Part II

Chapter III

Bret Harte

CALLED to a general council of officers at divisional headquarters the next day, Brant had little time for further speculation regarding his strange guest, but a remark from the division commander, that he preferred to commit the general plan of a movement then under discussion to their memories rather than to written orders in the ordinary routine, seemed to show that his chief still suspected the existence of a spy. He, therefore, told him of his late interview with Miss Faulkner, and her probable withdrawal in favor of a mulatto neighbor. The division commander received the information with indifference.

“They’re much too clever to employ a hussy like that, who shows her hand at every turn, either as a spy or a messenger of spies,—and the mulattoes are too stupid, to say nothing of their probable fidelity to us. No, General, if we are watched, it is by an eagle, and not a mocking-bird. Miss Faulkner has nothing worse about her than her tongue; and there isn’t the nigger blood in the whole South that would risk a noose for her, or for any of their masters or mistresses!”

It was, therefore, perhaps, with some mitigation of his usual critical severity that he saw her walking before him alone in the lane as he rode home to quarters. She was apparently lost in a half-impatient, half-moody reverie, which even the trotting hoof-beats of his own and his orderly’s horse had not disturbed. From time to time she struck the myrtle hedge beside her with the head of a large flower which hung by its stalk from her listless hands, or held it to her face as if to inhale its perfume. Dismissing his orderly by a side path, he rode gently forward, but, to his surprise, without turning, or seeming to be aware of his presence, she quickened her pace, and even appeared to look from side to side for some avenue of escape. If only to mend matters, he was obliged to ride quickly forward to her side, where he threw himself from his horse, flung the reins on his arm, and began to walk beside her. She at first turned a slightly flushed cheek away from him, and then looked up with a purely simulated start of surprise.

“I am afraid,” he said gently, “that I am the first to break my own orders in regard to any intrusion on your privacy. But I wanted to ask you if I could give you any aid whatever in the change you think of making.”

He was quite sincere,—had been touched by her manifest disturbance, and, despite his masculine relentlessness of criticism, he had an intuition of feminine suffering that was in itself feminine.

“Meaning, that you are in a hurry to get rid of me,” she said curtly, without raising her eyes.

“Meaning that I only wish to expedite a business which I think is unpleasant to you, but which I believe you have undertaken from unselfish devotion.”

The scant expression of a reserved nature is sometimes more attractive to women than the most fluent vivacity. Possibly there was also a melancholy grace in this sardonic soldier’s manner that affected her, for she looked up, and said impulsively,—

“You think so?”

But he met her eager eyes with some surprise.

“I certainly do,” he replied more coldly. “I can imagine your feelings on finding your uncle’s home in the possession of your enemies, and your presence under the family roof only a sufferance. I can hardly believe it a pleasure to you, or a task you would have accepted for yourself alone.”

“But,” she said, turning towards him wickedly, “what if I did it only to excite my revenge; what if I knew it would give me courage to incite my people to carry war into your own homes; to make you of the North feel as I feel, and taste our bitterness?”

“I could easily understand that, too,” he returned, with listless coldness, “although I don’t admit that revenge is an unmixed pleasure, even to a woman.”

“A woman!” she repeated indignantly. “There is no sex in a war like this.”

“You are spoiling your flower,” he said quietly. “It is very pretty, and a native one, too; not an invader, or even transplanted. May I look at it?”

She hesitated, half recoiling for an instant, and her hand trembled. Then, suddenly and abruptly she said, with a hysteric little laugh, “Take it, then,” and almost thrust it in his hand.

It certainly was a pretty flower, not unlike a lily in appearance, with a bell-like cup and long anthers covered with a fine pollen, like red dust. As he lifted it to his face, to inhale its perfume, she uttered a slight cry, and snatched it from his hand.

“There!” she said, with the same nervous laugh. “I knew you would; I ought to have warned you. The pollen comes off so easily, and leaves a stain. And you’ve got some on your cheek. Look!” she continued, taking her handkerchief from her pocket and wiping his cheek; “see there!” The delicate cambric showed a blood-red streak.

“It grows in a swamp,” she continued, in the same excited strain; “we call it dragon’s teeth,—like the kind that was sown in the story, you know. We children used to find it, and then paint our faces and lips with it. We called it our rouge. I was almost tempted to try it again when I found it just now. It took me back so to the old times.”

Following her odd manner rather than her words, as she turned her face towards him suddenly, Brant was inclined to think that she had tried it already, so scarlet was her cheek. But it presently paled again under his cold scrutiny.

“You must miss the old times,” he said calmly. “I am afraid you found very little of them left, except in these flowers.”

“And hardly these,” she said bitterly. “Your troops had found a way through the marsh, and had trampled down the bushes.”

Brant’s brow clouded. He remembered that the brook, which had run red during the fight, had lost itself in this marsh. It did not increase his liking for this beautiful but blindly vicious animal at his side, and even his momentary pity for her was fading fast. She was incorrigible. They walked on for a few moments in silence.

“You said,” she began at last, in a gentler and even hesitating voice, “that your wife was a Southern woman.”

He checked an irritated start with difficulty.

“I believe I did,” he said coldly, as if he regretted it.

“And of course you taught her your gospel,—the gospel according to St. Lincoln. Oh, I know,” she went on hurriedly, as if conscious of his irritation and seeking to allay it. “She was a woman and loved you, and thought with your thoughts and saw only with your eyes. Yes, that’s the way with us,—I suppose we all do it!” she added bitterly.

“She had her own opinions,” said Brant briefly, as he recovered himself.

Nevertheless, his manner so decidedly closed all further discussion that there was nothing left for the young girl but silence. But it was broken by her in a few moments in her old contemptuous voice and manner.

“Pray don’t trouble yourself to accompany me any further, General Brant. Unless, of course, you are afraid I may come across some of your—your soldiers. I promise you I won’t eat them.”

“I am afraid you must suffer my company a little longer, Miss Faulkner, on account of those same soldiers,” returned Brant gravely. “You may not know that this road, in which I find you, takes you through a cordon of pickets. If you were alone you would be stopped, questioned, and, failing to give the password, you would be detained, sent to the guard-house, and”—he stopped, and fixed his eyes on her keenly as he added, “and searched.”

“You would not dare to search a woman!” she said indignantly, although her flush gave way to a slight pallor.

“You said just now that there should be no sex in a war like this,” returned Brant carelessly, but without abating his scrutinizing gaze.

“Then it is war?” she said quickly, with a white, significant face.

His look of scrutiny turned to one of puzzled wonder. But at the same moment there was the flash of a bayonet in the hedge, a voice called “Halt!” and a soldier stepped into the road.

General Brant advanced, met the salute of the picket with a few formal words, and then turned towards his fair companion, as another soldier and a sergeant joined the group.

“Miss Faulkner is new to the camp, took the wrong turning, and was unwittingly leaving the lines when I joined her.” He fixed his eyes intently on her now colorless face, but she did not return his look. “You will show her the shortest way to quarters,” he continued, to the sergeant, “and should she at any time again lose her way, you will again conduct her home,—but without detaining or reporting her.”

He lifted his cap, remounted his horse, and rode away, as the young girl, with a proud, indifferent step, moved down the road with the sergeant. A mounted officer passed him and saluted,—it was one of his own staff. From some strange instinct, he knew that he had witnessed the scene, and from some equally strange intuition he was annoyed by it. But he continued his way, visiting one or two outposts, and returned by a long detour to his quarters. As he stepped upon the veranda he saw Miss Faulkner at the bottom of the garden talking with some one across the hedge. By the aid of his glass he could recognize the shapely figure of the mulatto woman which he had seen before. But by its aid he also discovered that she was carrying a flower exactly like the one which Miss Faulkner still held in her hand. Had she been with Miss Faulkner in the lane, and if so, why had she disappeared when he came up? Impelled by something stronger than mere curiosity, he walked quickly down the garden, but she evidently had noticed him, for she as quickly disappeared. Not caring to meet Miss Faulkner again, he retraced his steps, resolving that he would, on the first opportunity, personally examine and interrogate this new visitor. For if she were to take Miss Faulkner’s place in a subordinate capacity, this precaution was clearly within his rights.

He re-entered his room and seated himself at his desk before the dispatches, orders, and reports awaiting him. He found himself, however, working half mechanically, and recurring to his late interview with Miss Faulkner in the lane. If she had any inclination to act the spy, or to use her position here as a means of communicating with the enemy’s lines, he thought he had thoroughly frightened her. Nevertheless, now, for the first time, he was inclined to accept his chief’s opinion of her. She was not only too clumsy and inexperienced, but she totally lacked the self-restraint of a spy. Her nervous agitation in the lane was due to something more disturbing than his mere possible intrusion upon her confidences with the mulatto. The significance of her question, “Then it is war?” was at best a threat, and that implied hesitation. He recalled her strange allusion to his wife; was it merely the outcome of his own foolish confession on their first interview, or was it a concealed ironical taunt? Being satisfied, however, that she was not likely to imperil his public duty in any way, he was angry with himself for speculating further. But, although he still felt towards her the same antagonism she had at first provoked, he was conscious that she was beginning to exercise a strange fascination over him.

Dismissing her at last with an effort, he finished his work and then rose, and unlocking a closet, took out a small dispatch-box, to which he intended to intrust a few more important orders and memoranda. As he opened it with a key on his watch-chain, he was struck with a faint perfume that seemed to come from it,—a perfume that he remembered. Was it the smell of the flower that Miss Faulkner carried, or the scent of the handkerchief with which she had wiped his cheek, or a mingling of both? Or was he under some spell to think of that wretched girl, and her witch-like flower? He leaned over the box and suddenly started. Upon the outer covering of a dispatch was a singular blood-red streak! He examined it closely,—it was the powdery stain of the lily pollen,—exactly as he had seen it on her handkerchief.

There could be no mistake. He passed his finger over the stain; he could still feel the slippery, infinitesimal powder of the pollen. It was not there when he had closed the box that morning; it was impossible that it should be there unless the box had been opened in his absence. He re-examined the contents of the box; the papers were all there. More than that, they were papers of no importance except to him personally; contained no plans nor key to any military secret; he had been far too wise to intrust any to the accidents of this alien house. The prying intruder, whoever it was, had gained nothing! But there was unmistakably the attempt! And the existence of a would-be spy within the purlieus of the house was equally clear.

He called an officer from the next room.

“Has any one been here since my absence?”

“No, General.”

“Has any one passed through the hall?”

He had fully anticipated the answer, as the subaltern replied, “Only the women servants.”

He re-entered the room. Closing the door, he again carefully examined the box, his table, the papers upon it, the chair before it, and even the Chinese matting on the floor, for any further indication of the pollen. It hardly seemed possible that any one could have entered the room with the flower in their hand without scattering some of the tell-tale dust elsewhere; it was too large a flower to be worn on the breast or in the hair. Again, no one would have dared to linger there long enough to have made an examination of the box, with an officer in the next room, and the sergeant passing. The box had been removed, and the examination made elsewhere!

An idea seized him. Miss Faulkner was still absent, the mulatto had apparently gone home. He quickly mounted the staircase, but instead of entering his room, turned suddenly aside into the wing which had been reserved. The first door yielded as he turned its knob gently and entered a room which he at once recognized as the “young lady’s boudoir.” But the dusty and draped furniture had been rearranged and uncovered, and the apartment bore every sign of present use. Yet, although there was unmistakable evidence of its being used by a person of taste and refinement, he was surprised to see that the garments hanging in an open press were such as were used by negro servants, and that a gaudy handkerchief such as housemaids used for turbans was lying on the pretty silk coverlet. He did not linger over these details, but cast a rapid glance round the room. Then his eyes became fixed on a fanciful writing-desk, which stood by the window. For, in a handsome vase placed on its level top, and drooping on a portfolio below, hung a cluster of the very flowers that Miss Faulkner had carried!

Clarence - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter IV

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