GROSSET & DUNLAP: Publishers
Copyright, 1914 By the ESTATE OF EDWARD H. PEPLE
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS BOOK MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.
Printed in the United States of America
The play, from which this book is written, was in no sense of the word intended as a war drama; for war is merely its background, and always in the center stands a lonely little child.
War is its theme but not its purpose. War breeds hatred, horror, pestilence and famine, yet from its tears and ashes eventually must rise the clean white spirit of HUMANITY.
The enmity between North and South is dead; it sleeps with the fathers and the sons, the brothers and the lovers, who died in a cause which each believed was just.
Therefore this story deals, not with the right or wrong of a lost confederacy, but with the mercy and generosity, the chivalry and humanity which lived in the hearts of the Blue and Gray, a noble contrast to the grim brutality of war.
* * * * *
The author is indebted to Mr. E.S. Moffat, who has novelized the play directly from its text, with the exception of that portion which appeared as a short story under the same title several years ago, treating of Virgie in the overseer's cabin, and the endorsing of her pass by Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison.
THE LITTLEST REBEL
Young Mrs. Herbert Cary picked up her work basket and slowly crossed the grass to a shady bench underneath the trees. She must go on with her task of planning a dress for Virgie. But the prospect of making her daughter something wearable out of the odds and ends of nothing was not a happy one. In fact, she was still poking through her basket and frowning thoughtfully when a childish voice came to her ears.
"Yes, Virgie! Here I am. Out under the trees."
Immediately came a sound of tumultuous feet and Miss Virginia Houston Cary burst upon the scene. She was a tot of seven with sun touched hair and great dark eyes whose witchery made her a piquant little fairy. In spite of her mother's despair over her clothes Virgie was dressed, or at least had been dressed at breakfast time, in a clean white frock, low shoes and white stockings, although all now showed signs of strenuous usage. Clutched to her breast as she ran up to her mother's side was "Susan Jemima," her one beloved possession and her doll. Behind Virgie came Sally Ann, her playmate, a slim, barefooted mulatto girl whose faded, gingham dress hung partly in tatters, halfway between her knees and ankles. In one of Sally Ann's hands, carried like a sword, was a pointed stick; in the other, a long piece of blue wood-moss from which dangled a bit of string.
"Oh, Mother," cried the small daughter of the Carys, as she came up flushed and excited, "what do you reckon Sally Ann and me have been playing out in the woods!"
"What, dear!" and Mrs. Cary's gentle hand went up to lift the hair back from her daughter's dampened forehead.
"Blue Beard!" cried Virgie, with rounded eyes.
"Blue Beard!" echoed her mother in astonishment at this childish freak of amusement.
"Not really—on this hot day."
"Um, hum," nodded Virgie emphatically. "You know he—he—he was the terriblest old man that—that ever was. An' he had so many wifses that—"
"Say 'wives,' my darling. Wives."
Sally Ann laughed and Virgie frowned.
"Well, I thought it was that, but Sally Ann's older'n me and she said 'wifses.'"
"Huh," grunted Sally Ann. "Don' make no differ'nce what you call 'em, des so he had 'em. Gor'n tell her."
"Well, you know, Mother, Blue Beard had such a bad habit of killin' his wives that—that some of the ladies got so they—they almost didn't like to marry him!"
"Gracious, what a state of affairs," cried Mrs. Cary, in well feigned amazement at the timidity of the various Mrs. Blue Beards. "And then—"
"Well, the last time he got married to—to another one—her name was Mrs. Fatima. An'—an' I've been playin' her."
"And who played Blue Beard?"
"Sally Ann—an' she's just fine. Come here, Sally Ann, an' let's show her. Kneel down."
Clutching the piece of moss from Sally Ann, Virgie ran behind the girl and put her chubby arms around her neck. "This is his blue beard, Mother. Hold still, Sally Ann—My lord, I mean—till I get it tied in the right place."
"Be keerful, Miss Virgie," advised the colored girl. "You's a-ticklin' my nose. I'se gwine to sneeze ef yo' don't, and jes blow my beard all away."
"Oh, don't be such a baby," remonstrated the earnest Miss Virginia, with a correcting slap. "S'pose you were a man an' had to wear one all the time. Now! Stand up! Look, Mother!"
"I'm afraid of him already. He's so ferocious."
"Isn't he? Oh, won't you play with us, Mother? I'll—I'll let you be Mrs. Fatima." And then, as her mother's face showed signs of doubt as to her histrionic ability, "If you were my little girl, I'd do it in a minute."
"All right, dear, of course I will; but I've just remembered a bit of lace in your grandmother's trunk in the attic. I believe it will be exactly enough for the neck and sleeves of your new dress." She smiled courageously as she folded a piece of old silk she was remaking. "You and—" she cast a glance at Sally Ann—"your respected brother-in-law can wait a few moments, can't you? You might rehearse a little more. With all this important audience of solemn oaks you wouldn't want to make the slightest slip in your parts."
"That's so," agreed Virgie, raising her hands and clasping her tiny fingers thoughtfully. "And I'll tell you what—we'll mark off the castle walls around the bench where the window's going to be. We ought to have a stage. Come on Sal—I mean Blue Beard, pick up some sticks quick."
Mrs. Cary started, but turned back an instant: "By the way, have either of you seen Uncle Billy. I' must find him, too, and plan something for our lunch."
"I seen 'im early dis mawnin'," piped Blue Beard, "makin' for de woods. I reckon he be back pres'n'y."
"Very well," answered Virgie's mother, a shadow creeping into her face as she went on toward the house. Could Uncle Billy possibly be leaving! The most trusted negro of all! No—never! She would almost as soon doubt the cause itself!
Three long years ago war had seemed a thrilling, daring necessity. Caught in the dreadful net of circumstance she had vowed proudly in her own heart never to be less brave than the bravest. In her ears still rang the echo of that first ...
* * * * *
From far away a faint fanfare of trumpets, borne on brazen wings from the distant clamor of the city's streets.
"What's that—a bugle?"
"And that—a drum?"
Tramp—tramp—tramp—the rolling thunder of ten thousand feet.
War has been declared!
From North to South, the marching lines fill the land—a sea of men whose flashing bayonets glisten and glitter in the morning light. With steady step and even rank, with thrill of brass lunged band and screaming fife the regiments sweep by—in front, the officers on their dancing steeds—behind them, line after line of youthful faces, chins in, chests out, the light of victory already shining in their eyes.
In just this way the Nation's sons went forth to fight in those first brave days of '61. Just so they marched out, defiant, from South and North alike, each side eager for the cause he thought was right, with bright pennons snapping in the breeze and bugles blowing gayly and never a thought in any man's mind but that his side would win and his own life be spared.
And every woman, too, waving cheerful farewell to valiant lines of marching gray or sturdy ranks of blue, had hoped the same for her side.
But in war there is always a reckoning to pay. Always one contender driven to the wall, his cities turned to ashes, his lands laid waste. Always one depleted side which takes one last desperate stand in the sight of blackened homes and outraged fields and fights on through ever darkening days until the inevitable end is come.
And the end of the Confederacy was now almost in sight. Three years of fighting and the Seceding States had been cut in twain, their armies widely separated by the Union hosts. Advancing and retreating but always fighting, month after month, year after year the men in gray had come at last to the bitterest period of it all—when the weakened South was slowly breaking under the weight of her brother foes—when the two greatest of the armies battled on Virginia soil—battled and passed to their final muster roll.
Of little need to tell of the privations which the pivotal state of the Confederacy went through. If it were true that Virginia had been simply one vast arsenal where every inhabitant had unfailingly done his part in making war, it was also true that she had furnished many of its greatest battlefields—and at what a frightful cost.
Everywhere were the cruel signs of destruction and want—in scanty larder, patched, refurbished clothing, servantless homes—in dismantled outhouses, broken fences and neglected, brier-choked fields. Even the staples of life were fast diminishing for every man who could shoulder a gun had gone to fight with Lee, and few animals were left and fewer slaves.
* * * * *
Yet, for all the dismal outlook, Winter had passed without actual disaster to the Confederate arms and now that Spring had come the plantation home of the Herbert Carys, twenty miles below Richmond, had never had a fairer setting. White-pillared and stately the old Colonial mansion stood on one of the low, emerald hills which roll back lazily from the peaceful James. It was true that the flower beds had been trampled down to ruin by alien horse and heel, but the scent of the honeysuckle clinging to those shining pillars only seemed the sweeter for the loss, and whatever else the forager might take, he could not rob them of their gracious vista of hills and shimmering river.
Across the broad driveway and up the steps of the veranda passed Mrs. Cary, fairer than had been the flowers, a true daughter of the oldtime South, gentle and quiet eyed, her light summer dress of the cheapest material, yet deftly fashioned by her own fingers from slightly opened neck, where an old brooch lay against her soft throat, down to the dainty spotless flounces lying above her petticoat of crinoline.
Though her lips and eyes refused to betray it even when there was no one to see, it was with a very heavy heart that she mounted the stairs to the attic, thinking, contriving, clutching desperately at her fading hopes.
For good reason the plantation was very silent on this warm spring morning. Where only a year before dozens of soft eyed Jerseys had ranged through the pastures and wood lots there was now no sound of tinkling bells—one after another the fine, blooded stock had been requisitioned by a sad faced quartermaster of the Army of Northern Virginia. And one by one the fat porkers who had muzzled greedily among the ears from the Cary bins and who ought to have gone into the smoke house had departed, squealing, to furnish bone and sinew with which to repel the invader. Saddest of all, the chicken coops down by the deserted negro quarters were quite as empty as the once teeming cabins themselves. Poverty, grim and relentless, had caught the Carys in its iron hand and behind Poverty stood its far more frightening shadow—Starvation.
But in these gloomy thoughts she was not entirely alone. All that troubled her and more, though perhaps in a different way, passed hourly through the old gray kinky head of Uncle Billy who happened at this very moment to be emerging stealthily from the woods below the house. Slowly and deliberately he made his way toward the front till he reached a bench where he sat down under a tree to ruminate over the situation and inspect the feathered prize which he had lately acquired by certain, devious means known only to Uncle Billy. Wiping his forehead with his ragged sleeve and holding the bird up by its tied feet he regarded it with the eye of an expert, and the fatigue of one who has been sorely put to it in order to accomplish his purpose.
"It 'pears to me," said Uncle Billy, "dat des' when you needs 'em the mostest the chickens goes to roosting higher 'n' higher. Rooster—I wonder who you b'longs to. Um-um!" he murmured as he thoughtfully sounded the rooster's well developed chest through the feathers. "From de feelin' of you, my son, I 'spec' you was raise' by one er de ol'es' fam'lies what is!"
But Uncle Billy knew the fortunes of the Cary family far too well to mourn over the probable toughness of his booty, and as he rose up from the seat and meandered toward the kitchen, his old, wrinkled face broke into a broad smile of satisfaction over the surprise he had in store. "Well—after I done parbile you, I reckon Miss Hallie be mighty glad to see you. Yas, seh!"
But as Uncle Billy walked slowly along beside the hedge which shielded the house on one side he heard a sound which made him halt. A young negro, coming from the rear, had dodged behind the hedge and was trying to keep out of his sight.
"Hi, dar! You, Jeems Henry!" shouted Uncle Billy, instantly suspicious of such maneuvers. "Come heh! Hear me! Come heh!"
At this sudden command a young mulatto, hesitating, came through a break in the hedge and stood looking at him, sullen and silent. In his hands he carried a small bundle done up in a colored handkerchief and on this guilty piece of baggage Uncle Billy's eye immediately fastened with an angry frown.
"Whar you gwine?" demanded Uncle Billy, with an accusing finger trembling at the bundle.
The younger man made no reply.
"Hear me?" the elder demanded again in rising tones of severity. "Ain't you got no tongue in yo' haid? Whar you gwine?"
Shifting from one foot to the other the younger man finally broke away from Uncle Billy's eye and tried to pass him by.
"Den I'll tell you whar you gwine," shouted Uncle Billy, furious at last. "You's runnin' 'way to de Yankees, dat's whar you gwine."
At this too truthful thrust Jeems Henry saw that further deceit would be futile and he faced Uncle Billy with sullen resentment.
"An' s'posin' I is—wat den?"
"Den you's a thief," retorted Uncle Billy with dismayingly quick wit. "Dat's what you is—a thief."
"I ain' no thief," Jeems Henry refuted stubbornly, "I ain' stole nothin'."
"You is too," and Uncle Billy's forefinger began to shake in the other's face. "You's stealin' a nigger!"
"What dat?" and Jeems Henry's eyes opened wide with amazement. "What you talkin' 'bout?"
"Talkin' 'bout you," replied Uncle Billy, sharper than ever. "Dey say a nigger's wuth a thousan' dollars. 'Cose you ain't wuth dat much," he said with utter disgust. "I put you down at a dollar and a quarter. But dat ain't de p'int," and he steadily advanced on the other till their faces were only a few inches apart. "It's dis. You, Jeems Henry, belongs to Mars' Herbert Cary an' Miss Hallie; an' when you runs 'way you's stealin'. You's stealin yo'sef!"
"H'm!" sniffed Jeems Henry, now that the nature and extent of his crime were fully understood. "Ef I ain' wuth but a dollar an' a quarter, I suttenly ain' stealin' much!"
At this smart reply Uncle Billy's disgust overcame him completely and he tossed the rooster on the ground and clutched Jeems Henry by the arm.
"You mighty right, you ain't!" he shouted. "An' ef I was fo' years younger I'd take it outer yo' hide with a carriage whip. Hol' on dar," as Jeems Henry eluded his grasp and began to move away. "Which way you gwine? You hear me? Now den!"
"I gwine up de river," replied Jeems Henry, badgered at last into revealing his plan. Then, after a cautious look around,—"to Chickahominy Swamp," he added in lower tones.
Uncle Billy cocked his ears. Here was news indeed.
"Chickahominy, huh! So de Yankees is up dar, is dey? An' what you think you gwine to do when you git to 'em?"
"Wuck 'roun de camp," replied Jeems Henry with some vagueness.
"Doin' what?" was the relentless query.
"Blackin' de gent'men's boots—an'—an' gittin' paid fer it," Jeems Henry stammered in reply. "It's better'n being a slave, Unc' Billy," he added as he saw the sneer of contempt on the faithful old man's face. "An' ef you wan' sech a crazy ol' fool, you'd come along wid me, too."
At this combination of temptation and insult Uncle Billy's eyes narrowed with contempt and loathing. "Me?" he said, and a rigid arm pointed back at the house which had been for years his source of shelter and comfort. "Me leave Miss Hallie now? Right when she ain't got nothin'? Look heah, nigger; dog-gone yo' skin, I got a great min' for to mash yo' mouf. Yas, I is a slave. I b'longs to Mars Cary—an' I b'longed to his pa befo' him. Dey feed me and gimme de bes' dey got. Dey take care of me when I'm sick—an' dey take care of me when I'm well—an' I gwine to stay right here. But you? You jes' go on wid de Yankees, an' black der boots. Dey'll free you," and Uncle Billy's voice rose in prophetic tones—"an you'll keep on blackin' boots! Go 'long now, you low-down, dollar-an'-a-quarter nigger!" as Jeems Henry backed away. "Go long wid yo' Yankee marsters—and git yo' freedom an' a blackin' brush."
So engrossed were both the actors in this drama that they failed to hear the sound of footsteps on the veranda, and it was so that the mistress of the manor found the would-be runaway and the old slave, glaring into each other's eyes and insulting one another volubly.
Mrs. Cary, with her workbasket on her arm, paused at the top of the steps and regarded the angry pair with well-bred surprise.
"Why, Uncle Billy," she queried, "what is going on here? What is the matter?"
"It's Jeems Henry; dat's what's de matter," said Uncle Billy, in defense of his agitation. "He's runnin' 'way to de Yankees."
Mrs. Cary stopped short for a moment and then came slowly down the steps.
"Oh, James," she said, unbelievingly. "Is this really true?"
Jeems Henry hung his head and dug at the gravel with his toe.
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Cary, and the word held a world of painful thought—of self-accusation, of hopeless regret, of sorrow for one who could be so foolishly misguided. "I'm sorry not only for ourselves but for you. You know, I promised Mammy before she died that I would look after you—always."
Still Jeems Henry made no answer and old Uncle Billy saw fit to make a disclosure.
"He's gwine up to Chickahominy." Then to Jeems Henry he added something in low tones which made the young negro's eyes roll wildly with fear. "Dey tells me dat der's hants and ghoses over dar. I hopes dey'll git you."
"Stop that!" commanded Mrs. Cary. "You know very well, Uncle Billy, there are no such things as ghosts."
"Nor'm I don't, Miss Hallie," responded Uncle Billy, sticking tenaciously to his point, because he could plainly see Jeems Henry wavering. "'Twas jes las' night I hear one—moanin' 'roun' de smoke house. An' ef I ain't mighty fur wrong, she was smellin' arfter Jeems Henry."
At this wild fabrication, the reason for which she nevertheless appreciated, Mrs. Cary had hard work to hold back a smile, although she promptly reassured the terrified Jeems Henry.
"There now—there—that will do. Nothing of that kind will trouble you, James; you may take my word for it. If you are quite determined to go I shall not try to keep you. But what have you in that bundle?"
"Hi! Hi! Dat's de way to talk!" interrupted Uncle Billy, excitedly foreseeing means to prevent Jeems Henry's departure. "What you got in yo' bundle?"
Jeems Henry lifted his anguished eyes and gazed truthfully at his mistress.
"I ain't got nothin'—what don't b'long to me, Miss Hallie."
"I don't mean that," Mrs. Cary responded kindly. "But you have a long tramp before you. Have you anything to eat?"
"Nor'm, I ain't," and Jeems Henry seemed disturbed.
"Then you'd better come around to the kitchen. We'll see what we can find."
At this unheard-of generosity, Uncle Billy's eyes opened widely and he exploded in remonstrance.
"Now, hol' on dar, Miss Hallie! Hol' on. You ain' got none too much fo' yo'se'f, d'out stuffin' dis yere six-bit rat hole wid waffles an' milasses."
"William!" commanded his mistress.
"Yas'm," was the meek response, and Uncle Billy subsided into silence.
With a sigh, Mrs. Cary turned away toward the house. "Well, James, are you coming?"
But Jeems Henry, completely abashed before this miracle of kindness which he did not deserve, decided that it was time for him to be a man.
"Thank you, Miss Hallie," he gulped, "but f'um now on I reckon I gwine take keer of myse'f."
Mrs. Cary, pausing on the bottom step, raised her eyes heavenward in a short prayer that children such as these might somehow be protected from themselves.
"Well, James," she said, when she saw there was nothing more to be done. "I hope you'll be happy and contented. If you are not—come back to us. Perhaps, when the war is over, you'll find things a little more—comfortable. Good-by, James," and she held out her hand.
But this last touch of gentleness was too much for the young mulatto. Although he made an obedient step forward, his feelings overcame him and with an audible snuffle and his hand over his eyes he retreated—then turned his back and plunged through the hedge.
Mrs. Cary sank down on the step and looked as if she, too, would like to cry.
Manfully, Uncle Billy came to her rescue. "Now don't you care, Miss Hallie. He wan' no 'count for plowin' no how."
"Oh, it isn't that, Uncle Billy," Mrs. Cary replied with a low cry of regret. "It isn't the actual loss of help, tho' we need it, goodness knows. But it makes me sad to see them leaving, one by one. They are such children and so helpless—without a master hand."
"Yas'm," agreed Uncle Billy readily. "An' de marster's han' ought to have a hick'ry stick in it fer dat nigger. Yas, bless Gawd. But you got me, Miss Hallie," he announced proudly. "I ain't runned away to de blue-bellies yet."
"No, you dear old thing," Mrs. Cary cried with laughing relief, and her hand rested on his shoulder in a gentle caress. "I'd as soon think of the skies falling. It is just such faithful friends as you who help me to fight the best."
"Um?" said Uncle Billy promptly, not quite understanding.
"I mean a woman's battles, Uncle Billy—the waiting battles—that we fight alone." Mrs. Gary rose to her feet and turned sadly away.
"Yas'm," agreed Uncle Billy. "I dunno what yo' talkin' 'bout but I spec' you's right. Yas'm."
"Dear Uncle Billy," repeated Mrs. Gary, while her eyes filled with tears. "The most truthful—the most honest—"
Mrs. Cary stopped and looked sharply at something lying on the ground beside the steps. Then she turned and swept the old man with an accusing glance which made him quail.
"William!" she said, in awful tones.
"Yas'm," replied Uncle Billy, feverishly.
Uncle Billy immediately became the very picture of innocence and ignorance. He looked everywhere but at the helpless rooster.
"What's what?" he asked. "Aw, dat? Why—why, dat ain' nothin' 'tall, Miss Hallie. Dat's—dat's des a rooster. Yas'm."
Mrs. Cary came down from the steps and looked carefully at the unfamiliar bird. No fear that she would not recognize it if it were hers. "Whose is he?" she asked.
"You—you mean who he b'longs to?" queried Uncle Billy, fencing for time in which to prepare a quasi-truthful reply. "He—he don' b'long to nobody. He's his own rooster."
"William!" commanded Mrs. Cary, severely. "Look at me. Where did you get him?"
Here was a situation which Uncle Billy knew must be handled promptly, and he picked up the rooster and made an attempt to escape. "Down on de low grouns—dis mornin'. Dat's right," he said, as he saw dawning unbelief in his mistress' face. "Now you have to skuse me, Miss Hallie. I got my wuck to do."
"One moment, William," interposed Mrs. Cary, completely unconvinced. "You are sure he was on the low grounds?"
"Cose I is!" asseverated Uncle Billy, meanwhile backing farther away.
"What was he doing there?"
Uncle Billy stammered.
"He—he—he, he was trespassin', dat's what he was doin'—des natcherly trespassin'."
At this marvel of testimony, Mrs. Cary's lips relaxed in a smile and she warned him with an upraised finger.
"Be careful, Uncle Billy! Be careful."
"Yas, mar'm" chuckled the old man. "I had to be. I never would a-got him! Oh, I's tellin' de trufe, Miss Hallie. Dis' here ol' sinner tooken flewed off a boat what was comin' up de river. Yas'm. And he sure was old enough to know better."
"And you saw him fly off the boat?"
"Oh, yas'm. I seed him. I seed him," and Uncle Billy floundered for a moment, caught in his own trap. "Dat is, not wid my own eyes. But I see him settin' in de woods, lookin' dat lonesome and losted like, I felt real sorry for him. Yas'm," and to prove his deep sympathy for the unfortunate bird he stroked its breast lovingly.
Mrs. Cary turned away to hide her laughter. "How did you catch him?"
"How?" repeated Uncle Billy, while his ancient mind worked with unusual rapidity. "I got down on all fo's in the thick weeds, an' cluk like a hen. An' den ol' Mr. Rooster, he came 'long over to see ef I done laid an aig—an' I des reach right out an' take him home to de Lawd."
"Oh, Uncle Billy," his mistress laughed. "I'm afraid you're incorrigible. It's a dreadful thing to doubt one's very dinner. Isn't it?"
"Yas'm. An' I was des 'bout to say ef you an' Miss Virgie kin worry down de white meat, maybe den dis here bird 'll kinder git eben wid me when I tackle his drum sticks. Yas'm," and with a final chuckle of joy over his success the old man hobbled quickly away in the direction of the kitchen.
Mrs. Cary, still smiling, went back to play Mrs. Fatima to a dusky moss-covered Blue Beard.
"Oh goody, goody, here is Mrs. Fatima again!" and Virgie's dancing feet seemed hardly to touch the ground. "We've just finished building the castle. Look!" She pointed proudly to a square of twigs and leaves around the garden seat. "Come on, Sally Ann. We can play it now and use Mamma's keys."
"Wait dar! Whar'd I put my s'wode?" And Sally Ann snatched up her dangerous weapon and thrust it into a rope around her waist. "Now I'se ready fo' killin' folks."
"But we have to begin where Blue Beard goes away on a journey," Virgie cried. "Susan Jemima, you sit there on the bench and clap your hands. Get up, Mamma. Go ahead, Sally Ann!"
"'Ooman," said Sally Ann, strutting up to her mistress and frowning terribly. "I'se gwine away fer a night an' a day. Dese yere is de keys to de castle."
"Yes, sir," was the meek response.
Sally Ann Blue Beard pointed to an imaginary door halfway between them and where Virgie sat on the steps, wriggling with delight. "You kin look in ev'ry room in de house—castle, I means—'cept in des dat one. Orn'estan me? Des dat one! But ef yo' looks in dar,—Gawd he'p you. I gwine cut yo' haid off," and the fearful sword whizzed threateningly through the air. "Fyarwell—fyarwell."
"Farewell, my lord," said Mrs. Cary, and then in a whisper, as Blue Beard stalked away to hide behind a tree. "What do we do now? Quick!"
"Now I come in," cried Virgie. "I'm 'Sister Anne' that looks for the horseman in the cloud of dust." And jumping up, the child managed to change the tones of her voice in a surprising manner.
"Good morning, fair sister. Blue Beard has gone away, and now we can look in his secret room."
"No, Sister Anne, No! I dare not," and Mrs. Fatima shrank back full of fear from the imaginary door. "Urge me no more. I am afraid."
"But, Mother," cried Virgie, with a little squeal of disappointment. "You have to. It's part of the play," and she led her up to the invisible door.
"Now look in—and when you look—drop the keys—an' we'll both scream."
Slowly the door seemed to open and, after an instant's terrified silence, both actresses screamed with complete success. Whereupon Mrs. Fatima dropped to her knees and Sister Anne hugged her tight.
"It's blood. It's the blood of his seven wives. O-o-o-e-e-e!"
A great roar sounded in their ears.
"Mercy! What's that?" cried the terrified Mrs. Fatima.
"It's Blue Beard. He's coming back," whereupon Virgie immediately left Mrs. Fatima to face her fate alone.
Having spent a night and a day behind the tree, Blue Beard now rushed upon the castle and roared for his wife.
"Greeting, my lord," said the trembling Mrs. Fatima with a low curtsey "I hope you have enjoyed your journey."
"'Ooman," demanded Blue Beard severely. "What make you look so pale?"
"I know not, sweet sir. Am I, then, so pale?"
"You is! What you be'n up to sence I be'n away? Ha! What I tole you? Look at de blood on dat key! False 'ooman, you done deceib' me. Down on yo' marrow bones an' prepyar to die!"
"Spare me, my lord. Spare me! I am so—"
It was just about this time that old Uncle Billy, with a bridle in one hand and a carriage whip in the other came slowly upon the scene. At the sight of Sally Ann apparently about to assault his mistress the bridle dropped from his hand and with a tight clutch on the carriage whip he covered the intervening space at an amazing speed.
"Hi, dar! You li'l woolly haided imp! You tech Miss Hallie wid dat ar stick an' I bus' you wide open!"
"Oh, stop, Uncle Billy!" cried Virgie in dismay. "We're only having a play!"
"Maybe you is; but I lay ef I wrop my carriage whip roun' her laig, des oncet, she'll hop all de way to de river."
At this dismal prospect, which seemed much truer than the play, Sally Ann began to whimper loudly. "Miss Hallie, ef he stay here, I ain't gwine to play."
"Whar you git dem whiskers at?" demanded Uncle Billy.
"Shut up!" cried Virgie.
"I'm shuttin'," said Uncle Billy, retreating.
Thus reassured Sally Ann continued:
"I gwine down stairs to git my dinner When I come back, I sho' gwine kill you. Fyar you well," and Blue Beard, making a wide circle around the carriage whip, took himself off the scene.
"Now, Mother," Virgie announced, "I have to watch at the castle window," and she jumped up on the bench.
"Sister Anne; Sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?"
"No one, Fatima—nothing but a cloud of dust made by the wind."
"Look again, Sister Anne. Do you see anybody coming?"
"Oh, Fatima, Fatima. It's growing bigger."
"Dar now," interposed Uncle Billy. "She's seem' som'pin."
"Sister Anne! Sister Anne. And what do; you see?"
"Dust! Dust! I see a horseman in a cloud of dust. Look! Look! He's coming this way." By this time Virgie's acting had taken on so close a resemblance to the real thing that both Mrs. Gary and Uncle Billy rose to their feet in wonder.
"He's jumped the fence," cried Virgie. "He's cutting across our fields! He sees me! He's waving his hat to me!" With the last words the child suddenly jumped down from the bench and ran through the opening in the hedge, leaving her mother gazing after her in sudden consternation.
"Name we Gawd! Miss Hallie," gasped Uncle Billy. "You reckon she done brought somebody, sho' 'nuff? Hi! Hi! I hear sum'-pin. It's a horse. Lan' er Glory! Hits, him!"
Round the corner of the hedge at a swift trot came a man in the uniform of an officer in the Confederate Army,—and Virgie was in his arms.
Mrs. Cary gave him one look and threw out her arms.
The man on horseback let Virgie slide down and then dismounted like a flash, coming to her across the little space of lawn with his whole soul in his eyes. With his dear wife caught in his arms he could do nothing but kiss her and hold her as if he would never again let her go.
"Hallie," he breathed, "but it's good to see you again. It's good." And so they stood for a long moment, husband and wife united after months of separation, after dangers and terrors and privations which had seemed as if they never would end.
Sally Ann was one of the first to interrupt, edging up at the earliest opportunity with her beard in her hand. "How you does, Mars' Cary? How you fine yo'sef, seh?"
"Why, hullo, Sally Ann!" said Cary, and put out his hand. "What on earth is this thing?"
Virgie ran to his side and caught his hand in hers. "We were playing 'Blue Beard,' Daddy,—an' you came just like the brother."
"So you've been Blue Beard, have you, Sally Ann?—then I must have the pleasure of cutting you into ribbons." Herbert Cary's shining saber flashed half out of its scabbard and then, laughing, he slapped it back with a clank.
"Sally Ann," he announced, "I'm going to turn you into Sister Anne for a while. You run up to Miss Hallie's room and sit by the window where you can watch the road and woods. If you see anything—soldiers, I mean—"
"Oh, Herbert!" cried his wife in anguish.
"S-s-sh!" he whispered. "Go along, Sally Ann. If you see anyone at all report to me at once. Understand? Off with you!"
Uncle Billy now came forward in an effort to make his master's clothes more presentable.
"Heh, Mars' Cary, lemme brush you off, seh. You's fyar kivered."
"Look out, you old rascal," Cary laughed, as his wife backed away coughing before the cloud of fine white dust that rose under Uncle Billy's vigorous hands. "You're choking your mistress to death. Never mind the dust. I'll get it back in ten minutes."
Mrs. Cary clasped her hands together at her breast with a look of entreaty.
"Herbert! Must you go so soon?"
Her husband looked back at her with eyes dark with regret.
"Yes," he said briefly. "I'm on my way to Richmond. How many horses are there in the stable?"
"Two—only two," was the broken response, as his wife sank down disconsolate on a bench. "Belle and Lightfoot—we sold the others—I had to do it."
"Yes, I know, little woman. It couldn't be helped. Here, Billy! Take my horse and get Belle out of the stable. Lead them down to the swamp and hide them in the cedars. Then saddle Lightfoot—bring him here and give him some water and a measure of corn. Look sharp, Billy! Lively!"
In the face of danger to his master Uncle Billy's response was instant. "Yes, seh. Right away, seh," and he took Cary's lathered animal and made off for the stables at top speed.
Mrs. Cary looked up at her husband with a great fear written on her face.
"Why, Herbert dear. You—you don't mean to say that the Yankees are in the neighborhood?"
Immediately Cary was on the bench beside her with his arm around her, while Virgie climbed up on the other side.
"Now, come," he murmured, "be a brave little woman and don't be alarmed. It may be nothing after all. Only—there are several foraging parties—small ones, a few miles down the river. I've been dodging them all morning. If they come at all they won't trouble either you or Virgie."
"But I'm not afraid of them, Daddy-man," cried the small daughter, and she doubled up her fist ferociously. "Look at that."
"Aha! There's a brave little Rebel," her father cried as he swept her up in a hearty hug. "You're not afraid of them,—nor you either, God bless you," and his lips rested for a moment on his wife's soft cheek. "Only, you are apt to be a little too haughty. If they search the house for arms or stragglers, make no resistance. It's best."
"Yes, yes, I know," his wife cried out, "but you, dear, you! Why are you here? Why aren't you with your company?"
Cary looked away for a moment across the fields and down the slope towards the shimmering river. They were very beautiful—he wondered why he had not fully realized all that wife and child and home meant to him when he volunteered recently for a certain hazardous duty. He knew, too, how quickly his dear wife would know the full extent of the peril with which he felt himself surrounded. And so his reply was short and seemingly gruff, as many another man's has been under too heavy circumstances.
"Scouting duty. I've been on it for the past two months."
Mrs. Cary's hand went to her heart.
"A scout, Herbert! But, darling, why? It's so dangerous—so horrible—so—"
He put up his hand, with a forced smile, to check her, and broke in gayly.
"Ah, but think of the fun in it. It's like playing hide-and-go-seek with Virgie."
But his wife was not to be put off so lightly and she put her impelling hands on his arm.
Gary changed his tone. His voice deepened.
"They need me, dear," he said earnestly. "What does danger to one man mean when Dixie calls us all? And I'm doing work—good work. I've already given one battle to General Lee and now I have information that will give him another and a bigger one. Two nights ago I came through the Union lines. I ..."
Mrs. Cary rose unsteadily to her feet.
"Through the Yankee lines! Oh, Herbert. Not as a spy!"
"A spy? Of course not. I hid in the woods all day, then climbed a tall pine tree and got the lay of their camp—the number of their guns—the disposition of forces and their lines of attack. Yesterday I had the wires at Drury's Bluff and started trouble. I'm on my way now to join my command, but I had a good excuse for coming home to hold you in in my arms again, if only for a moment. You see, poor old Roger got a wound in his flank—from a stray bullet."
"A stray bullet," asked Mrs. Gary, doubtfully.
"Yes," he smiled, for he had escaped it, "a stray bullet meant for me."
"But, Daddy," Virgie interrupted, "while you were up in the tree—"
A wild whoop broke off Virgie's question. Sally Ann was rushing down the steps, her eyes rolling up with excitement.
"Mars' Cary! Mars' Cary! Somebody comin' long de road!"
"Who? How many?" Cary demanded, springing up and running towards the gate that opened on the wagon road over the hills.
"Des' one," responded Sally Ann with naive truthfulness. "Ol' Dr. Simmons. He drivin' by de gate in de buggy."
Mrs. Cary threw up her hands with a muffled cry of relief and laughter. "Oh, Sally! Sally!" she exclaimed, "you'll be the death of me."
"But Lor! Miss Hallie," said Sally plaintively, "he tole me fer to tell him."
Cary, returning, waved Sally Ann back to her post. "That's right," he laughed. "You're a good sentry, Sally Ann. Go back and watch again. Scoot!"
"Herbert," and his wife stood before him. "Come into the house and let me give you something to eat."
For answer Cary gently imprisoned her face in his hands. "Honey, I can't," he said, his eyes grown sad again. "Just fix me up something—anything you can find. I'll munch it in the saddle."
For a moment their lips clung and then she stepped back with a broken sigh. "I'll do the best I can, but oh! how I wish it all were over and that we had you home again."
A spasm crossed the man's face. "It soon will be over, sweetheart. It soon will be."
His wife flung him a startled look. "You mean—Oh, Herbert! Isn't there a single hope—even the tiniest ray?"
Cary took her hands in his, looked into her eyes and his answer breathed the still unconquered spirit of the South. "There is always hope—as long as we have a man." Mrs. Cary went into the house, slowly, wearily, and Cary turned to Virgie.
"Well, little lady," her father said, resting his hand on Virgie's shining head. "Have you been taking good care of mother—and seeing that Uncle Billy does his plowing right?"
"Yes, sir," came the prompt response. "Susan Jemima an' me have been lookin' after everything—but we had to eat up General Butler!"
"General Butler," cried her father, astounded.
"Yes, Daddy—our lastest calf. We named him that 'cause one day when I was feedin' him with milk he nearly swallowed my silver spoon."
"Ha-ha," laughed the amused soldier, and swept her up in his arms. "If we could only get rid of all their generals as easy as that we'd promise not to eat again for a week. Everything else all right?"
"No, sir," said Virgie, dolefully. "All the niggers has runned away—all 'cept Uncle Billy and Sally Ann. Jeems Henry runned away this morning."
"The deuce he did! The young scamp!"
"He's gone to join the Yankees," Virgie continued.
"What's that?" and Cary sprang up to pace to and fro. "I wonder which way he went?"
"I don' know," whimpered Virgie forlornly. "I only wish I was a soldier with a big, sharp sword like yours—'cause when the blue boys came I'd stick 'em in the stomach."
Mrs. Cary was coming down the steps now with a small package of food and in the roadway Uncle Billy stood feeding and watering his master's horse. In this bitterest of moments, when his own family had to be the ones to hurry him along his way, there had come another and greater danger—peril to those he loved.
"Tell me, dear," he said with his hand warm on his wife's soft shoulder. "Is it true that Jeems Henry ran away this morning?"
"Yes," she nodded. "I knew the poor boy meant to leave us sooner or later, so I made no effort to detain him."
"You did right," was the answer. "But which way did he go?"
"Up the river. To a Union camp on the Chickahominy."
"Chickahominy!" exclaimed Cary sharply, and bit his lips. "So that's the lay of the land, eh! I'm mighty glad you told me this. But still—" Cary's voice faded away under the weight of a sudden despair. What was the use of fighting forever against such fearful odds? What could they ever gain—save a little more honor—and at what dreadful cost?
"What makes you look so worried, Herbert?" his wife murmured, her nerves on edge again.
"Yes, it's true," the man said with a groan. "They're gradually closing in on us—surrounding Richmond."
"Surrounding us?" Mrs. Cary whispered, hardly believing her ears.
"Yes, it's true—all too true," the man burst out bitterly. "We can fight against thousands—and against tens of thousands but, darling, we can't fight half the world."
He sank down on the bench, one elbow on his crossed knee, the other arm hanging listlessly by his side. His face grew lined and haggard. All the spirit, the indomitable courage of a moment ago had fled before the revelation that, try as they might, they could never conquer in this terribly unequal fight. Then he threw out his hand and began to speak, half to her and half to the unseen armies of his fellows.
"Our armies are exhausted. Dwindling day by day. We are drawing from the cradle and the grave. Old men—who can scarcely bear the weight of a musket on their shoulders: and boys—mere children—who are sacrificed under the blood-stained wheels. The best! The flower of our land! We are dumping them all into a big, red hopper. Feed! Feed! Always more feed for this greedy machine of war!"
Silently wife and daughter came to the man in his despair, as if to ward off some dark shape which hovered over him with brushing wings. Their arms went around him together.
"There, there, dear," he heard a soft voice whisper, "don't grow despondent. Think! Even though you've fought a losing fight it has been a glorious one—and God will not forget the Stars and Bars! Remember,—you still have us—who love you to the end—and fight your battles—on our knees."
Slowly the man looked up.
"Forgive me, honey," he murmured remorsefully. "You are right—and bravest, after all. It is you—you women, who save us in the darkest hours. You—our wives—our mothers—who wage a silent battle in the lonely, broken homes. You give us love and pity—tenderness and tears—a flag of pride that turns defeat to victory. The women of the South," he cried, and Herbert Cary doffed his hat before his wife, "the crutch on which the staggering hope of Dixie leans!"
There came, then, the sound of hurrying footsteps. Once more Sally Ann rushed from the house but this time genuine danger was written plainly in her face.
"Mars' Cary! Mars' Cary! Dey's comin' dis time—sho' 'nuff!"
"How many?" Cary cried, springing for the roadway and his horse.
"Dey's comin' thu' de woods—an' Lawd Gawd, de yearth is fyar blue wid' 'em."
"Billy!" commanded Cary. "Take Lightfoot as fast as you can down to the edge of the woods. Don't worry, Hallie, they'll never catch me once I'm in the saddle."
He stooped and kissed her, then caught up Virgie for a last hug, burying his worn face in her curls. "Good-by, little one. Take good care of Mother. Good-by!"
With one last grasp his wife caught his hand. "Herbert! which way do you go?"
"Across the river—to the Chesterfield side."
"But the Yankees came that way, too!"
"I'll circle around them. If they've left a guard at the crossing I'll swim the river higher up." He slapped his holster with his open hand. "Listen for three shots. If they come in quick succession—then I've crossed—I'm safe. If I only had a few men I'd stay, but alone, I can't—you know I can't. Good-by! God bless you." And in another moment he was in the saddle—had waved his hand—was gone.
Straining their eyes after him, as if they would somehow pierce the dark woods which hid his flight, mother and daughter stood as if turned to stone. Only Virgie, after a moment, waved her hand and sent her soft, childish prayer winging after him to save him from all harm. "Good-by, Daddy-man, good-by!"
Sally Ann, however, having seen the approaching danger with her own eyes, began to wring her hands and cry hysterically. "Aw, Miss Hallie, I so skeered! I so skeered!"
"Sally," cried Mrs. Cary, as the sound of hoofbeats thudding through the woods came unmistakably to her ears, "take Virgie with you instantly and run down through the grove to the old ice house. Hide there under the pine tags. Understand?"
But the negro girl, ashen with terror, seemed incapable of flight.
"I skeered to go, Miss Hallie," she whimpered. "I wan' stay here wid you! Ou-ou!"
"But you can't, I tell you," her mistress answered, as the certainty of the girl's helplessness before a questioner flashed through her mind. "You'd tell everything."
"Oh, come on, you big baby," Virgie urged, pulling at Sally Arm's sleeve. "I'll take care of you." Then her eye fell on Susan Jemima lying neglected on the bench and she gave a faint scream at her heartlessness. "Goodness gracious, Mother," she cried, as, still holding on to Sally Ann, she ran and caught up her beloved doll. "I nearly forgot my child!"
With the clank of sabers and the sound of gruff commands already in her ears, Mrs. Cary turned peremptorily to Uncle Billy.
"Remember, William! If the Yankees ask for my husband you haven't seen him!"
"Nor'm, dat's right," was the prompt answer. "I dunno you eben got one. But you go in de house, Miss Hallie. Dat's de bes' way,—yas'm."
"Perhaps it is best," his mistress answered. "The longer we can detain them the better for Captain Cary. You'd better come in yourself."
"Yas'm," replied the faithful old man, although such action was farthest from his thoughts. "In des' a minnit. I'll be dar in des' a minnit."
But once his mistress had closed the door behind her Uncle Billy's plan of operations changed. Hurrying down the steps he plunged his arm under the porch and drew forth—a rusty ax. With his weapon over his shoulder he hastened up on the veranda and stood with his back against the door.
The thudding feet came nearer. A bugle call—a rattling of accouterments and then, from the other side of the hedge, came a half dozen troopers in blue, led by a Sergeant with a red face and bloodshot eyes.
"This way, boys!" the Sergeant shouted, and at the sound of a harsh, never-forgotten voice Uncle Billy's grasp on his ax grew tighter. "I know the place—I've been here before. We'll get the liquor and silver while the Colonel is stealing the horses, eh?" Then his eyes fell on Uncle Billy and he greeted him with a yell of recognition. "Hello, you black old ape! Come down and show us where you buried the silver and the whisky. Oh, you won't? Then I'll come up and get you," and he lurched forward.
"Look here, white man," Uncle Billy shouted, lifting the rusty ax high in the air, "you stay whar you is. Ef you come up dem steps I'll split yo' ugly haid! I know you, Jim Dudley," he cried. "Mars' Cary done give you one horse whippin', an' ef you hang aroun' here you'll get anudder one!"
Furious at the recollection of his shame of a few years back when he had been overseer on this same plantation, the Sergeant rushed up the steps and knocked the ax aside with his gun barrel. "Yes, he did whip me, burn him, and now I'll do the same for you." Seizing Uncle Billy by the throat he pushed him against the house.
Instantly the door swung open. Mrs. Cary, her head held high, her beautiful dark eyes blazing with wrath, stood on the threshold.
"Stop it!" she commanded in tones that brooked no disobedience even from a drunkard. "Let my servant go—instantly!"
Astounded at this sudden apparition the man shrank back for a moment, but almost as quickly regained his bluster.
"Ah-hah, the beautiful Mrs. Cary, eh! I'm glad to see you looking so well—and handsome."
The words might as well have been spoken to the wind for all the notice that the woman paid them. With only a gesture of mingled contempt and loathing she stepped to the railing and called to the grinning troopers below. "Who is in command here?"
To her horror only Dudley answered.
"I am," he said, triumphantly. He thrust a menacing face close to hers and ordered her curtly. "And I'd just as soon have you get me a drink as the nigger. Come on, fine lady."
Intent on insulting this woman whose husband had once cut his back with a whip the man caught her by the arm and roughly tried to pull her to him. But before he could accomplish his purpose retribution fell on him with a heavy hand.
Through a gap in the hedge an officer at the head of a dozen troopers appeared. One look at the scene on the veranda and Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, with a smothered cry, dashed up the steps.
"You beastly coward," and catching the drunkard by the collar he twisted him around and hurled him thudding and bumping down the steps. "Dudley, I ought to have you shot." He swept his arm out and gave voice to a ringing command. "Report to Lieutenant Harris—at once—under arrest! Corporal! Take his gun." He paused a moment as a brother of the man now under arrest stepped forward with a sullen face and obeyed orders. Running his glance over the line of faces, now suddenly vacant of expression, he whipped them mercilessly with his eye. "You men, too, will hear from me. Go to the stable and wait. Another piece of work like this and I'll have your coats cut off with a belt buckle! Clear out!"
Then he turned to the beautiful woman in white who stood only a few feet away, no longer timid but in entire possession of her faculties before what, she knew, might prove a greater danger than a drunkard.
"Madam," said the Union officer as he doffed his hat, "I couldn't apologize for this, no matter how hard I tried; but, believe me, I regret it—deeply."
In answer she slowly raised her heavy lidded eyes and gave him her first thrust—smoothly and deftly.
"No apology is demanded," she murmured in soft tones. "I was merely unfamiliar with the Union's method of attack."
"Attack!" he repeated, astounded, and stepped back.
"What else?" she asked, simply. "My home is over-run; my servant assaulted—by a drunken ruffian."
"The man will be punished," was the stern reply, "to the limit of my authority."
"He should be. We know him," the Southern woman said bitterly. "Before the war he was our overseer. He was cruel to the negroes and my husband gave him a taste of his own discipline—with a riding whip!"
"Ah, I see," Morrison nodded. "But it is not always in an officer's power to control each individual in the service—especially at such a time. Yet I assure you on the part of the Union—and mine—that there was no intention of attack."
Mrs. Cary had chosen this moment in which to draw her visitor off the veranda and when she had successfully brought him to the foot of the steps she looked up in smiling sarcasm with another thrust.
"Oh! Then since your visit would seem a social one—how may I serve you, sir?"
Morrison laughed lightly. This pretty cat could scratch.
"I'm afraid, dear madam, you are wrong again. My detachment is on foraging duty. It is not a pleasant task—but our army is in need of horses and supplies, and by the rules of war, I must take what I can find."
"Even by force?" came the quiet inquiry.
"Yes, even force," he answered, reddening. "With its proper limitations. I rob you, it is true, but by virtue of necessity. In return I can only offer, as I would to every other woman of the South, all courtesy and protection at my command," and Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, for the second time, took off his hat.
The Southern woman swept him a curtsey filled with graceful mockery.
"I thank you. There is consolation—and even flattery—in being plundered by a gentleman." She made a short gesture which took in house, plantation and all the Cary possessions. "I regret sincerely that we have nothing left; yet I beg you—help yourself."
Colonel Morrison bit his lip, half in vexation and half in amusement. "At least you make my undertaking a difficult one, although I must admit, I hardly blame you." And then, with a quick, searching look, "Are there any rebels hidden in your house?"
"No," she answered.
"No wounded officers—or refugees of any kind?"
"You give me your word for this—your oath?"
The Southern woman's head went up and her eyes flashed. "I do," she said contemptuously and moved away.
"Thank you," was the grave reply, and he turned to dismiss his men. Then a thought struck him and he detained her with a gesture.
"Pardon me, but if it was true—if a brother or a father—was concealed in there—wouldn't your answer be the same?"
The answer that came proudly back did not amaze him. "I would try to protect them—yes! Even with a perjury!"
"Ah!" he said sharply. "Then, don't you you see, you tie the hands of courtesy and force me to—to this invasion of your home. Corporal! Make a search of the house for hidden arms or stragglers and report to me. If any rebels are found—bring them out. Wait," he ordered, as the Corporal promptly started forward, "nothing else, whatever, must be taken or molested."
"One moment," commanded Mrs. Cary in her turn and beckoned to Uncle Billy who had been standing by in silence. "William! conduct these soldiers through my house—and show them every courtesy. If the Colonel's orders are not obeyed, report to me."
"Yas'm," grinned Uncle Billy, with an opera bouffe salute. "Ev'ry molestashun I'se gwine report."
Morrison laughed outright. "I'm sorry you still have doubts of my honorable intentions. May—may my soldiers go in now? Thank you."
He walked away a few steps, then turned and looked at her where she sat on the bench demurely sewing. It occurred to him that she was too demure. Besides, he had discovered something.
"Er—it is true that I found your stable empty," he said, while his eyes probed hers, "but, curiously enough, it seems to have been recently occupied."
"Yes?" was the non-committal reply.
"Yes," he echoed, with a touch of iron in his voice. "And you can insure our leaving you more quickly if you will tell me where these horses have been hidden."
Mrs. Cary did not raise her eyes.
"Granted that we had them," she said, "I'm afraid I must trouble you to look for them. Otherwise there would be no sense in trying to protect my property."
"Right again," he acknowledged, but did not swerve from what he had to do. "Orderly," he commanded, "report to Lieutenant Harris at the stables and have him hunt the woods and swamp for hidden horses. Hurry! We must leave in half an hour."
As Morrison spoke his eye fell on the roadway and he started perceptibly. When he turned back to the woman on the bench it was with a sterner light in his eye.
"I also notice that a horse has recently been fed and watered in your carriage road. Whose was he?"
Again that smooth, soft voice with its languid evasions. "We have several neighbors, Colonel. They visit us at infrequent times."
"Undoubtedly," he conceded. "But do you usually feed their horses?"
She smiled faintly. "What little hospitality is ours extends to both man and beast."
"I can well believe it," he replied, for he saw to cross-examine this quick witted woman would be forever useless. "And in happier times I could wish it might extend—to me.
"Oh, I mean no offense," he interrupted as Mrs. Cary rose haughtily. "I only want you to believe that I'm sorry for this intrusion."
She raised her eyebrows faintly and sat down again. "And was that the reason why you asked about my neighbor's horse?"
"No," he said quickly, and as suddenly caught and held her eye. "There's a Rebel scout who has been giving us trouble—a handsome fellow riding a bay horse. I thought, perhaps, he might have passed this way."
If he had thought he would detect anything in her face he was once more mistaken.
"It is more than possible," Mrs. Cary remarked with a touch of weariness. "The road out there is a public one."
"And where does it lead to, may I ask?"
"That depends upon which way you are traveling—and which fork you take."
"Possibly. But suppose you were riding north. Wouldn't the right fork lead to Richmond—and the left swing around toward the river crossing?"
"As to that I must refer you to a more competent authority," she answered with a hint of some disclosure in her tones.
"Mr. Jefferson Davis," she replied and almost laughed outright as he turned away to hide his vexation. This was an easy game for her to play—and every moment she gained added to Herbert's safety. But if only she could hear those three shots from across the river.
"Well, Harris?" said Morrison as his Lieutenant strode up.
"I have to report, sir, that we've gotten what little hay and corn there was in the stables and are waiting for your orders."
"Very well," and Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison's incisive words rang mercilessly in the listening woman's ears. "Pick out the best shots you have among your men and send them at the gallop down this road to the river crossing. String them along the bank, dismount them and have them watch as they've never watched before. You understand? Now hurry!"
If ever a woman hated a man, or rather the crushing force he typified, then Herbert Cary's wife hated this clear headed, efficient Northerner, who was now discovering how he had been delayed and thwarted. Yet she had plenty of spirit left, for as Corporal Dudley and his file of troopers emerged from the house she stood up and caught Uncle Billy's eye.
"Well, Corporal?" asked Morrison.
"Well, William?" asked Mrs. Cary.
"It's all right, Miss Hallie," Uncle Billy grinned. "Dey ain't took nothin'—not a single thing."
"Thank you, William," said Mrs. Cary, having triumphed again. "And thank you, gentlemen." With a bow to Morrison she went superbly back to her seat under the trees. But as she went it took all her strength of will to keep from crying. Down the carriage road a squad of cavalry was galloping furiously towards the river. And still she had not heard the three shots.
"Now, then, Corporal, you found what?"
"Nothing, sir. We hunted from cellar to roof. No arms and no rebels."
"H'm," he mused. "Anything else?"
"Three bedrooms, sir. All in use."
"Three?" Colonel Morrison exclaimed. "Very well. That's all. I'll join you in a moment." Then he turned to Mrs. Cary, his face stern with resolve.
"Madam," he said crisply, "you are not alone on this plantation with only this old negro. We are wasting time. I'm after a Rebel scout and I want him. Which way did he go?"
"I'm sorry, sir," she said, quite ready to play her game again. "But our Rebel scouts usually neglect to mention their precise intentions."
"Perhaps. If this one went at all. Is he still here?"
"I should imagine—not."
"Then he did go this way—to the river crossing?"
Once more he caught and held her eyes and thought he would read the truth in spite of anything she might say.
But while he looked he saw her strained face suddenly relax—saw the anxiety flee from her eyes—saw heart and soul take on new life. From far away across the river had come some faint popping sounds, regularly spaced—three shots.
"Ah!" he said, in wonder. "What is that?"
"It sounds," laughed Herbert Cary's wife, "like firing. But I think it is a friend of mine saluting me—from the safe side of the river. Good evening, Colonel," and she swept by him. She could go find Virgie now.
Just then came the sound of a horse, galloping. Up the road came a trooper, white with dust, his animal flecked with foam.
"For Colonel Morrison. Urgent," he rasped from a dry throat, as he thudded across the lawn and dismounted. "From headquarters," and he thrust out a dispatch, "I'm ordered to return with your detachment."
Snatching the dispatch from the man's hand Morrison ran his eye over it—then started visibly.
"Orderly! Report to Harris double-quick. Recall the men. Sound boots-and-saddles. Then bring my horse—at once! Any details?" he asked peremptorily of the courier.
"Big battle to-morrow," the man answered. "Two gunboats are reported coming up the river and a wing of the Rebel army is advancing from Petersburg. Every available detachment is ordered in. You are to reach camp before morning."
"All right. We'll be there." Then, as the bugle sounded, "Ride with us," he said, and strode over to where Mrs. Cary stood, arrested by the news.
"Madam, I must make you a rather hurried farewell—and a last apology. If ever we meet again, I hope the conditions may be happier—for you."
"I thank you, Colonel," the proud Southern woman said sincerely, with a curtsy. "Some day the 'rebel scout' may thank you also for me and mine." And with a smile that augured friendship when that brighter day should come she passed out of his sight among the trees.
For a moment he watched her, proud at least that this proud woman was of his own race, then saw that the old negro, her only protector, still guarded the house.
"Here, old man," he commanded, "go along with your mistress and take care of her. I'll be the last to leave and see that nothing happens to the house."
"Yas, seh. Thank'e, seh," said old Uncle Billy, coming down. "If all of 'em was only lek you, seh—"
Uncle Billy suddenly turned and looked up at the house, his mouth open in consternation. With a cry of anguish he pointed to an upper window.
"Look what dey done done," he shrieked. "Aw, Gawd a'mighty! Look what dey done done!"
A cloud of smoke was rolling from the windows, shot through with yellow jets of flame. There was the sound of clumsy boots on the stairs and the door was thrown open. Dudley, escaped from arrest, ran out with a flaming pine torch in his hand.
"Halt!" cried Morrison, with raging anger. "Dudley! HALT!"
But Dudley knew that there would be little use in halting and so ran on until a big revolver barked behind him and he pitched heavily forward on his face. Morrison looked down on the prostrate form and his lips moved sadly, pityingly:
"And I promised her—protection!"
Of all the memories of war, after the dear dead are buried, there is one that serves to bring the struggle back in all the intensity of its horrors—to stand both as a monument to those who bled and suffered and as a lonely sentinel mourning for the peace and plenty of the past—a blackened chimney.
Of all the houses, cabins, barns and cribs which had made up the home of the Carys a few short months ago nothing remained to-day but ashes and black ruin. Only one building had been left unburned and this, before the war, had been the cabin of an overseer. It had but two rooms, and a shallow attic, which was gained by means of an iron ladder reaching to a closely fitting scuttle in the ceiling. The larger room was furnished meagerly with a rough deal table, several common chairs, and a double-doored cupboard against the wall. In the deep, wide fire-place glowed a heap of raked-up embers, on which, suspended from an iron crane, a kettle simmered, sadly, as if in grief for her long-lost brother pots and pans. The plaster on the walls had broken away in patches, especially above the door, where the sunlight streamed through the gaping wound from a cannon shot. The door and window shutters were of heavy oak, swinging inward and fastening with bars; yet now they were open, and through them could be seen a dreary stretch of river bottom, withering beneath the rays of a July sun.
Beyond a distant fringe of trees the muddy James went murmuring down its muddy banks, where the blue cranes waited solemnly for the ebbing tide; where the crows cawed hoarsely in their busy, reeling flight, and the buzzards swung high above the marshes. Yet even in this waste of listless desolation came the echoed boom of heavy guns far down the river, where the "Rebs" and "Yanks" were pounding one another lazily.
From the woods which skirted the carriage road a man appeared—a thin, worn man, in a uniform of stained and tattered gray—a man who peered from right to left, as a hunted rabbit might, then darted across the road and plunged into the briery underbrush. Noiselessly he made his way to the now deserted cabin, creeping, crawling till he reached a point below an open window, then slowly raised himself and looked within.
"Virgie!" he whispered cautiously. "Virgie!"
No answer came. For a moment the man leaned dizzily against the windowsill, his eyes fast closed with a nameless dread, till he caught his grip again and entered the open door.
"Virgie!" he called, in a louder tone, moving swiftly but unsteadily toward the adjoining room. He flung its door open sharply, almost angrily; yet the name on his lips was tender, trembling, as he called: "Virgie! Virgie!"
In the loneliness of dread, he once more leaned for support against the wall, wondering, listening to the pounding of his heart, to the murmur of the muddy James, and the fall of a flake of plaster loosened by the dull reverberation of a distant gun; then suddenly his eye was caught by the kettle simmering on the fire, and he sighed in swift relief.
He wiped his brow with a ragged sleeve and went to where a water-bucket stood behind the door, knelt beside it, drinking deeply, gratefully, yet listening the while for unwonted sounds and watching the bend of the carriage road. His thirst appeased, he hunted vainly through the table drawer for balls and powder for the empty pistol at his hip; then, instinctively alert to some rustling sound outside, he crouched toward the adjoining room, slipped in, and softly closed the door.
From the sunlit world beyond the cabin walls rose the murmur of a childish song and Virgie came pattering in.
She had not changed greatly in stature in the past few months, but there was a very noticeable decrease in the girth of her little arms and body, and her big dark eyes seemed the larger for the whiteness of her face. On her head she wore an old calico bonnet several sizes too large and the gingham dress which scarcely reached to her bare, brown knees would not have done, a few months ago, for even Sally Ann. In one hand Virgie carried a small tin bucket filled with berries; in the other she clutched a doll lovingly against her breast.
Not the old Susan Jemima, but a new Susan Jemima on whom an equal affection was being lavished even though she was strangely and wonderfully made. To the intimate view of the unimaginative, Susan Jemima was formed from the limb of a cedar tree, the forking branches being her arms and legs, her costume consisting of a piece of rag tied at the waist with a bit of string.
On a chair at the table Virgie set her doll, then laughed at the hopelessness of its breakfasting with any degree of comfort, or of ease.
"Why, Lord a-mercy, child, your chin don't come up to the table."
On the chair she placed a wooden box, perching the doll on top and taking a seat herself just opposite. She emptied the blackberries into a mutilated plate, brought from the cupboard a handful of toasted acorns, on which she poured boiling water, then set the concoction aside to steep.
"Now, Miss Susan Jemima," said Virgie, addressing her vis-a-vis with the hospitable courtesy due to so great a lady, "we are goin' to have some breakfas'." She paused, in a shade of doubt, then smiled a faint apology: "It isn't very much of a breakfas', darlin', but we'll make believe it's waffles an' chicken an'—an' hot rolls an' batter-bread an'—an' everything." She rose to her little bare feet, holding her wisp of a skirt aside, and made a sweeping bow. "Allow me, Miss Jemima, to make you a mos' delicious cup of coffee."
And, while the little hostess prepared the meal, a man looked out from the partly open door behind her, with big dark eyes, which were like her own, yet blurred by a mist of pity and of love.
"Susan," said the hostess presently, "it's ready now, and we'll say grace; so don't you talk an' annoy your mother."
The tiny brown head was bowed. The tiny brown hands, with their berry-stained fingers, were placed on the table's edge; but Miss Susan Jemima sat bolt upright, though listening, it seemed, to the words of reverence falling from a mother-baby's lips:
"Lord, make us thankful for the blackberries an' the aco'n coffee an'—an' all our blessin's; but please, sir, sen' us somethin' that tastes jus' a little better—if you don't mind. Amen!"
And the man, who leaned against the door and watched, had also bowed his head. A pain was in his throat—and in his heart—a pain that gripped him, till two great tears rolled down his war-worn cheek and were lost in his straggling beard.
"Virgie!" he whispered hoarsely. "Virgie!"
She started at the sound and looked about her, wondering; then, as the name was called again, she slid from her chair and ran forward with a joyous cry:
"Why, Daddy! Is it you? Is—"
She stopped, for the man had placed a finger on his lip and was pointing to the door.
"Take a look down the road," he ordered, in a guarded voice; and, when she had reached a point commanding the danger zone, he asked, "See anybody?—soldiers?" She shook her head. "Hear anything?"
She stood for a moment listening, then ran to him, and sprang into his waiting arms.
"It's all right, Daddy! It's all right now!"
He raised her, strained her to his breast, his cheek against her own.
"My little girl!" he murmured between his kisses. "My little rebel!" And as she snuggled in his arms, her berry-stained fingers clasped tightly about his neck, he asked her wistfully, "Did you miss me?—awful much?"
"Yes," she nodded, looking into his eyes. "Yes—in the night time—when the wind was talkin'; but, after while, when—Why, Daddy!" He had staggered as he set her down, sinking into a chair and closing his eyes as he leaned on the table's edge. "You are hurt!" she cried. "I—I can see the blood!"
The wounded Southerner braced himself.
"No, dear, no," he strove to reassure her. "It isn't anything; only a little scratch—from a Yank—that tried to get me. But he didn't, though," the soldier added with a smile. "I'm just—tired."
The child regarded him in wondering awe, speaking in a half-breathed whisper:
"Did he—did he shoot at you?"
Her father nodded, with his hand on her tumbled hair.
"Yes, honey, I'm afraid he did; but I'm so used to it now I don't mind it any more. Get me a drink of water, will you?" As Virgie obeyed in silence, returning with the dripping gourd, the man went on: "I tried to get here yesterday; but I couldn't. They chased me when I came before—and now they're watching." He paused to sip at his draught of water, glancing toward the carriage road. "Big fight down the river. Listen! Can you hear the guns?"
"Yes, plain," she answered, tilting her tiny head. "An' las' night, when I went to bed, I could hear 'em—oh! ever so loud: Boom! Boom! Boom-boom! So I knelt up an' asked the Lord not to let any of 'em hit you."
Two arms, in their tattered gray, slipped round the child. He kissed her, in that strange, fierce passion of a man who has lost his mate, and his grief-torn love is magnified in the mite who reflects her image and her memory.
"Did you, honey?" he asked, with a trembling lip. "Well, I reckon that saved your daddy, for not one shell touched him—no, not one!" He kissed her again, and laughed. "And I tell you, Virgie, they were coming as thick as bees."
Once more he sipped at the grateful, cooling draught of water, when the child asked suddenly:
"How is Gen'ral Lee?"
Down came the gourd upon the table. The Southerner was on his feet, with a stiffened back; and his dusty slouch hat was in his hand.
"He's well; God bless him! Well!"
The tone was deep and tender, proud, but as reverent as the baby's prayer for her father's immunity from harm; yet the man who spoke sank back into his seat, closing his eyes and repeating slowly, sadly:
"He's well; God bless him! But he's tired, darling—mighty tired."
"Daddy," the soldier's daughter asked, "will you tell him somethin'—from me?"
"Yes, dear. What?"
"Tell him," said the child, with a thoughtful glance at Miss Susan Jemima across the table, "tell him, if he ever marches along this way, I'll come over to his tent and rub his head, like I do yours—if he'll let me—till he goes to sleep." She clasped her fingers and looked into her father's eyes, hopefully, appealingly. "Do you think he would, if—if I washed my hands—real clean?"
The Southerner bit his lip and tried to smile.
"Yes, honey, I know he would! And think! He sent a message—to you."
"Did he?" she asked, wide-eyed, flushed with happiness. "What did he say, Daddy? What?"
"He said," her father answered, taking her hands in his: "'She's a brave little soldier, to stay there all alone. Dixie and I are proud of her!'"
"Oh, Daddy, did he? Did he?"
"Yes, dear, yes," the soldier nodded; "his very words. And look!" From his boot leg he took a folded paper and spread it on his knee. "He wrote you a pass—to Richmond. Can you read it?"
Virgie leaned against her father's shoulder, studying the paper long and earnestly; then, presently looked up, with a note of grave but courteous hesitation in her tone:
"Well—he—well, the Gen'ral writes a awful bad hand, Daddy."
Her father laughed in genuine delight, vowing in his heart to tell his general and friend of this crushing criticism, if ever the fates of war permitted them to meet again.
"Dead right!" he agreed, with hearty promptness. "But come, I'll read it for you. Now then. Listen:
"HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VA.
"Pass Virginia Cary and escort through all Confederate lines and give safe-conduct wherever possible.
"R.E. LEE, General."
There was silence for a moment, then Virgie looked up, with tears in her eyes and voice.
"An' he did that—for little me? Oh, Daddy, I love him so much, it—it makes me want to cry."
She hid her face on the coat of gray, and sobbed; while her father stroked her hair and answered soothingly, but in a tone of mourning reverie:
"So do we all, darling; big grown men, who have suffered, and are losing all they love. They are ragged—and wounded—hungry—and, oh, so tired! But, when they think of him, they draw up their belts another hole, and say, 'For General Lee!' And then they can fight and fight and fight—till their hearts stop beating—and the god of battles writes them a bloody pass!"
Again he had risen to his feet. He was speaking proudly, in the reckless passion of the yet unconquered Southerner, only half-conscious of the tot who watched him, wondering. So she came to him quickly, taking his hand in both her own, and striving to bring him comfort from the fountain of her little mother-heart.
"Don't you worry, Daddy-man. We'll—we'll whip 'em yet."
"No, dear—no," he sighed, as he dropped into his seat. "We won't. It's hard enough on men; but harder still on children such as you." He turned to her gravely, earnestly: "Virgie, I had hoped to get you through to Richmond—to-day. But I can't. The Yankees have cut us off. They are up the river and down the river—and all around us, I've been nearly the whole night getting here; creeping through the woods—like an old Molly-cotton-tail—with the blue boys everywhere, waiting to get me if I showed my head."
"But they didn't, did they?" said Virgie, laughing at his reference to the wise old rabbit and feeling for the pockets of his shabby coat, "Did you—did you bring me anything?"
At her question the man cried out as if in pain, then reached for her in a wave of yearning tenderness.
"Listen, dear; I—I had a little bundle for you—of—of things to eat." He took her by the arms, and looked into her quaint, wise face, "And I was so glad I had it, darling, for you are thinner than you were." He paused to bite his lip, and continued haltingly, "There was bread in that bundle—and meat—real meat—and sugar—and tea."
Virgie released herself and clapped her hands.
"Oh, Daddy, where is it?" she asked him happily, once more reaching for the pocket. "'Cause I'm so hungry for somethin' good."
"Don't! Don't!" he cried, as he drew his coat away, roughly, fiercely, in the pain of unselfish suffering. "For Daddy's sake, don't!"
"Why, what is it, Daddy," she asked, in her shrillness of a child's alarm, her eyes on the widening stain of red above his waist. "Is—is it hurtin' you again? What is it, Daddy-man?"
"Your bundle," he answered, in the flat, dull tone of utter hopelessness. "I lost it, Virgie. I lost it."
"Oh," she said, with a quaver of disappointment, which she vainly strove to hide. "How did you do it?"
For a moment the man leaned limply against a chair-back, hiding his eyes with one trembling hand; then he spoke in shamed apology:
"I—I couldn't help it, darling; because, you see, I hadn't any powder left; and I was coming through the woods—just as I told you—when the Yanks got sight of me." He smiled down at her bravely, striving to add a dash of comedy to his tragic plight. "And I tell you, Virgie, your old dad had to run like a turkey—wishing to the Lord he had wings, too."
Virgie did not smile in turn, and her father dropped back into his former tone, his pale lips setting in a straight, hard line.
"And then—the blue boy I was telling you about—when he shot at me, I must have stumbled, because, when I scrambled up, I—I couldn't see just right; so I ran and ran, thinking of you, darling, and wanting to get to you before—well, before it was breakfast time. I had your bundle in my pocket; but when I fell—why, Virgie, don't you see?—I—I couldn't go back and find it." He paused to choke, then spoke between his teeth, in fury at a strength which had failed to breast a barrier of fate: "But I would have gone back, if I'd had any powder left. I would have! I would!"
A pitiful apology it was, from a man to a little child; a story told only in its hundredth part, for why should he give its untold horrors to a baby's ears? How could she understand that man-hunt in the early dawn? The fugitive—with an empty pistol on his hip—wading swamps and plunging through the tangled underbrush; alert and listening, darting from tree to tree where the woods were thin; crouching behind some fallen log to catch his laboring breath, then rising again to creep along his way. He did not tell of the racking pain in his weary legs, nor the protest of his pounding heart—the strain—the agony—the puffs of smoke that floated above the pines, and the ping of bullets whining through the trees. He did not tell of the ball that slid along his ribs, leaving a fiery, aching memory behind, as the man crashed down a clay bank, to lie for an instant in a crumpled heap, to rise and stumble on—not toward the haven of his own Confederate lines, but forward, to where a baby waited—through a dancing mist of red.
And so the soldier made his poor apology, turning his head away to avoid a dreaded look in Virgie's big, reproachful eyes; then he added one more lashwelt to his shame:
"And now your poor old daddy is no more use to you. I come to my little girl with empty hands—with an empty gun—and an empty heart!"
He said it bitterly, in the self-accusing sorrow of his soul; and his courage, which had borne him through a hell of suffering, now broke; but only when a helper of the helpless failed. He laid his outflung arms across the table. He bowed his beaten head upon them and sobbed aloud, with sobs that shook him to his heels.
It was then that Virgie came to him again, a little daughter of the South, who, like a hundred thousand of her sisters, brought comfort in the blackest hours.
One tiny, weak arm was slipped about his neck. One tiny brown hand, with its berry-stained fingers, was run through his tangled hair, softly, tenderly, even as she longed to soothe the weary head of General Lee.
"Don't cry, Daddy-man," she murmured in his ear; "it's all right. I can eat the blackberries. They—they don't taste so awful good when you have 'em all the time; but I don't mind." She paused to kiss him, then tried once more to buoy his hope and hers. "We'll have jus' heaps of things when we get to Richmon'—jus' heaps—an' then—"
She stopped abruptly, lifting her head and listening, in the manner of a sheep dog scenting danger from afar. Her father looked up sharply and gripped her hands.
"Virgie! You hear—what?"
"Horses! Oh, a lot of 'em! On the big road!"
It was true, for down the breeze came the faintly echoed thud of many hoofs and the clinking jingle of sabers against the riders' thighs. Virgie turned back from the open door.
"Why—why, they've turned into our road!" Her breath came fast, as she sank her voice to a faint, awed whisper, "Daddy—do you reckon it's—Yankees?"
"Yes," said her father, who had risen to his feet. "Morrison's cavalry! They won't hurt you; but I'll have to get to the woods again! Good-by, honey! Good-by!"
He kissed her hurriedly and started for the door, but shrank into the shadow at sight of a blue-clothed watcher sharply outlined on the crest of a distant rise. Escape was cut off, and the hunted soldier turned to Virgie in his need.
"Shut the door—quick!" She obeyed in silence. "Lock it!" She turned the rusty key, and waited. "Now the windows! Hurry, but do it quietly."
She closed the clumsy shutters and set the heavy bars into their slots; then the man came forward, knelt down before her and took her hands.
"Listen, Virginia," he whispered earnestly; "don't you remember how your dear, dear mother—and I, too, darling—always told you never to tell a lie?"
"An' I haven't, Daddy-man," she protested, wondering. "'Deed, an' 'deed, I haven't. Why—"
"Yes, yes, I know," he interrupted hurriedly; "but now—you must!" As the child stepped backward and tried to draw away, he clasped her hands more tightly still. "But listen, dear; it's to save me! Don't you understand?—and it's right! When those men come, they mustn't find me. Say I was here, but I've gone. If they ask which way, tell them I went down past the spring—through the blackberry patch. Do you understand?—and can you remember?" She nodded gravely, and the Southerner folded her tightly in his arms. "Be a brave little rebel, honey—for me!"
He released her and began to mount the ladder leading to the scuttle in the ceiling; but halfway up he paused, as Virgie checked him with a solemn question:
"Daddy—would Gen'ral Lee want me to tell that lie?"
"Yes, dear," he answered slowly, thoughtfully; "this once! And, if ever you see him, ask him, and he'll tell you so himself. God help you, darling; it's for General Lee—and you!"
The littlest rebel sighed, as though a weight had been lifted from her mind, and she cocked her head at the sound of louder hoof-beats on the carriage road.
"All right, Daddy-man. I'll tell—a whopper!"
The man crawled up through the scuttle hole and disappeared; then drew the ladder after him and closed the trap, while Virgie tiptoed to the table and slipped into a seat.
The cabin was now in semi-darkness, except for a shaft of sunlight entering through the jagged wound from the cannon-shot above the door; and it fell on the quaint, brown head of little Miss Virginia Cary, and the placid form of Susan Jemima, perching opposite, in serene contempt of the coming of a conquering host.
The jingling clank of sabers grew louder to the listeners' ears, through the rumble of pounding hoofs; a bugle's note came winnowing across the fields, and Virgie leaned forward with a confidential whisper to her doll:
"Susan Jemima, I wouldn't tell anybody else—no, not for anything—but I cert'n'y am awful scared!"
There came a scurrying rush, a command to halt, and a rustling, scraping noise of dismounting men; a pause, and the sharp, loud rap of a saber hilt against the door. Virgie breathed hard, but made no answer.
"Open up!" called a voice outside, but the little rebel closed her lips and sat staring at Susan Jemima across the table. A silence followed, short, yet filled with dread; then came a low-toned order and the crash of carbine butts on the stout oak door. For a time it resisted hopefully, then slowly its top sagged in, with a groaning, grating protest from its rusty hinges; it swayed, collapsed in a cloud of dust—and the enemy swept over it.
They came with a rush; in the lead an officer, a naked saber in his fist, followed by a squad of grim-faced troopers, each with his carbine cocked and ready for discharge. Yet, as suddenly as they had come, they halted now at the sight of a little lady, seated at table, eating berries, as calmly as though the dogs of war had never even growled.
A wondering silence followed, till broken by a piping voice, in grave but courteous reproof:
"I—I don't think you are very polite."
The officer in command was forced to smile.
"I'm sorry, my dear," he apologized; "but am afraid, this time, I can't quite help it." He glanced at the door of the adjoining room and turned to his waiting men, though speaking in an undertone: "He's in there, I guess. Don't fire if you can help it—on account of the baby. Now then! Steady, boys! Advance!"
He led the way, six troopers following, while the rest remained behind to guard the cabin's open door. Virgie slowly turned her head, with eyes that watched the officer's every move; then presently she called:
"Hey, there! That's my room—an' don't you-all bother any of my things, either!"
This one command, at least, was implicitly obeyed, for in a moment the disappointed squad returned. The carbine butts were grounded; the troopers stood at orderly attention, while their officer stepped toward the table.
"What's your name, little monkey?"
Virgie raised her eyes in swift reproach.
"I don't like to be called a monkey. It—it isn't respectful."
The Union soldier laughed.
"O-ho! I see." He touched his hat and made her a sweeping bow. "A thousand pardons, Mademoiselle." He shot his sword into its scabbard, and laughed again. "Might I inquire as to what you are called by your—er—justly respectful relatives and friends?"
"Virgie," she answered simply.
"Ah," he approved, "and a very pretty name! Virgie what?"
"My whole name is Miss Virginia Houston Gary."
The soldier started, glanced at his troopers, then back to the child again:
"Is Herbert Cary your father?"
He waited for her answer, and got it, straight from a baby's shoulder:
"Mister Herbert Cary is—yes, sir."
The enemy smiled and made her another bow.
"I stand corrected. Where is your father now?"
"I—I don't know."
The voice of her inquisitor took on a sterner tone:
"Is he here?—hiding somewhere? Tell me!"
Her little heart was pounding, horribly, and the hot blood came into her cheeks; but she looked him squarely in the face, and lied—for General Lee:
"No, sir. Daddy was here—but he's gone away."
The enemy was looking at her, intently, and his handsome, piercing eyes, grew most uncomfortable. She hung for an instant between success and sobbing failure, till a bubble from Mother Eve rose up in her youthful blood and burst into a spray of perfect feminine deceit. She did not try to add to her simple statement, but began to eat her berries, calmly, as though the subject were completely closed.
"Which way did he go?" the officer demanded, and she pointed with her spoon.
"Down by the spring—through the blackberry patch."
The soldier was half-convinced. He stood for a moment, looking at the floor, then asked her sharply, suddenly:
"If your father had gone, then why did you lock that door?"
She faltered, but only for an instant.
"'Cause I thought you might be—niggers."
The man before her clenched his hands, as he thought of that new-born, hideous danger menacing the South.
"I see," he answered gently; "yes, I see." He turned away, but, even as he turned, his eye was caught by the double-doored cupboard against the wall. "What do you keep in there?" he asked; and the child smiled faintly, a trifle sadly, in reply:
"We used to keep things to eat—when we had any."
He noted her mild evasion, and pushed the point.
"What is in it now?"
He caught his breath and stepped a little nearer, bending till his face was close to hers.
"Colonel Mosby," declared the mite, with a most emphatic nod; "an' you better look out, too!"
The officer laughed as he turned to his grinning squad.
"Bright little youngster! Still, I think we'll have a look." He dropped his air of amusement, growing stern again. "Now, men! Ready!"
They swung into line and faced the cupboard, the muzzles of their carbines trained upon it, while their leader advanced, swung open the doors, and quickly stepped aside.
On the bottom shelf, as Virgie had declared, were a few disconsolate tin pans; yet tacked to the door was a picture print of Mosby—that dreaded guerrilla whose very name was a bugaboo in the Union lines.
The littlest rebel flung back her head and laughed.
"My, but you looked funny!" she cried to the somewhat disconcerted officer, pointing at him with her spoon. "If a mouse had jumped out, I reckon it would have scared you mos' to death."
The officer's cheeks flushed red, in spite of his every effort at control; nor was he assisted by the knowledge that his men were tittering behind his back. He turned upon them sharply.
"That will do," he said, and gave a brusque command: "Corporal, deploy your men and make a thorough search outside. Examine the ground around the spring—and report!"
"Yes, sir," returned Corporal Dudley saluting and dropping his hand across his mouth to choke off an exclamation of anger. Then he snarled at his men, to ease the pain of thwarted vengeance: "'Tention! Right face! Forward! March!"
The squad trooped out across the broken door, leaving their commanding officer alone with his rebel prisoner.
"Now, Virgie," he asked, in a kindly tone, though holding her eyes with his, "do you mean to tell me—cross your heart—that you are here, just by yourself?"
"Er—no, sir." As he opened his lips to speak, she pointed to her doll. "Me an' Susan Jemima."
"Well, that's a fact," he laughed. "Hanged if I'm not losing all my social polish." He gallantly removed his hat, bowed gravely to the cedar stick, and shook its hand. "Charmed to make your acquaintance, Miss Susan, believe me. My own name is Morrison—Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison—at your service." He turned to the little mother with a smile that showed a row of white and even teeth. "And now," he said, "since we are all informally introduced, suppose we have a quiet, comfortable chat." He paused, but she made no answer. "Well? Aren't you going to ask me to have some breakfast?"
Virgie cast a troubled gaze into the plate before her.
"What? Why not?"
She faltered, and answered slowly:
"'Cause—'cause you're one of the damn Yankees."
"Oh! oh! oh!" exclaimed the soldier, shocked to hear a baby's lips profaned. "Little girls shouldn't use such words. Why, Virgie!"
She raised her eyes, clear, fearless, filled with vindicating innocence.
"Well, it's your name, isn't it? Everybody calls you that."
"Um—yes," he admitted, striving to check the twitching of his lips; "I suppose they do—south of Washington. But don't you know we are just like other people?" She shook her head. "Oh, yes, we are. Why, I have a little girl at home—not any bigger than you."
"Have you?" asked Virgie, her budding racial prejudice at war with youthful curiosity. "What's her name?"
"Gertrude," he answered softly, tenderly. "Gertrude Morrison. Would you like to see her picture?"
"Yes," said the little rebel, and stepped across the gulf which had lain between her and her enemy. "You can sit down if you want to. Jus' put Susan Jemima on the table."