheek. Whereat she took my fingers and drew them to her lips—twice. The next moment I found—we found—my lifted wrists in the slender grasp of her two hands and she was murmuring incoherent protests. Suddenly she grew eloquent. "Oh, think what you are and have always been! Do you think I don't know? Do you suppose I would have put myself into this situation, or taken the liberties I have taken with you, if I had not known you, and known you well, before ever I saw you? Ah! I have heard such good things of you! and the moment I saw you I saw they were true!—Yes,—yes, I tell you they were, they are! And I'm not going to take my trust away from you now! You shall keep my trust as you have kept all others. You shall be as miserly of it as of your general's. You will keep it!" Her whispers grew more and more gentle. "My dear friend, my dear friend! what is this trust compared to the trust I wish I might lay on you?" What did she mean by that! Had she some schemer's use for me? I could not ask, for her little hands had gradually slipped from my wrists to my fingers and were softly, torturingly fondling them. Suddenly she laughed and threw her hands behind her back. "I'm blundering! Oh, Richard Smith, be kind to a woman's poor wits, and let me say to-morrow that I know one man who can be trusted—who I know can be trusted—to make a woman's folly her protection. Do you know, dear, that any woman who can say that, is richer than any who cannot? And I am but a woman, sometimes a bit silly. Trouble is I'm a live one and a whole one!—or else I'm a live one and not quite a whole one—I wonder which it is!"
I mumbled something about never wishing to tempt any one.
"Oh, you haven't tempted me," she replied, with kind amusement. "You couldn't if you should try. You're a true soldier, with a true soldier's ideals; and I'm pledged to help you keep them."