Part II

Chapter IV

Bret Harte

IT SEEMED plain to Brant that the dispatch-box had been conveyed here and opened for security on this desk, and in the hurry of examining the papers the flower had been jostled and the fallen grains of pollen overlooked by the spy. There were one or two freckles of red on the desk, which made this accident appear the more probable. But he was equally struck by another circumstance. The desk stood immediately before the window. As he glanced mechanically from it, he was surprised to see that it commanded an extensive view of the slope below the eminence on which the house stood, even beyond his furthest line of pickets. The vase of flowers, each of which was nearly as large as a magnolia blossom, and striking in color, occupied a central position before it, and no doubt could be quite distinctly seen from a distance. From this circumstance he could not resist the strong impression that this fateful and extraordinary blossom, carried by Miss Faulkner and the mulatto, and so strikingly “in evidence” at the window, was in some way a signal. Obeying an impulse which he was conscious had a half superstitious foundation, he carefully lifted the vase from its position before the window, and placed it on a side table. Then he cautiously slipped from the room.

But he could not easily shake off the perplexity which the occurrence had caused, although he was satisfied that it was fraught with no military or strategic danger to his command, and that the unknown spy had obtained no information whatever. Yet he was forced to admit to himself that he was more concerned in his attempts to justify the conduct of Miss Faulkner with this later revelation. It was quite possible that the dispatch-box had been purloined by some one else during her absence from the house, as the presence of the mulatto servant in his room would have been less suspicious than hers. There was really little evidence to connect Miss Faulkner with the actual outrage,—rather might not the real spy have taken advantage of her visit here, to throw suspicion upon her? He remembered her singular manner,—the strange inconsistency with which she had forced this flower upon him. She would hardly have done so had she been conscious of its having so serious an import. Yet, what was the secret of her manifest agitation? A sudden inspiration flashed across his mind; a smile came upon his lips. She was in love! The enemy’s line contained some sighing Strephon of a young subaltern with whom she was in communication, and for whom she had undertaken this quest. The flower was their language of correspondence, no doubt. It explained also the young girl’s animosity against the younger officers,—his adversaries; against himself,—their commander. He had previously wondered why, if she were indeed a spy, she had not chosen, upon some equally specious order from Washington, the headquarters of the division commander, whose secrets were more valuable. This was explained by the fact that she was nearer the lines and her lover in her present abode. He had no idea that he was making excuses for her,—he believed himself only just. The recollection of what she had said of the power of love, albeit it had hurt him cruelly at the time, was now clearer to him, and even seemed to mitigate her offense. She would be here but a day or two longer; he could afford to wait without interrogating her.

But as to the real intruder, spy or thief,—that was another affair, and quickly settled. He gave an order to the officer of the day peremptorily forbidding the entrance of alien servants or slaves within the precincts of the headquarters. Any one thus trespassing was to be brought before him. The officer looked surprised, he even fancied disappointed. The graces of the mulatto woman’s figure had evidently not been thrown away upon his subalterns.

An hour or two later, when he was mounting his horse for a round of inspection, he was surprised to see Miss Faulkner, accompanied by the mulatto woman, running hurriedly to the house. He had forgotten his late order until he saw the latter halted by the sentries, but the young girl came flying on, regardless of her companion. Her skirt was held in one hand, her straw hat had fallen back in her flight, and was caught only by a ribbon around her swelling throat, and her loosened hair lay in a black rippled loop on one shoulder. For an instant Brant thought that she was seeking him in indignation at his order, but a second look at her set face, eager eyes, and parted scarlet lips, showed him that she had not even noticed him in the concentration of her purpose. She swept by him into the hall, he heard the swish of her skirt and rapid feet on the stairs,—she was gone. What had happened, or was this another of her moods?

But he was called to himself by the apparition of a corporal standing before him, with the mulatto woman,—the first capture under his order. She was tall, well-formed, but unmistakably showing the negro type, even in her small features. Her black eyes were excited, but unintelligent; her manner dogged, but with the obstinacy of half-conscious stupidity. Brant felt not only disappointed, but had a singular impression that she was not the same woman that he had first seen. Yet there was the tall, graceful figure, the dark profile, and the turbaned head that he had once followed down the passage by his room.

Her story was as stupidly simple. She had known “Missy” from a chile! She had just traipsed over to see her that afternoon; they were walking together when the sojers stopped her. She had never been stopped before, even by “the patter rollers.”1 Her old massa (Manly) had gib leaf to go see Miss Tilly, and hadn’t said nuffin about no “orders.”

More annoyed than he cared to confess, Brant briefly dismissed her with a warning. As he cantered down the slope the view of the distant pickets recalled the window in the wing, and he turned in his saddle to look at it. There it was—the largest and most dominant window in that part of the building—and within it, a distinct and vivid object almost filling the opening, was the vase of flowers, which he had a few hours ago removed, restored to its original position! He smiled. The hurried entrance and consternation of Miss Faulkner were now fully explained. He had interrupted some impassioned message, perhaps even countermanded some affectionate rendezvous beyond the lines. And it seemed to settle the fact that it was she who had done the signaling! But would not this also make her cognizant of the taking of the dispatch-box? He reflected, however, that the room was apparently occupied by the mulatto woman—he remembered the calico dresses and turban on the bed—and it was possible that Miss Faulkner had only visited it for the purpose of signaling to her lover. Although this circumstance did not tend to make his mind easier, it was, however, presently diverted by a new arrival and a strange recognition.

As he rode through the camp a group of officers congregated before a large mess tent appeared to be highly amused by the conversation—half monologue and half harangue of a singular-looking individual who stood in the centre. He wore a “slouch” hat, to the band of which he had imparted a military air by the addition of a gold cord, but the brim was caught up at the side in a peculiarly theatrical and highly artificial fashion. A heavy cavalry sabre depended from a broad-buckled belt under his black frock coat, with the addition of two revolvers—minus their holsters—stuck on either side of the buckle, after the style of a stage smuggler. A pair of long enameled leather riding boots, with the tops turned deeply over, as if they had once done duty for the representative of a cavalier, completed his extraordinary equipment. The group were so absorbed in him that they did not perceive the approach of their chief and his orderly; and Brant, with a sign to the latter, halted only a few paces from this central figure. His speech was a singular mingling of high-flown and exalted epithets, with inexact pronunciation and occasional lapses of Western slang.

“Well, I ain’t purtendin’ to any stratutegical smartness, and I didn’t gradooate at West Point as one of those Apocryphal Engineers; I don’t do much talking about ‘flank’ movements or ‘recognizances in force’ or ‘Ekellon skirmishing,’ but when it comes down to square Ingin fightin’, I reckon I kin have my say. There are men who don’t know the Army Contractor,” he added darkly, “who mebbe have heard of ‘Red Jim.’ I don’t mention names, gentlemen, but only the other day a man that you all know says to me, ‘If I only knew what you do about scoutin’ I wouldn’t be wanting for information as I do.’ I ain’t goin’ to say who it was, or break any confidences between gentlemen by saying how many stars he had on his shoulder strap; but he was a man who knew what he was saying. And I say agin, gentlemen, that the curse of the Northern Army is the want of proper scoutin’. What was it caused Bull’s Run?—Want o’ scoutin’. What was it rolled up Pope?—Want o’ scoutin’. What caused the slaughter at the Wilderness?—Want o’ scoutin’—Ingin scoutin’! Why, only the other day, gentlemen, I was approached to know what I’d take to organize a scoutin’ force. And what did I say?—‘No, General; it ain’t because I represent one of the largest Army Beef Contracts in this country,’ says I. ‘It ain’t because I belong, so to speak, to the “Sinews of War;” but because I’d want about ten thousand trained Ingins from the Reservations!’ And the regular West Point, high-toned, scientific inkybus that weighs so heavily on our army don’t see it—and won’t have it! Then Sherman, he sez to me”—

But here a roar of laughter interrupted him, and in the cross fire of sarcastic interrogations that began Brant saw, with relief, a chance of escape. For in the voice, manner, and, above all, the characteristic temperament of the stranger, he had recognized his old playmate and the husband of Susy,—the redoubtable Jim Hooker! There was no mistaking that gloomy audacity; that mysterious significance; that magnificent lying. But even at that moment Clarence Brant’s heart had gone out, with all his old loyalty of feeling, towards his old companion. He knew that a public recognition of him then and there would plunge Hooker into confusion; he felt keenly the ironical plaudits and laughter of his officers over the manifest weakness and vanity of the ex-teamster, ex-rancher, ex-actor, and husband of his old girl sweetheart, and would have spared him the knowledge that he had overheard it. Turning hastily to the orderly, he bade him bring the stranger to his headquarters, and rode away unperceived.

He had heard enough, however, to account for his presence there, and the singular chance that had brought them again together. He was evidently one of those large civil contractors of supplies whom the Government was obliged to employ, who visited the camp half officially, and whom the army alternately depended upon and abused. Brant had dealt with his underlings in the Commissariat, and even now remembered that he had heard he was coming, but had overlooked the significance of his name. But how he came to leave his theatrical profession, how he had attained a position which implied a command of considerable capital—for many of the contractors had already amassed large fortunes—and what had become of Susy and her ambitions in this radical change of circumstances, were things still to be learned. In his own changed conditions he had seldom thought of her; it was with a strange feeling of irritation and half responsibility that he now recalled their last interview and the emotion to which he had yielded.

He had not long to wait. He had scarcely regained the quarters at his own private office before he heard the step of the orderly upon the veranda and the trailing clank of Hooker’s sabre. He did not know, however, that Hooker, without recognizing his name, had received the message as a personal tribute, and had left his sarcastic companions triumphantly, with the air of going to a confidential interview, to which his well-known military criticism had entitled him. It was with a bearing of gloomy importance and his characteristic, sullen, sidelong glance that he entered the apartment and did not look up until Brant had signaled the orderly to withdraw, and closed the door behind him. And then he recognized his old boyish companion—the preferred favorite of fortune!

For a moment he gasped with astonishment. For a moment gloomy incredulity, suspicion, delight, pride, admiration, even affection, struggled for mastery in his sullen, staring eyes and open, twitching mouth. For here was Clarence Brant, handsomer than ever, more superior than ever, in the majesty of uniform and authority which fitted him—the younger man—by reason of his four years of active service, with the careless ease and bearing of the veteran! Here was the hero whose name was already so famous that the mere coincidence of it with that of the modest civilian he had known would have struck him as preposterous. Yet here he was—supreme, and dazzling—surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of war—into whose reserved presence he, Jim Hooker, had been ushered with the formality of challenge, saluting, and presented bayonets!

Luckily, Brant had taken advantage of his first gratified ejaculation to shake him warmly by the hand, and then, with both hands laid familiarly on his shoulder, force him down into a chair. Luckily, for by that time Jim Hooker had, with characteristic gloominess, found time to taste the pangs of envy—an envy the more keen since, in spite of his success as a peaceful contractor, he had always secretly longed for military display and distinction. He looked at the man who had achieved it, as he firmly believed, by sheer luck and accident, and his eyes darkened. Then, with characteristic weakness and vanity, he began to resist his first impressions of Clarence’s superiority, and to air his own importance. He leaned heavily back in the chair in which he had been thus genially forced, drew off his gauntlet and attempted to thrust it through his belt, as he had seen Brant do, but failed on account of his pistols already occupying that position, dropped it, got his sword between his legs in attempting to pick it up, and then leaned back again, with half-closed eyes serenely indifferent of his old companion’s smiling face.

“I reckon,” he began slowly, with a slightly patronizing air, “that we’d have met, sooner or later, at Washington, or at Grant’s headquarters, for Hooker, Meacham & Co. go everywhere, and are about as well known as major-generals, to say nothin’,” he went on, with a sidelong glance at Brant’s shoulder-straps, “of brigadiers; and it’s rather strange—only, of course, you’re kind of fresh in the service—that you ain’t heard of me afore.”

“But I’m very glad to hear of you now, Jim,” said Brant, smiling, “and from your own lips—which I am also delighted to find,” he added mischievously, “are still as frankly communicative on that topic as of old. But I congratulate you, old fellow, on your good fortune. When did you leave the stage?”

Mr. Hooker frowned slightly.

“I never was really on the stage, you know,” he said, waving his hand with assumed negligence. “Only went on to please my wife. Mrs. Hooker wouldn’t act with vulgar professionals, don’t you see! I was really manager most of the time, and lessee of the theatre. Went East when the war broke out, to offer my sword and knowledge of Ingin fightin’ to Uncle Sam! Drifted into a big pork contract at St. Louis, with Fremont. Been at it ever since. Offered a commission in the reg’lar service lots o’ times. Refused.”

“Why?” asked Brant demurely.

“Too much West Point starch around to suit me,” returned Hooker darkly. “And too many spies!”

“Spies?” echoed Brant abstractedly, with a momentary reminiscence of Miss Faulkner.

“Yes, spies,” continued Hooker, with dogged mystery. “One half of Washington is watching t’other half, and, from the President’s wife down, most of the women are secesh!”

Brant suddenly fixed his keen eyes on his guest. But the next moment he reflected that this was only Jim Hooker’s usual speech, and possessed no ulterior significance. He smiled again, and said, more gently,—

“And how is Mrs. Hooker?”

Mr. Hooker fixed his eyes on the ceiling, rose, and pretended to look out of the window; then, taking his seat again by the table, as if fronting an imaginary audience, and pulling slowly at his gauntlets after the usual theatrical indication of perfect sangfroid, said,—

“There ain’t any!”

“Good heavens!” said Brant, with genuine emotion. “I beg your pardon. Really, I”—

“Mrs. Hooker and me are divorced,” continued Hooker, slightly changing his attitude, and leaning heavily on his sabre, with his eyes still on his fanciful audience. “There was, you understand”—lightly tossing his gauntlet aside—“incompatibility of temper—and—we—parted! Ha!”

He uttered a low, bitter, scornful laugh, which, however, produced the distinct impression in Brant’s mind that up to that moment he had never had the slightest feeling in the matter whatever.

“You seemed to be on such good terms with each other!” murmured Brant vaguely.

“Seemed!” said Hooker bitterly, glancing sardonically at an ideal second row in the pit before him, “yes—seemed! There were other differences, social and political. You understand that; you have suffered, too.” He reached out his hand and pressed Brant’s, in heavy effusiveness. “But,” he continued haughtily, lightly tossing his glove again, “we are also men of the world; we let that pass.”

And it was possible that he found the strain of his present attitude too great, for he changed to an easier position.

“But,” said Brant curiously, “I always thought that Mrs. Hooker was intensely Union and Northern?”

“Put on!” said Hooker, in his natural voice.

“But you remember the incident of the flag?” persisted Brant.

“Mrs. Hooker was always an actress,” said Hooker significantly. “But,” he added cheerfully, “Mrs. Hooker is now the wife of Senator Boompointer, one of the wealthiest and most powerful Republicans in Washington—carries the patronage of the whole West in his vest pocket.”

“Yet, if she is not a Republican, why did she”—began Brant.

“For a purpose,” replied Hooker darkly. “But,” he added again, with greater cheerfulness, “she belongs to the very elite of Washington society. Goes to all the foreign ambassadors’ balls, and is a power at the White House. Her picture is in all the first-class illustrated papers.”

The singular but unmistakable pride of the man in the importance of the wife from whom he was divorced, and for whom he did not care, would have offended Brant’s delicacy, or at least have excited his ridicule, but for the reason that he was more deeply stung by Hooker’s allusion to his own wife and his degrading similitude of their two conditions. But he dismissed the former as part of Hooker’s invincible and still boyish extravagance, and the latter as part of his equally characteristic assumption. Perhaps he was conscious, too, notwithstanding the lapse of years and the condonation of separation and forgetfulness, that he deserved little delicacy from the hands of Susy’s husband. Nevertheless, he dreaded to hear him speak again of her; and the fear was realized in a question.

“Does she know you are here?”

“Who?” said Brant curtly.

“Your wife. That is—I reckon she’s your wife still, eh?”

“Yes; but I do not know what she knows,” returned Brant quietly. He had regained his self-composure.

“Susy,—Mrs. Senator Boompointer, that is,”—said Hooker, with an apparent dignity in his late wife’s new title, “allowed that she’d gone abroad on a secret mission from the Southern Confederacy to them crowned heads over there. She was good at ropin’ men in, you know. Anyhow, Susy, afore she was Mrs. Boompointer, was dead set on findin’ out where she was, but never could. She seemed to drop out of sight a year ago. Some said one thing, and some said another. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Mrs. Senator Boompointer, who knows how to pull all the wires in Washington, will know, if any one does.”

“But is Mrs. Boompointer really disaffected, and a Southern sympathizer?” said Brant, “or is it only caprice or fashion?”

While speaking he had risen, with a half-abstracted face, and had gone to the window, where he stood in a listening attitude. Presently he opened the window, and stepped outside. Hooker wonderingly followed him. One or two officers had already stepped out of their rooms, and were standing upon the veranda; another had halted in the path. Then one quickly re-entered the house, reappeared with his cap and sword in his hand, and ran lightly toward the guard-house. A slight crackling noise seemed to come from beyond the garden wall.

“What’s up?” said Hooker, with staring eyes.

“Picket firing!”

The crackling suddenly became a long rattle. Brant re-entered the room, and picked up his hat.

“You’ll excuse me for a few moments.”

A faint sound, soft yet full, and not unlike a bursting bubble, made the house appear to leap elastically, like the rebound of a rubber ball.

“What’s that?” gasped Hooker.

“Cannon, out of range!”

1.    patrols,—a civic home-guard in the South that kept surveillance of slaves.    [back]

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