“I am afraid I can only repeat, general, that our foolhardy freak has put us in collision with your sentries,” said Lagrange, with a slight hauteur, that replaced his former jauntiness; “and we were very properly made prisoners. If you will accept my parole, I have no doubt our commander will proceed to exchange a couple of gallant fellows of yours, whom I have had the honor of meeting within our own lines, and whom you must miss probably more than I fear our superiors miss us.”
“Whatever brought you here, gentlemen,” said Brant drily, “I am glad, for your sakes, that you are in uniform, although it does not, unfortunately, relieve me of an unpleasant duty.”
“I don’t think I understand you,” returned Lagrange, coldly.
“If you had not been in uniform, you would probably have been shot down as spies, without the trouble of capture,” said Brant quietly.
“Do you mean to imply, sir”—began Lagrange sternly.
“I mean to say that the existence of a Confederate spy between this camp and the division headquarters is sufficiently well known to us to justify the strongest action.”
“And pray, how can that affect us?” said Lagrange haughtily.
“I need not inform so old a soldier as Colonel Lagrange that the aiding, abetting, and even receiving information from a spy or traitor within one’s lines is an equally dangerous service.”
“Perhaps you would like to satisfy yourself, General,” said Colonel Lagrange, with an ironical laugh. “Pray do not hesitate on account of our uniform. Search us if you like.”
“Not on entering my lines, Colonel,” replied Brant, with quiet significance.
Lagrange’s cheek flushed. But he recovered himself quickly, and with a formal bow said,—
“You will, then, perhaps, let us know your pleasure?”
“My duty, Colonel, is to keep you both close prisoners here until I have an opportunity to forward you to the division commander, with a report of the circumstances of your arrest. That I propose to do. How soon I may have that opportunity, or if I am ever to have it,” continued Brant, fixing his clear eyes significantly on Lagrange, “depends upon the chances of war, which you probably understand as well as I do.”
“We should never think of making any calculation on the action of an officer of such infinite resources as General Brant,” said Lagrange ironically.
“You will, no doubt, have an opportunity of stating your own case to the division commander,” continued Brant, with an unmoved face. “And,” he continued, turning for the first time to Captain Faulkner, “when you tell the commander what I believe to be the fact—from your name and resemblance—that you are a relation of the young lady who for the last three weeks has been an inmate of this house under a pass from Washington, you will, I have no doubt, favorably explain your own propinquity to my lines.”
“My sister Tilly!” said the young officer impulsively. “But she is no longer here. She passed through the lines back to Washington yesterday. No,” he added, with a light laugh, “I’m afraid that excuse won’t count for to-day.”
A sudden frown upon the face of the elder officer, added to the perfect ingenuousness of Faulkner’s speech, satisfied Brant that he had not only elicited the truth, but that Miss Faulkner had been successful. But he was sincere in his suggestion that her relationship to the young officer would incline the division commander to look leniently upon his fault, for he was conscious of a singular satisfaction in thus being able to serve her. Of the real object of the two men before him he had no doubt. They were “the friends” of his wife, who were waiting for her outside the lines! Chance alone had saved her from being arrested with them, with the consequent exposure of her treachery before his own men, who, as yet, had no proof of her guilt, nor any suspicion of her actual identity. Meanwhile his own chance of conveying her with safety beyond his lines was not affected by the incident; the prisoners dare not reveal what they knew of her, and it was with a grim triumph that he thought of compassing her escape without their aid. Nothing of this, however, was visible in his face, which the younger man watched with a kind of boyish curiosity, while Colonel Lagrange regarded the ceiling with a politely repressed yawn. “I regret,” concluded Brant, as he summoned the officer of the guard, “that I shall have to deprive you of each other’s company during the time you are here; but I shall see that you, separately, want for nothing in your confinement.”
“If this is with a view to separate interrogatory, general, I can retire now,” said Lagrange, rising, with ironical politeness.
“I believe I have all the information I require,” returned Brant, with undisturbed composure. Giving the necessary orders to his subaltern, he acknowledged with equal calm the formal salutes of the two prisoners as they were led away, and returned quickly to his bedroom above. He paused instinctively for a moment before the closed door, and listened. There was no sound from within. He unlocked the door, and opened it.
So quiet was the interior that for an instant, without glancing at the bed, he cast a quick look at the window, which, till then, he had forgotten, and which he remembered gave upon the veranda roof. But it was still closed, and as he approached the bed, he saw his wife still lying there, in the attitude in which he had left her. But her eyes were ringed, and slightly filmed, as if with recent tears.
It was perhaps this circumstance that softened his voice, still harsh with command, as he said,—
“I suppose you knew those two men?”
“And that I have put it out of their power to help you?”
There was something so strangely submissive in her voice that he again looked suspiciously at her. But he was shocked to see that she was quite pale now, and that the fire had gone out of her dark eyes.
“Then I may tell you what is my plan to save you. But, first, you must find this mulatto woman who has acted as your double.”
“She is here.”
“How do you know it?” he asked, in quick suspicion.
“She was not to leave this place until she knew I was safe within our lines. I have some friends who are faithful to me.” After a pause she added, “She has been here already.”
He looked at her, startled. “Impossible—I”—
“You locked the door. Yes! but she has a second key. And even if she had not, there is another entrance from that closet. You do not know this house: you have been here two weeks; I spent two years of my life, as a girl, in this room.”
An indescribable sensation came over him; he remembered how he had felt when he first occupied it; this was followed by a keen sense of shame on reflecting that he had been, ever since, but a helpless puppet in the power of his enemies, and that she could have escaped if she would, even now.
“Perhaps,” he said grimly, “you have already arranged your plans?”
She looked at him with a singular reproachfulness even in her submission.
“I have only told her to be ready to change clothes with me and help me color my face and hands at the time appointed. I have left the rest to you.”
“Then this is my plan. I have changed only a detail. You and she must both leave this house at the same time, by different exits, but one of them must be private—and unknown to my men. Do you know of such a one?”
“Yes,” she said, “in the rear of the negro quarters.”
“Good,” he replied, “that will be your way out. She will leave here, publicly, through the parade, armed with a pass from me. She will be overhauled and challenged by the first sentry near the guardhouse, below the wall. She will be subjected to some delay and scrutiny, which she will, however, be able to pass better than you would. This will create the momentary diversion that we require. In the mean time, you will have left the house by the rear, and you will then keep in the shadow of the hedge until you can drop down along the Run, where it empties into the swamp. That,” he continued, fixing his keen eyes upon her, “is the one weak point in the position of this place that is neither overlooked nor defended. But perhaps,” he added again grimly, “you already know it.”
“It is the marsh where the flowers grow, near the path where you met Miss Faulkner. I had crossed the marsh to give her a letter,” she said slowly.
A bitter smile came over Brant’s face, but passed as quickly.
“Enough,” he said quietly, “I will meet you beside the Run, and cross the marsh with you until you are within hailing distance of your lines. I will be in plain clothes, Alice,” he went on slowly, “for it will not be the commander of this force who accompanies you, but your husband, and, without disgracing his uniform, he will drop to your level; for the instant he passes his own lines, in disguise, he will become, like you, a spy, and amenable to its penalties.”
Her eyes seemed suddenly to leap up to his with that strange look of awakening and enthusiasm which he had noted before. And in its complete prepossession of all her instincts she rose from the bed, unheeding her bared arms and shoulders and loosened hair, and stood upright before him. For an instant husband and wife regarded each other as unreservedly as in their own chamber at Robles.
“When shall I go?”
He glanced through the window already growing lighter with the coming dawn. The relief would pass in a few moments; the time seemed propitious.
“At once,” he said. “I will send Rose to you.”
But his wife had already passed into the closet, and was tapping upon some inner door. He heard the sound of hinges turning and the rustling of garments. She reappeared, holding the curtains of the closet together with her hand, and said,—
“Go! When she comes to your office for the pass, you will know that I have gone.”
He turned away.
“Stop!” she said faintly.
He turned back. Her expression had again changed. Her face was deadly pale; a strange tremor seemed to have taken possession of her. Her hands dropped from the curtain. Her beautiful arms moved slightly forward; it seemed to him that she would in the next moment have extended them towards him. But even then she said hurriedly, “Go! Go!” and slipped again behind the curtains.
He quickly descended the stairs as the sound of trampling feet on the road, and the hurried word of command, announced the return of the scouting party. The officer had little report to make beyond the fact that a morning mist, creeping along the valley, prevented any further observation, and bade fair to interrupt their own communications with the camp. Everything was quiet in the west, although the enemy’s lines along the ridge seemed to have receded.
Brant had listened impatiently, for a new idea had seized him. Hooker was of the party, and was the one man in whom he could partly confide, and obtain a disguise. He at once made his way to the commissary wagons—one of which he knew Hooker used as a tent. Hastily telling him that he wished to visit the pickets without recognition, he induced him to lend him his slouched hat and frock coat, leaving with him his own distinguishing tunic, hat, and sword. He resisted the belt and pistols which Hooker would have forced upon him. As he left the wagon he was amusedly conscious that his old companion was characteristically examining the garments he had left behind with mingled admiration and envy. But he did not know, as he slipped out of the camp, that Mr. Hooker was quietly trying them on, before a broken mirror in the wagon-head!
The gray light of that summer morning was already so strong that, to avoid detection, he quickly dropped into the shadow of the gully that sloped towards the Run. The hot mist which the scouts had seen was now lying like a tranquil sea between him and the pickets of the enemy’s rear-guard, which it seemed to submerge, and was clinging in moist tenuous swathes—like drawn-out cotton wool—along the ridge, half obliterating its face. From the valley in the rear it was already stealing in a thin white line up the slope like the advance of a ghostly column, with a stealthiness that, in spite of himself, touched him with superstitious significance. A warm perfume, languid and treacherous—as from the swamp magnolia—seemed to rise from the half-hidden marsh. An ominous silence, that appeared to be a part of this veiling of all things under the clear opal-tinted sky above, was so little like the hush of rest and peace, that he half-yearned for the outburst of musketry and tumult of attack that might dispel it. All that he had ever heard or dreamed of the insidious South, with its languid subtleties of climate and of race, seemed to encompass him here.
But the next moment he saw the figure he was waiting for stealing towards him from the shadow of the gulley beneath the negro quarters.
Even in that uncertain light there was no mistaking the tall figure, the gaudily striped clinging gown and turbaned head. And then a strange revulsion of feeling, quite characteristic of the emotional side of his singular temperament, overcame him. He was taking leave of his wife—the dream of his youth—perhaps forever! It should be no parting in anger as at Robles; it should be with a tenderness that would blot out their past in their separate memories—God knows! it might even be that a parting at that moment was a joining of them in eternity. In his momentary exaltation it even struck him that it was a duty, no less sacred, no less unselfish than the one to which he had devoted his life. The light was growing stronger; he could hear voices in the nearest picket line, and the sound of a cough in the invading mist. He made a hurried sign to the on-coming figure to follow him, ran ahead, and halted at last in the cover of a hackmatack bush. Still gazing forward over the marsh, he stealthily held out his hand behind him as the rustling skirt came nearer. At last his hand was touched—but even at that touch he started and turned quickly.
It was not his wife, but Rose!—her mulatto double! Her face was rigid with fright, her beady eyes staring in their china sockets, her white teeth chattering. Yet she would have spoken.
“Hush!” he said, clutching her hand, in a fierce whisper. “Not a word!”
She was holding something white in her fingers; he snatched it quickly. It was a note from his wife—not in the disguised hand of her first warning, but in one that he remembered as if it were a voice from their past.
“Forgive me for disobeying you to save you from capture, disgrace, or death—which would have come to you where you were going! I have taken Rose’s pass. You need not fear that your honor will suffer by it, for if I am stopped I shall confess that I took it from her. Think no more of me, Clarence, but only of yourself. You are in danger.”
He crushed the letter in his hand.
“Tell me,” he said in a fierce whisper, seizing her arm, “and speak low. When did you leave her?”
“Sho’ly just now!” gasped the frightened woman.
He flung her aside. There might be still time to overtake and save her before she reached the picket lines. He ran up the gully, and out on to the slope towards the first guard-post. But a familiar challenge reached his ear, and his heart stopped beating.
“Who goes there?”
There was a pause, a rattle of arms voices—another pause—and Brant stood breathlessly listening. Then the voice rose again slowly and clearly: “Pass the mulatto woman!”
Thank God! she was saved! But the thought had scarcely crossed his mind before it seemed to him that a blinding crackle of sparks burst out along the whole slope below the wall, a characteristic yell which he knew too well rang in his ears, and an undulating line of dusty figures came leaping like gray wolves out of the mist upon his pickets. He heard the shouts of his men falling back as they fired; the harsh commands of a few officers hurrying to their posts, and knew that he had been hopelessly surprised and surrounded!
He ran forward among his disorganized men. To his consternation no one seemed to heed him! Then the remembrance of his disguise flashed upon him. But he had only time to throw away his hat and snatch a sword from a falling lieutenant, before a scorching flash seemed to pass before his eyes and burn through his hair, and he dropped like a log beside his subaltern.
“Until a few moments ago, the report was that you had been captured in the first rush of the rear-guard which we were rolling up for your attack, and when you were picked up, just now, in plain clothes on the slope, you were not recognized. The one thing seemed to be as improbable as the other,” he added significantly.
The miserable truth flashed across Brant’s mind. Hooker must have been captured in his clothes—perhaps in some extravagant sally—and had not been recognized in the confusion by his own officers. Nevertheless, he raised his eyes to his superior.
“You got my note?”
The general’s brow darkened.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “but finding you thus unprepared—I had been thinking just now that you had been deceived by that woman—or by others—and that it was a clumsy forgery.” He stopped, and seeing the hopeless bewilderment in the face of the wounded man, added more kindly: “But we will not talk of that in your present condition. The doctor says a few hours will put you straight again. Get strong, for I want you to lose no time—for your own sake—to report yourself at Washington.”
“Report myself—at Washington!” repeated Brant slowly.
“That was last night’s order,” said the commander, with military curtness. Then he burst out: “I don’t understand it, Brant! I believe you have been misunderstood, misrepresented, perhaps maligned and I shall make it my business to see the thing through—but those are the Department orders. And for the present—I am sorry to say you are relieved of your command.”
He turned away, and Brant closed his eyes. With them it seemed to him that he closed his career. No one would ever understand his explanation—even had he been tempted to give one, and he knew he never would. Everything was over now! Even this wretched bullet had not struck him fairly, and culminated his fate as it might! For an instant, he recalled his wife’s last offer to fly with him beyond the seas—beyond this cruel injustice—but even as he recalled it, he knew that flight meant the worst of all—a half-confession! But she had escaped! Thank God for that! Again and again in his hopeless perplexity this comfort returned to him,—he had saved her; he had done his duty. And harping upon this in his strange fatalism, it at last seemed to him that this was for what he had lived—for what he had suffered—for what he had fitly ended his career. Perhaps it was left for him now to pass his remaining years in forgotten exile—even as his father had—his father!—his breath came quickly at the thought—God knows! perhaps as wrongfully accused! It may have been a Providence that she had borne him no child, to whom this dreadful heritage could be again transmitted.
There was something of this strange and fateful resignation in his face, a few hours later, when he was able to be helped again into the saddle. But he could see in the eyes of the few comrades who commiseratingly took leave of him, a vague, half-repressed awe of some indefinite weakness in the man, that mingled with their heartfelt parting with a gallant soldier. Yet even this touched him no longer. He cast a glance at the house and the room where he had parted from her, at the slope from which she had passed—and rode away.
And then, as his figure disappeared down the road, the restrained commentary of wonder, surmise, and criticism broke out:—
“It must have been something mighty bad, for the old man, who swears by him, looked rather troubled. And it was deuced queer, you know, this changing clothes with somebody, just before this surprise!”
“Nonsense! It’s something away back of that! Didn’t you hear the old man say that the orders for him to report himself came from Washington last night? No!”—the speaker lowered his voice—“Strangeways says that he had regularly sold himself out to one of them d——d secesh woman spies! It’s the old Marc Antony business over again!”
“Now I think of it,” said a younger subaltern, “he did seem mightily taken with one of those quadroons or mulattoes he issued orders against. I suppose that was a blind for us! I remember the first day he saw her; he was regularly keen to know all about her.”
Major Curtis gave a short laugh.
“That mulatto, Martin, was a white woman, burnt-corked! She was trying to get through the lines last night, and fell off a wall or got a knock on the head from a sentry’s carbine. When she was brought in, Doctor Simmons set to washing the blood off her face; the cork came off and the whole thing came out. Brant hushed it up—and the woman, too—in his own quarters! It’s supposed now that she got away somehow in the rush!”
“It goes further back than that, gentlemen,” said the adjutant authoritatively. “They say his wife was a howling secessionist, four years ago, in California, was mixed up in a conspiracy, and he had to leave on account of it. Look how thick he and that Miss Faulkner became, before he helped her off!”
“That’s your jealousy, Tommy; she knew he was, by all odds, the biggest man here, and a good deal more, too, and you had no show!”
In the laugh that followed, it would seem that Brant’s eulogy had been spoken and forgotten. But as Lieutenant Martin was turning away, a lingering corporal touched his cap.
“You were speaking of those prowling mulattoes, sir. You know the general passed one out this morning.”
“So I have heard.”
“I reckon she didn’t get very far. It was just at the time that we were driven in by their first fire, and I think she got her share of it, too. Do you mind walking this way, sir!”
The lieutenant did not mind, although he rather languidly followed. When they had reached the top of the gully, the corporal pointed to what seemed to be a bit of striped calico hanging on a thorn bush in the ravine.
“That’s her,” said the corporal. “I know the dress; I was on guard when she was passed. The searchers, who were picking up our men, haven’t got to her yet; but she ain’t moved or stirred these two hours. Would you like to go down and see her?”
The lieutenant hesitated. He was young, and slightly fastidious as to unnecessary unpleasantness. He believed he would wait until the searchers brought her up, when the corporal might call him.
The mist came up gloriously from the swamp like a golden halo. And as Clarence Brant, already forgotten, rode moodily through it towards Washington, hugging to his heart the solitary comfort of his great sacrifice, his wife, Alice Brant, for whom he had made it, was lying in the ravine, dead and uncared for. Perhaps it was part of the inconsistency of her sex that she was pierced with the bullets of those she had loved, and was wearing the garments of the race that she had wronged.