Part II

Chapter V

Bret Harte

IN ANOTHER INSTANT bugles were ringing through the camp, with the hurrying hoofs of mounted officers and the trampling of forming men. The house itself was almost deserted. Although the single cannon-shot had been enough to show that it was no mere skirmishing of pickets, Brant still did not believe in any serious attack of the enemy. His position, as in the previous engagement, had no strategic importance to them; they were no doubt only making a feint against it to conceal some advance upon the centre of the army two miles away. Satisfied that he was in easy supporting distance of his division commander, he extended his line along the ridge, ready to fall back in that direction, while retarding their advance and masking the position of his own chief. He gave a few orders necessary to the probable abandonment of the house, and then returned to it. Shot and shell were already dropping in the field below. A thin ridge of blue haze showed the line of skirmish fire. A small conical, white cloud, like a bursting cotton-pod, revealed an open battery in the willow-fringed meadow. Yet the pastoral peacefulness of the house was unchanged. The afternoon sun lay softly on its deep verandas; the pot pourri incense of fallen rose-leaves haunted it still.

He entered his room through the French window on the veranda, when the door leading from the passage was suddenly flung open, and Miss Faulkner swept quickly inside, closed the door behind her, and leaned back against it, panting and breathless.

Clarence was startled, and for a moment ashamed. He had suddenly realized that in the excitement he had entirely forgotten her and the dangers to which she might be exposed. She had probably heard the firing, her womanly fears had been awakened; she had come to him for protection. But as he turned towards her with a reassuring smile, he was shocked to see that her agitation and pallor were far beyond any physical cause. She motioned him desperately to shut the window by which he had entered, and said, with white lips,—

“I must speak with you alone!”

“Certainly. But there is no immediate danger to you even here—and I can soon put you beyond the reach of any possible harm.”

“Harm—to me! God! if it were only that!”

He stared at her uneasily.

“Listen,” she said gaspingly, “listen to me! Then hate, despise me—kill me if you will. For you are betrayed and ruined—cut off and surrounded! It has been helped on by me, but I swear to you the blow did not come from my hand. I would have saved you. God only knows how it happened—it was Fate!”

In an instant Brant saw the whole truth instinctively and clearly. But with the revelation came the usual calmness and perfect self-possession which never yet had failed him in any emergency. With the sound of the increasing cannonade and its shifting position made clearer to his ears, the view of his whole threatened position spread out like a map before his eyes, the swift calculation of the time his men could hold the ridge in his mind—even a hurried estimate of the precious moments he could give to the wretched woman before him—he even then, gravely and gently, led her to a chair and said in a calm voice,—

“That is not enough! Speak slowly, plainly. I must know everything. How and in what way have you betrayed me?”

She looked at him imploringly—reassured, yet awed by his gentleness.

“You won’t believe me; you cannot believe me! for I do not even know. I have taken and exchanged letters—whose contents I never saw—between the Confederates and a spy who comes to this house, but who is far away by this time. I did it because I thought you hated and despised me because I thought it was my duty to help my cause—because you said it was ‘war’ between us—but I never spied on you. I swear it.”

“Then how do you know of this attack?” he said calmly.

She brightened, half timidly, half hopefully.

“There is a window in the wing of this house that overlooks the slope near the Confederate lines. There was a signal placed in it—not by me—but I know it meant that as long as it was there the plot, whatever it was, was not ripe, and that no attack would be made on you as long as it was visible. That much I know,—that much the spy had to tell me, for we both had to guard that room in turns. I wanted to keep this dreadful thing off—until”—her voice trembled, “until,” she added hurriedly, seeing his calm eyes were reading her very soul, “until I went away—and for that purpose I withheld some of the letters that were given me. But this morning, while I was away from the house, I looked back and saw that the signal was no longer there. Some one had changed it. I ran back, but I was too late—God help me!—as you see.”

The truth flashed upon Brant. It was his own hand that had precipitated the attack. But a larger truth came to him now, like a dazzling inspiration. If he had thus precipitated the attack before they were ready, there was a chance that it was imperfect, and there was still hope. But there was no trace of this visible in his face as he fixed his eyes calmly on hers, although his pulses were halting in expectancy as he said—

“Then the spy had suspected you, and changed it.”

“Oh, no,” she said eagerly, “for the spy was with me and was frightened too. We both ran back together—you remember—she was stopped by the patrol!”

She checked herself suddenly, but too late. Her cheeks blazed, her head sank, with the foolish identification of the spy into which her eagerness had betrayed her.

But Brant appeared not to notice it. He was, in fact, puzzling his brain to conceive what information the stupid mulatto woman could have obtained here. His strength, his position was no secret to the enemy—there was nothing to gain from him. She must have been, like the trembling, eager woman before him, a mere tool of others.

“Did this woman live here?” he said.

“No,” she said. “She lived with the Manlys, but had friends whom she visited at your general’s headquarters.”

With difficulty Brant suppressed a start. It was clear to him now. The information had been obtained at the division headquarters, and passed through his camp as being nearest the Confederate lines. But what was the information—and what movement had he precipitated? It was clear that this woman did not know. He looked at her keenly. A sudden explosion shook the house,—a drift of smoke passed the window,—a shell had burst in the garden.

She had been gazing at him despairingly, wistfully—but did not blanch or start.

An idea took possession of him. He approached her, and took her cold hand. A half-smile parted her pale lips.

“You have courage—you have devotion,” he said gravely. “I believe you regret the step you have taken. If you could undo what you have done, even at peril to yourself, dare you do it?”

“Yes,” she said breathlessly.

“You are known to the enemy. If I am surrounded, you could pass through their lines unquestioned?”

“Yes,” she said eagerly.

“A note from me would pass you again through the pickets of our headquarters. But you would bear a note to the general that no eyes but his must see. It would not implicate you or yours; would only be a word of warning.”

“And you,” she said quickly, “would be saved! They would come to your assistance! You would not then be taken?”

He smiled gently.

“Perhaps—who knows!”

He sat down and wrote hurriedly.

“This,” he said, handing her a slip of paper, “is a pass. You will use it beyond your own lines. This note,” he continued, handing her a sealed envelope, “is for the general. No one else must see it or know of it—not even your lover, should you meet him!”

“My lover!” she said indignantly, with a flash of her old savagery; “what do you mean? I have no lover!”

Brant glanced at her flushed face.

“I thought,” he said quietly, “that there was some one you cared for in yonder lines—some one you wrote to. It would have been an excuse”—

He stopped, as her face paled again, and her hands dropped heavily at her side.

“Good God!—you thought that, too! You thought that I would sacrifice you for another man!”

“Pardon me,” said Brant quickly. “I was foolish. But whether your lover is a man or a cause, you have shown a woman’s devotion. And, in repairing your fault, you are showing more than a woman’s courage now.”

To his surprise, the color had again mounted her pretty cheeks, and even a flash of mischief shone in her blue eyes.

“It would have been an excuse,” she murmured, “yes—to save a man, surely!” Then she said quickly, “I will go. At once! I am ready!”

“One moment,” he said gravely. “Although this pass and an escort insure your probable safe conduct, this is ‘war’ and danger! You are still a spy! Are you ready to go?”

“I am,” she said proudly, tossing back a braid of her fallen hair. Yet a moment after she hesitated. Then she said, in a lower voice, “Are you ready to forgive?”

“In either case,” he said, touched by her manner; “and God speed you!”

He extended his hand, and left a slight pressure on her cold fingers. But they slipped quickly from his grasp, and she turned away with a heightened color.

He stepped to the door. One or two aides-de-camp, withheld by his order against intrusion, were waiting eagerly with reports. The horse of a mounted field officer was pawing the garden turf. The officers stared at the young girl.

“Take Miss Faulkner, with a flag, to some safe point of the enemy’s line. She is a non-combatant of their own, and will receive their protection.”

He had scarcely exchanged a dozen words with the aides-de-camp before the field officer hurriedly entered. Taking Brant aside, he said quickly,—

“Pardon me, General; but there is a strong feeling among the men that this attack is the result of some information obtained by the enemy. You must know that the woman you have just given a safeguard to is suspected, and the men are indignant.”

“The more reason why she should be conveyed beyond any consequences of their folly, Major,” said Brant frigidly, “and I look to you for her safe convoy. There is nothing in this attack to show that the enemy has received any information regarding us. But I would suggest that it would be better to see that my orders are carried out regarding the slaves and non-combatants who are passing our lines from divisional headquarters, where valuable information may be obtained, than in the surveillance of a testy and outspoken girl.”

An angry flush crossed the major’s cheek as he saluted and fell back, and Brant turned to the aide-de-camp. The news was grave. The column of the enemy was moving against the ridge—it was no longer possible to hold it—and the brigade was cut off from its communication with the divisional headquarters, although as yet no combined movement was made against it. Brant’s secret fears that it was an intended impact against the centre were confirmed. Would his communication to the divisional commander pass through the attacking column in time?

Yet one thing puzzled him. The enemy, after forcing his flank, had shown no disposition, even with their overwhelming force, to turn aside and crush him. He could easily have fallen back, when it was possible to hold the ridge no longer, without pursuit. His other flank and rear were not threatened, as they might have been, by the division of so large an attacking column, which was moving steadily on towards the ridge. It was this fact that seemed to show a failure or imperfection in the enemy’s plan. It was possible that his precipitation of the attack by the changed signal had been the cause of it. Doubtless some provision had been made to attack him in flank and rear, but in the unexpected hurry of the onset it had to be abandoned. He could still save himself, as his officers knew; but his conviction that he might yet be able to support his divisional commander by holding his position doggedly, but coolly awaiting his opportunity, was strong. More than that, it was his temperament and instinct.

Harrying them in flank and rear, contesting the ground inch by inch, and holding his own against the artillery sent to dislodge him, or the outriding cavalry that, circling round, swept through his open ranks, he saw his files melt away beside this steady current without flinching.

Clarence - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter VI

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