Yet under this imperturbable mask he was keenly conscious of everything; in that apparent concentration there was a sharpening of all his senses and his impressibility: he saw the first trace of doubt or alarm in the face of a subaltern to whom he was giving an order; the first touch of sluggishness in a re-forming line; the more significant clumsiness of a living evolution that he knew was clogged by the dead bodies of comrades; the ominous silence of a breastwork; the awful inertia of some rigidly kneeling files beyond, which still kept their form but never would move again; the melting away of skirmish points; the sudden gaps here and there; the sickening incurving of what a moment before had been a straight line—all these he saw in all their fatal significance. But even at this moment, coming upon a hasty barricade of overset commissary wagons, he stopped to glance at a familiar figure he had seen but an hour ago, who now seemed to be commanding a group of collected stragglers and camp followers. Mounted on a wheel, with a revolver in each hand and a bowie knife between his teeth—theatrical even in his paroxysm of undoubted courage—glared Jim Hooker. And Clarence Brant, with the whole responsibility of the field on his shoulders, even at that desperate moment, found himself recalling a vivid picture of the actor Hooker personating the character of “Red Dick” in “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” as he had seen him in a California theatre five years before.
It wanted still an hour of the darkness that would probably close the fight of that day. Could he hold out, keeping his offensive position so long? A hasty council with his officers showed him that the weakness of their position had already infected them. They reminded him that his line of retreat was still open—that in the course of the night the enemy, although still pressing towards the division centre, might yet turn and outflank him—or that their strangely delayed supports might come up before morning. Brant’s glass, however, remained fixed on the main column, still pursuing its way along the ridge. It struck him suddenly, however, that the steady current had stopped, spread out along the crest on both sides, and was now at right angles with its previous course. There had been a check! The next moment the thunder of guns along the whole horizon, and the rising cloud of smoke, revealed a line of battle. The division centre was engaged. The opportunity he had longed for had come—the desperate chance to throw himself on their rear and cut his way through to the division—but it had come too late! He looked at his shattered ranks—scarce a regiment remained. Even as a demonstration, the attack would fail against the enemy’s superior numbers. Nothing clearly was left to him now but to remain where he was—within supporting distance, and await the issue of the fight beyond. He was putting up his glass, when the dull boom of cannon in the extreme western limit of the horizon attracted his attention. By the still gleaming sky he could see a long gray line stealing up from the valley from the distant rear of the headquarters to join the main column. They were the missing supports! His heart leaped. He held the key of the mystery now. The one imperfect detail of the enemy’s plan was before him. The supports, coming later from the west, had only seen the second signal from the window—when Miss Faulkner had replaced the vase—and had avoided his position. It was impossible to limit the effect of this blunder. If the young girl who had thus saved him had reached the division commander with his message in time, he might be forewarned, and even profit by it. His own position would be less precarious, as the enemy, already engaged in front, would be unable to recover their position in the rear and correct the blunder. The bulk of their column had already streamed past him. If defeated, there was always the danger that it might be rolled back upon him—but he conjectured that the division commander would attempt to prevent the junction of the supports with the main column by breaking between them, crowding them from the ridge, and joining him. As the last stragglers of the rear guard swept by, Brant’s bugles were already recalling the skirmishers. He redoubled his pickets, and resolved to wait and watch.
And there was the more painful duty of looking after the wounded and the dead. The larger rooms of the headquarters had already been used as a hospital. Passing from cot to cot, recognizing in the faces now drawn with agony, or staring in vacant unconsciousness, the features that he had seen only a few hours before flushed with enthusiasm and excitement, something of his old doubting, questioning nature returned. Was there no way but this? How far was he—moving among them unscathed and uninjured—responsible?
And if not he—who then? His mind went back bitterly to the old days of the conspiracy—to the inception of that struggle which was bearing such ghastly fruit. He thought of his traitorous wife, until he felt his cheeks tingle, and he was fain to avert his eyes from those of his prostrate comrades, in a strange fear that, with the clairvoyance of dying men, they should read his secret.
It was past midnight when, without undressing, he threw himself upon his bed in the little convent-like cell to snatch a few moments of sleep. Its spotless, peaceful walls and draperies affected him strangely, as if he had brought into its immaculate serenity the sanguine stain of war. He was awakened suddenly from a deep slumber by an indefinite sense of alarm. His first thought was that he had been summoned to repel an attack. He sat up and listened; everything was silent except the measured tread of the sentry on the gravel walk below. But the door was open. He sprang to his feet and slipped into the gallery in time to see the tall figure of a woman glide before the last moonlit window at its farthest end. He could not see her face—but the characteristic turbaned head of the negro race was plainly visible.
He did not care to follow her or even to alarm the guard. If it were the spy or one of her emissaries, she was powerless now to do any harm, and under his late orders and the rigorous vigilance of his sentinels she could not leave the lines—or, indeed, the house. She probably knew this as well as he did; it was, therefore, no doubt only an accidental intrusion of one of the servants. He re-entered the room, and stood for a few moments by the window, looking over the moonlit ridge. The sounds of distant cannon had long since ceased. Wide awake, and refreshed by the keen morning air, which alone of all created things seemed to have shaken the burden of the dreadful yesterday from its dewy wings, he turned away and lit a candle on the table. As he was rebuckling his sword belt he saw a piece of paper lying on the foot of the bed from which he had just risen. Taking it to the candle, he read in a roughly scrawled hand:
“You are asleep when you should be on the march. You have no time to lose. Before daybreak the supports of the column you have been foolishly resisting will be upon you.—From one who would save you, but hates your cause.”
A smile of scorn passed his lips. The handwriting was unknown and evidently disguised. The purport of the message had not alarmed him; but suddenly a suspicion flashed upon him—that it came from Miss Faulkner! She had failed in her attempt to pass through the enemy’s lines—or she had never tried to. She had deceived him—or had thought better of her chivalrous impulse, and now sought to mitigate her second treachery by this second warning. And he had let her messenger escape him!
He hurriedly descended the stairs. The sound of voices was approaching him. He halted, and recognized the faces of the brigade surgeon and one of his aides-de-camp.
“We were hesitating whether to disturb you, general, but it may be an affair of some importance. Under your orders a negro woman was just now challenged stealing out of the lines. Attempting to escape, she was chased, there was a struggle and scramble over the wall, and she fell, striking her head. She was brought into the guardhouse unconscious.”
“Very good. I will see her,” said Brant, with a feeling of relief.
“One moment, general. We thought you would perhaps prefer to see her alone,” said the surgeon, “for when I endeavored to bring her to, and was sponging her face and head to discover her injuries, her color came off! She was a white woman—stained and disguised as a mulatto.”
For an instant Brant’s heart sank. It was Miss Faulkner.
“Did you recognize her?” he said, glancing from the one to the other. “Have you seen her here before?”
“No, sir,” replied the aide-de-camp. “But she seemed to be quite a superior woman—a lady, I should say.”
Brant breathed more freely.
“Where is she now?” he asked.
“In the guardhouse. We thought it better not to bring her into hospital, among the men, until we had your orders.”
“You have done well,” returned Brant gravely. “And you will keep this to yourselves for the present; but see that she is brought here quietly and with as little publicity as possible. Put her in my room above, which I give up to her and any necessary attendant. But you will look carefully after her, doctor,”—he turned to the surgeon,—“and when she recovers consciousness let me know.”
He moved away. Although attaching little importance to the mysterious message, whether sent by Miss Faulkner or emanating from the stranger herself, which, he reasoned, was based only upon a knowledge of the original plan of attack, he nevertheless quickly dispatched a small scouting party in the direction from which the attack might come, with orders to fall back and report at once. With a certain half irony of recollection he had selected Jim Hooker to accompany the party as a volunteer. This done, he returned to the gallery. The surgeon met him at the door.
“The indications of concussion are passing away,” he said, “but she seems to be suffering from the exhaustion following some great nervous excitement. You may go in—she may rally from it at any moment.”
With the artificial step and mysterious hush of the ordinary visitor to a sick bed, Brant entered the room. But some instinct greater than this common expression of humanity held him suddenly in awe. The room seemed no longer his—it had slipped back into that austere conventual privacy which had first impressed him. Yet he hesitated; another strange suggestion—it seemed almost a vague recollection—overcame him like some lingering perfume, far off and pathetic, in its dying familiarity. He turned his eyes almost timidly towards the bed. The coverlet was drawn up near the throat of the figure to replace the striped cotton gown stained with blood and dust, which had been hurriedly torn off and thrown on a chair. The pale face, cleansed of blood and disguising color, the long hair, still damp from the surgeon’s sponge, lay rigidly back on the pillow. Suddenly this man of steady nerve uttered a faint cry, and, with a face as white as the upturned one before him, fell on his knees beside the bed. For the face that lay there was his wife’s!
Yes, hers! But the beautiful hair that she had gloried in—the hair that in his youth he had thought had once fallen like a benediction on his shoulder—was streaked with gray along the blue-veined hollows of the temples; the orbits of those clear eyes, beneath their delicately arched brows, were ringed with days of suffering; only the clear-cut profile, even to the delicate imperiousness of lips and nostril, was still there in all its beauty. The coverlet had slipped from her shoulder; its familiar cold contour startled him. He remembered how, in their early married days, he had felt the sanctity of that Diana-like revelation, and the still nymph-like austerity which clung to this strange, childless woman. He even fancied that he breathed again the subtle characteristic perfume of the laces, embroideries, and delicate enwrappings in her chamber at Robles. Perhaps it was the intensity of his gaze—perhaps it was the magnetism of his presence—but her lips parted with a half sigh, half moan. Her head, although her eyes were still closed, turned on the pillow instinctively towards him. He rose from his knees. Her eyes opened slowly. As the first glare of wonderment cleared from them, they met him—in the old antagonism of spirit. Yet her first gesture was a pathetic feminine movement with both hands to arrange her straggling hair. It brought her white fingers, cleaned of their disguising stains, as a sudden revelation to her of what had happened; she instantly slipped them back under the coverlet again. Brant did not speak, but with folded arms stood gazing upon her. And it was her voice that first broke the silence.
“You have recognized me? Well, I suppose you know all,” she said, with a weak half-defiance.
He bowed his head. He felt as yet he could not trust his voice, and envied her her own.
“I may sit up, mayn’t I?” She managed, by sheer force of will, to struggle to a sitting posture. Then, as the coverlet slipped from the bare shoulder, she said, as she drew it, with a shiver of disgust, around her again,—
“I forgot that you strip women, you Northern soldiers! But I forgot, too,” she added, with a sarcastic smile, “that you are also my husband, and I am in your room.”
The contemptuous significance of her speech dispelled the last lingering remnant of Brant’s dream. In a voice as dry as her own, he said,—
“I am afraid you will now have to remember only that I am a Northern general, and you a Southern spy.”
“So be it,” she said gravely. Then impulsively, “But I have not spied on you.”
Yet, the next moment, she bit her lips as if the expression had unwittingly escaped her; and with a reckless shrug of her shoulders she lay back on her pillow.
“It matters not,” said Brant coldly. “You have used this house and those within it to forward your designs. It is not your fault that you found nothing in the dispatch-box you opened.”
She stared at him quickly; then shrugged her shoulders again.
“I might have known she was false to me,” she said bitterly, “and that you would wheedle her soul away as you have others. Well, she betrayed me! For what?”
A flush passed over Brant’s face. But with an effort he contained himself.
“It was the flower that betrayed you! The flower whose red dust fell in the box when you opened it on the desk by the window in yonder room—the flower that stood in the window as a signal—the flower I myself removed, and so spoiled the miserable plot that your friends concocted.”
A look of mingled terror and awe came into her face.
“You changed the signal!” she repeated dazedly; then, in a lower voice, “that accounts for it all!” But the next moment she turned again fiercely upon him. “And you mean to tell me that she didn’t help you—that she didn’t sell me—your wife—to you for—for what was it? A look—a kiss!”
“I mean to say that she did not know the signal was changed, and that she herself restored it to its place. It is no fault of hers nor yours that I am not here a prisoner.”
She passed her thin hand dazedly across her forehead.
“I see,” she muttered. Then again bursting out passionately, she said—“Fool! you never would have been touched! Do you think that Lee would have gone for you, with higher game in your division commander? No! Those supports were a feint to draw him to your assistance while our main column broke his centre. Yes, you may stare at me, Clarence Brant. You are a good lawyer—they say a dashing fighter, too. I never thought you a coward, even in your irresolution; but you are fighting with men drilled in the art of war and strategy when you were a boy outcast on the plains.” She stopped, closed her eyes, and then added, wearily—“But that was yesterday—to-day, who knows? All may be changed. The supports may still attack you. That was why I stopped to write you that note an hour ago, when I believed I should be leaving here for ever. Yes, I did it!” she went on, with half-wearied, half-dogged determination. “You may as well know all. I had arranged to fly. Your pickets were to be drawn by friends of mine, who were waiting for me beyond your lines. Well, I lingered here when I saw you arrive—lingered to write you that note. And—I was too late!”
But Brant had been watching her varying expression, her kindling eye, her strange masculine grasp of military knowledge, her soldierly phraseology, all so new to her, that he scarcely heeded the feminine ending of her speech. It seemed to him no longer the Diana of his youthful fancy, but some Pallas Athene, who now looked up at him from the pillow. He had never before fully believed in her unselfish devotion to the cause until now, when it seemed to have almost unsexed her. In his wildest comprehension of her he had never dreamed her a Joan of Arc, and yet hers was the face which might have confronted him, exalted and inspired, on the battlefield itself. He recalled himself with an effort.
“I thank you for your would-be warning,” he said more gently, if not so tenderly, “and God knows I wish your flight had been successful. But even your warning is unnecessary, for the supports had already come up; they had followed the second signal, and diverged to engage our division on the left, leaving me alone. And their ruse of drawing our commander to assist me would not have been successful, as I had suspected it, and sent a message to him that I wanted no help.”
It was the truth; it was the sole purport of the note he had sent through Miss Faulkner. He would not have disclosed his sacrifice; but so great was the strange domination of this woman still over him, that he felt compelled to assert his superiority. She fixed her eyes upon him.
“And Miss Faulkner took your message?” she said slowly. “Don’t deny it! No one else could have passed through our lines; and you gave her a safe conduct through yours. Yes, I might have known it. And this was the creature they sent me for an ally and confidant!”
For an instant Brant felt the sting of this enforced contrast between the two women. But he only said,—
“You forget that I did not know you were the spy, nor do I believe that she suspected you were my wife.”
“Why should she?” she said almost fiercely. “I am known among these people only by the name of Benham—-my maiden name. Yes!—you can take me out, and shoot me under that name, without disgracing yours. Nobody will know that the Southern spy was the wife of the Northern general! You see, I have thought even of that!”
“And thinking of that,” said Brant slowly, “you have put yourself—I will not say in my power, for you are in the power of any man in this camp who may know you, or even hear you speak. Well, let us understand each other plainly. I do not know how great a sacrifice your devotion to your cause demands of you; I do know what it seems to demand of me. Hear me, then! I will do my best to protect you, and get you safely away from here; but, failing that, I tell you plainly that I shall blow out your brains and my own together.”
She knew that he would do it. Yet her eyes suddenly beamed with a new and awakening light; she put back her hair again, and half raised herself upon the pillow, to gaze at his dark, set face.
“And as I shall let no other life but ours be periled in this affair,” he went on quietly, “and will accompany you myself in some disguise beyond the lines, we will together take the risks—or the bullets of the sentries that may save us both all further trouble. An hour or two more will settle that. Until then your weak condition will excuse you from any disturbance or intrusion here. The mulatto woman you have sometimes personated may be still in this house; I will appoint her to attend you. I suppose you can trust her, for you must personate her again, and escape in her clothes, while she takes your place in this room as my prisoner.”
Her voice had changed suddenly; it was no longer bitter and stridulous, but low and thrilling as he had heard her call to him that night in the patio of Robles. He turned quickly. She was leaning from the bed—her thin, white hands stretched appealingly towards him.
“Let us go together, Clarence,” she said eagerly. “Let us leave this horrible place—these wicked, cruel people—forever. Come with me! Come with me to my people—to my own faith—to my own house—which shall be yours! Come with me to defend it with your good sword, Clarence, against those vile invaders with whom you have nothing in common, and who are the dirt under your feet. Yes, yes! I know it!—I have done you wrong—I have lied to you when I spoke against your skill and power. You are a hero—a born leader of men! I know it! Have I not heard it from the men who have fought against you, and yet admired and understood you, ay, better than your own?—gallant men, Clarence, soldiers bred who did not know what you were to me nor how proud I was of you even while I hated you? Come with me! Think what we would do together—with one faith—one cause—one ambition! Think, Clarence, there is no limit you might not attain! We are no niggards of our rewards and honors—we have no hireling votes to truckle to—we know our friends! Even I—Clarence—I”—there was a strange pathos in the sudden humility that seemed to overcome her—“I have had my reward and known my power. I have been sent abroad, in the confidence of the highest—to the highest. Don’t turn from me. I am offering you no bribe, Clarence, only your deserts. Come with me. Leave these curs behind, and live the hero that you are!”
He turned his blazing eyes upon her.
“If you were a man”—he began passionately, then stopped.
“No! I am only a woman and must fight in a woman’s way,” she interrupted bitterly. “Yes! I intreat, I implore, I wheedle, I flatter, I fawn, I lie! I creep where you stand upright, and pass through doors to which you would not bow. You wear your blazon of honor on your shoulder; I hide mine in a slave’s gown. And yet I have worked and striven and suffered! Listen, Clarence,” her voice again sank to its appealing minor,—“I know what you men call ‘honor,’ that which makes you cling to a merely spoken word, or an empty oath. Well, let that pass! I am weary; I have done my share of this work, you have done yours. Let us both fly; let us leave the fight to those who shall come after us, and let us go together to some distant land where the sounds of these guns or the blood of our brothers no longer cry out to us for vengeance! There are those living here—I have met them, Clarence,” she went on hurriedly, “who think it wrong to lift up fratricidal hands in the struggle, yet who cannot live under the Northern yoke. They are,” her voice hesitated, “good men and women—they are respected—they are”—
“Recreants and slaves, before whom you, spy as you are—stand a queen!” broke in Brant, passionately. He stopped and turned towards the window. After a pause he came back again towards the bed—paused again and then said in a lower voice—“Four years ago, Alice, in the patio of our house at Robles, I might have listened to this proposal, and—I tremble to think—I might have accepted it! I loved you; I was as weak, as selfish, as unreflecting, my life was as purposeless—but for you—as the creatures you speak of. But give me now, at least, the credit of a devotion to my cause equal to your own—a credit which I have never denied you! For the night that you left me, I awoke to a sense of my own worthlessness and degradation—perhaps I have even to thank you for that awakening—and I realized the bitter truth. But that night I found my true vocation—my purpose, my manhood”—
A bitter laugh came from the pillow on which she had languidly thrown herself.
“I believe I left you with Mrs. Hooker—spare me the details.”
The blood rushed to Brant’s face and then receded as suddenly.
“You left me with Captain Pinckney, who had tempted you, and whom I killed!” he said furiously.
They were both staring savagely at each other. Suddenly he said, “Hush!” and sprang towards the door, as the sound of hurried footsteps echoed along the passage. But he was too late; it was thrown open to the officer of the guard, who appeared, standing on the threshold.
“Two Confederate officers arrested hovering around our pickets. They demand to see you.”
Before Brant could interpose, two men in riding cloaks of Confederate gray stepped into the room with a jaunty and self-confident air.
“Not demand, general,” said the foremost, a tall, distinguished-looking man, lifting his hand with a graceful deprecating air. “In fact, too sorry to bother you with an affair of no importance except to ourselves. A bit of after-dinner bravado brought us in contact with your pickets, and, of course, we had to take the consequences. Served us right, and we were lucky not to have got a bullet through us. Gad! I’m afraid my men would have been less discreet! I am Colonel Lagrange, of the 5th Tennessee; my young friend here is Captain Faulkner, of the 1st Kentucky. Some excuse for a youngster like him—none for me! I”—
He stopped, for his eyes suddenly fell upon the bed and its occupant. Both he and his companion started. But to the natural, unaffected dismay of a gentleman who had unwittingly intruded upon a lady’s bedchamber, Brant’s quick eye saw a more disastrous concern superadded. Colonel Lagrange was quick to recover himself, as they both removed their caps.
“A thousand pardons,” he said, hurriedly stepping backwards to the door. “But I hardly need say to a fellow-officer, general, that we had no idea of making so gross an intrusion! We heard some cock-and-bull story of your being occupied—cross-questioning an escaped or escaping nigger—or we should never have forced ourselves upon you.”
Brant glanced quickly at his wife. Her face had apparently become rigid on the entrance of the two men; her eyes were coldly fixed upon the ceiling. He bowed formally, and, with a wave of his hand towards the door, said,—
“I will hear your story below, gentleman.”
He followed them from the room, stopped to quietly turn the key in the lock, and then motioned them to precede him down the staircase.