Part III

Chapter III

Bret Harte

ALTHOUGH BRANT was convinced as soon as he left the house that he could not accept anything from the Boompointer influence, and that his interview with Susy was fruitless, he knew that he must temporize. While he did not believe that his old playmate would willingly betray him, he was uneasy when he thought of the vanity and impulsiveness which might compromise him—or of a possible jealousy that might seek revenge. Yet he had no reason to believe that Susy’s nature was jealous, or that she was likely to have any cause; but the fact remained that Miss Faulkner’s innocent intrusion upon their tête-à-tête affected him more strongly than anything else in his interview with Susy. Once out of the atmosphere of that house, it struck him, too, that Miss Faulkner was almost as much of an alien in it as himself. He wondered what she had been doing there. Could it be possible that she was obtaining information for the South? But he rejected the idea as quickly as it had occurred to him. Perhaps there could be no stronger proof of the unconscious influence the young girl already had over him.

He remembered the liveries of the diplomatic carriage that had borne her away, and ascertained without difficulty that her sister had married one of the foreign ministers, and that she was a guest in his house. But he was the more astonished to hear that she and her sister were considered to be Southern Unionists—and were greatly petted in governmental circles for their sacrificing fidelity to the flag. His informant, an official in the State Department, added that Miss Matilda might have been a good deal of a madcap at the outbreak of the war—for the sisters had a brother in the Confederate service—but that she had changed greatly, and, indeed, within a month. “For,” he added, “she was at the White House for the first time last week, and they say the President talked more to her than to any other woman.”

The indescribable sensation with which this simple information filled Brant startled him more than the news itself. Hope, joy, fear, distrust, and despair, alternately distracted him. He recalled Miss Faulkner’s almost agonizing glance of appeal to him in the drawing-room at Susy’s, and it seemed to be equally consistent with the truth of what he had just heard—or some monstrous treachery and deceit of which she might be capable. Even now she might be a secret emissary of some spy within the President’s family; she might have been in correspondence with some traitor in the Boompointer clique, and her imploring glance only the result of a fear of exposure. Or, again, she might have truly recanted after her escapade at Gray Oaks, and feared only his recollection of her as go-between of spies. And yet both of these presumptions were inconsistent with her conduct in the conservatory. It seemed impossible that this impulsive woman, capable of doing what he had himself known her to do, and equally sensitive to the shame or joy of such impulses, should be the same conventional woman of society who had so coldly recognized and parted from him.

But this interval of doubt was transitory. The next day he received a dispatch from the War Department, ordering him to report himself for duty at once. With a beating heart he hurried to the Secretary. But that official had merely left a memorandum with his assistant directing General Brant to accompany some fresh levies to a camp of “organization” near the front. Brant felt a chill of disappointment. Duties of this kind had been left to dubious regular army veterans, hurriedly displaced general officers, and favored detrimentals. But if it was not restoration, it was no longer inaction, and it was at least a release from Washington.

It was also evidently the result of some influence—but hardly that of the Boompointers, for he knew that Susy wished to keep him at the Capital. Was there another power at work to send him away from Washington? His previous doubts returned. Nor were they dissipated when the chief of the bureau placed a letter before him with the remark that it had been entrusted to him by a lady with the request that it should be delivered only into his own hands.

“She did not know your hotel address, but ascertained you were to call here. She said it was of some importance. There is no mystery about it, General,” continued the official with a mischievous glance at Brant’s handsome, perplexed face, “although it’s from a very pretty woman—whom we all know.”

“Mrs. Boompointer?” suggested Brant, with affected lightness.

It was a maladroit speech. The official’s face darkened.

“We have not yet become a Postal Department for the Boompointers, General,” he said dryly, “however great their influence elsewhere. It was from rather a different style of woman—Miss Faulkner. You will receive your papers later at your hotel, and leave to-night.”

Brant’s unlucky slip was still potent enough to divert the official attention, or he would have noticed the change in his visitor’s face, and the abruptness of his departure.

Once in the street, Brant tore off the envelope. But beneath it was another, on which was written in a delicate, refined hand: “Please do not open this until you reach your destination.”

Then she knew he was going! And perhaps this was her influence? All his suspicions again returned. She knew he was going near the lines, and his very appointment, through her power, might be a plot to serve her and the enemy! Was this letter, which she was entrusting to him, the cover of some missive to her Southern friends which she expected him to carry—perhaps as a return for her own act of self-sacrifice? Was this the appeal she had been making to his chivalry, his gratitude, his honor? The perspiration stood in beads on his forehead. What defect lay hidden in his nature that seemed to make him an easy victim of these intriguing women? He had not even the excuse of gallantry; less susceptible to the potencies of the sex than most men, he was still compelled to bear that reputation. He remembered his coldness to Miss Faulkner in the first days of their meeting, and her effect upon his subalterns. Why had she selected him from among them—when she could have modeled the others like wax to her purposes? Why? And yet with the question came a possible answer that he hardly dared to think of—that in its very vagueness seemed to fill him with a stimulating thrill and hopefulness. He quickened his pace. He would take the letter, and yet be master of himself when the time came to open it.

That time came three days later, in his tent at Three Pines Crossing. As he broke open the envelope, he was relieved to find that it contained no other inclosure, and seemed intended only for himself. It began abruptly:—

“When you read this, you will understand why I did not speak to you when we met last night; why I even dreaded that you might speak to me, knowing, as I did, what I ought to tell you at that place and moment—something you could only know from me. I did not know you were in Washington, although I knew you were relieved; I had no way of seeing you or sending to you before, and I only came to Mrs. Boompointer’s party in the hope of hearing news of you.

“You know that my brother was captured by your pickets in company with another officer. He thinks you suspected the truth—that he and his friend were hovering near your lines to effect the escape of the spy. But he says that, although they failed to help her, she did escape, or was passed through the lines by your connivance. He says that you seemed to know her, that from what Rose—the mulatto woman—told him, you and she were evidently old friends. I would not speak of this, nor intrude upon your private affairs, only that I think you ought to know that I had no knowledge of it when I was in your house, but believed her to be a stranger to you. You gave me no intimation that you knew her, and I believed that you were frank with me. But I should not speak of this at all—for I believe that it would have made no difference to me in repairing the wrong that I thought I had done you—only that, as I am forced by circumstances to tell you the terrible ending of this story, you ought to know it all.

“My brother wrote to me that the evening after you left, the burying party picked up the body of what they believed to be a mulatto woman lying on the slope. It was not Rose, but the body of the very woman—the real and only spy—whom you had passed through the lines. She was accidentally killed by the Confederates in the first attack upon you, at daybreak. But only my brother and his friend recognized her through her blackened face and disguise, and on the plea that she was a servant of one of their friends, they got permission from the division commander to take her away, and she was buried by her friends and among her people in the little cemetery of Three Pines Crossing, not far from where you have gone. My brother thought that I ought to tell you this: it seems that he and his friend had a strange sympathy for you in what they appear to know or guess of your relations with that woman, and I think he was touched by what he thought was your kindness and chivalry to him on account of his sister. But I do not think he ever knew, or will know, how great is the task that he has imposed upon me.

“You know now, do you not, why I did not speak to you when we first met; it seemed so impossible to do it in an atmosphere and a festivity that was so incongruous with the dreadful message I was charged with. And when I had to meet you later—perhaps I may have wronged you—but it seemed to me that you were so preoccupied and interested with other things that I might perhaps only be wearying you with something you cared little for, or perhaps already knew and had quickly forgotten.

“I had been wanting to say something else to you when I had got rid of my dreadful message. I do not know if you still care to hear it. But you were once generous enough to think that I had done you a service in bringing a letter to your commander. Although I know better than anybody else the genuine devotion to your duty that made you accept my poor service, from all that I can hear, you have never had the credit of it. Will you not try me again? I am more in favor here, and I might yet be more successful in showing your superiors how true you have been to your trust, even if you have little faith in your friend, Matilda Faulkner.”

For a long time he remained motionless, with the letter in his hand. Then he arose, ordered his horse, and galloped away.

There was little difficulty in finding the cemetery of Three Pines Crossing—a hillside slope, hearsed with pine and cypress, and starred with white crosses, that in the distance looked like flowers. Still less was there in finding the newer marble shaft among the older lichen-spotted slabs, which bore the simple words: “Alice Benham, Martyr.” A few Confederate soldiers, under still plainer and newer wooden headstones, carved only with initials, lay at her feet. Brant sank on his knees beside the grave, but he was shocked to see that the base of the marble was stained with the red pollen of the fateful lily, whose blossoms had been heaped upon her mound, but whose fallen petals lay dark and sodden in decay.

How long he remained there he did not know. And then a solitary bugle from the camp seemed to summon him, as it had once before summoned him, and he went away—as he had gone before—to a separation that he now knew was for all time.

Then followed a month of superintendence and drill, and the infusing into the little camp under his instruction the spirit which seemed to be passing out of his own life forever. Shut in by alien hills on the borderland of the great struggle, from time to time reports reached him of the bitter fighting, and almost disastrous successes of his old division commander. Orders came from Washington to hurry the preparation of his raw levies to the field, and a faint hope sprang up in his mind. But following it came another dispatch ordering his return to the Capital.

He reached it with neither hope nor fear—so benumbed had become his spirit under this last trial, and what seemed to be now the mockery of this last sacrifice to his wife. Though it was no longer a question of her life and safety, he knew that he could still preserve her memory from stain by keeping her secret, even though its divulgings might clear his own. For that reason, he had even hesitated to inform Susy of her death, in the fear that, in her thoughtless irresponsibility and impulsiveness, she might be tempted to use it in his favor. He had made his late appointment a plea for her withholding any present efforts to assist him. He even avoided the Boompointers’ house, in what he believed was partly a duty to the memory of his wife. But he saw no inconsistency in occasionally extending his lonely walks to the vicinity of a foreign Legation, or in being lifted with a certain expectation at the sight of its liveries on the Avenue. There was a craving for sympathy in his heart, which Miss Faulkner’s letter had awakened.

Meantime, he had reported himself for duty at the War Department—with little hope, however, in that formality. But he was surprised the next day when the chief of the bureau informed him that his claim was before the President.

“I was not aware that I had presented any claim,” he said, a little haughtily.

The bureau chief looked up with some surprise. This quiet, patient, reserved man had puzzled him once or twice before.

“Perhaps I should say ‘case,’ General,” he said, drily. “But the personal interest of the highest executive in the land strikes me as being desirable in anything.”

“I only mean that I have obeyed the orders of the department in reporting myself here, as I have done,” said Brant, with less feeling, but none the less firmness; “and I should imagine it was not the duty of a soldier to question them. Which I fancy a ‘claim’ or a ‘case’ would imply.”

He had no idea of taking this attitude before, but the disappointments of the past month, added to this first official notice of his disgrace, had brought forward that dogged, reckless, yet half-scornful obstinacy that was part of his nature.

The official smiled.

“I suppose, then, you are waiting to hear from the President,” he said drily.

“I am awaiting orders from the department,” returned Brant quietly, “but whether they originate in the President as commander-in-chief, or not—it is not for me to inquire.”

Even when he reached his hotel this half-savage indifference which had taken the place of his former incertitude had not changed. It seemed to him that he had reached the crisis of his life where he was no longer a free agent, and could wait, superior alike to effort or expectation. And it was with a merely dispassionate curiosity that he found a note the next morning from the President’s private secretary, informing him that the President would see him early that day.

A few hours later he was ushered through the public rooms of the White House to a more secluded part of the household. The messenger stopped before a modest door and knocked. It was opened by a tall figure—the President himself. He reached out a long arm to Brant, who stood hesitatingly on the threshold, grasped his hand, and led him into the room. It had a single, large, elaborately draped window and a handsome medallioned carpet, which contrasted with the otherwise almost appalling simplicity of the furniture. A single plain angular desk, with a blotting pad and a few sheets of large foolscap upon it, a waste-paper basket and four plain armchairs, completed the interior with a contrast as simple and homely as its long-limbed, black-coated occupant. Releasing the hand of the general to shut a door which opened into another apartment, the President shoved an armchair towards him and sank somewhat wearily into another before the desk. But only for a moment; the long shambling limbs did not seem to adjust themselves easily to the chair; the high narrow shoulders drooped to find a more comfortable lounging attitude, shifted from side to side, and the long legs moved dispersedly. Yet the face that was turned towards Brant was humorous and tranquil.

“I was told I should have to send for you if I wished to see you,” he said smilingly.

Already mollified, and perhaps again falling under the previous influence of this singular man, Brant began somewhat hesitatingly to explain.

But the President checked him gently,—

“You don’t understand. It was something new to my experience here to find an able-bodied American citizen with an honest genuine grievance who had to have it drawn from him like a decayed tooth. But you have been here before. I seem to remember your face.”

Brant’s reserve had gone. He admitted that he had twice sought an audience—but—

“You dodged the dentist! That was wrong.” As Brant made a slight movement of deprecation the President continued: “I understand! Not from fear of giving pain to yourself but to others. I don’t know that that is right, either. A certain amount of pain must be suffered in this world—even by one’s enemies. Well, I have looked into your case, General Brant.” He took up a piece of paper from his desk, scrawled with two or three notes in pencil. “I think this is the way it stands. You were commanding a position at Gray Oaks when information was received by the department that, either through neglect or complicity, spies were passing through your lines. There was no attempt to prove your neglect; your orders, the facts of your personal care and precaution, were all before the department. But it was also shown that your wife, from whom you were only temporarily separated, was a notorious secessionist; that, before the war, you yourself were suspected, and that, therefore, you were quite capable of evading your own orders, which you may have only given as a blind. On this information you were relieved by the department of your command. Later on it was discovered that the spy was none other than your own wife, disguised as a mulatto; that, after her arrest by your own soldiers, you connived at her escape—and this was considered conclusive proof of—well, let us say—your treachery.”

“But I did not know it was my wife until she was arrested,” said Brant impulsvely.

The President knitted his eyebrows humorously.

“Don’t let us travel out of the record, General. You’re as bad as the department. The question was one of your personal treachery, but you need not accept the fact that you were justly removed because your wife was a spy. Now, General, I am an old lawyer, and I don’t mind telling you that in Illinois we wouldn’t hang a yellow dog on that evidence before the department. But when I was asked to look into the matter by your friends, I discovered something of more importance to you. I had been trying to find a scrap of evidence that would justify the presumption that you had sent information to the enemy. I found that it was based upon the fact of the enemy being in possession of knowledge at the first battle at Gray Oaks, which could only have been obtained from our side, and which led to a Federal disaster; that you, however, retrieved by your gallantry. I then asked the secretary if he was prepared to show that you had sent the information with that view, or that you had been overtaken by a tardy sense of repentance. He preferred to consider my suggestion as humorous. But the inquiry led to my further discovery that the only treasonable correspondence actually in evidence was found upon the body of a trusted Federal officer, and had been forwarded to the division commander. But there was no record of it in the case.”

“Why, I forwarded it myself,” said Brant eagerly.

“So the division commander writes,” said the President, smiling, “and he forwarded it to the department. But it was suppressed in some way. Have you any enemies, General Brant?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then you probably have. You are young and successful. Think of the hundred other officers who naturally believe themselves better than you are, and haven’t a traitorous wife. Still, the department may have made an example of you for the benefit of the only man who couldn’t profit by it.”

“Might it not have been, sir, that this suppression was for the good report of the service—as the chief offender was dead?”

“I am glad to hear you say so, General, for it is the argument I have used successfully in behalf of your wife.”

“Then you know it all, sir?” said Brant after a gloomy pause.

“All, I think. Come, General, you seemed just now to be uncertain about your enemies. Let me assure you, you need not be so in regard to your friends.”

“I dare to hope I have found one, sir,” said Brant with almost boyish timidity.

“Oh, not me!” said the President, with a laugh of deprecation. “Some one much more potent.”

“May I know his name, Mr. President?”

“No, for it is a woman. You were nearly ruined by one, General. I suppose it’s quite right that you should be saved by one. And, of course, irregularly.”

“A woman!” echoed Brant.

“Yes; one who was willing to confess herself a worse spy than your wife—a double traitor—to save you! Upon my word, General, I don’t know if the department was far wrong; a man with such an alternately unsettling and convincing effect upon a woman’s highest political convictions should be under some restraint. Luckily the department knows nothing of it.”

“Nor would any one else have known from me,” said Brant eagerly. “I trust that she did not think—that you, sir, did not for an instant believe that I”—

“Oh dear, no! Nobody would have believed you! It was her free confidence to me. That was what made the affair so difficult to handle. For even her bringing your dispatch to the division commander looked bad for you; and you know he even doubted its authenticity.”

“Does she—does Miss Faulkner know the spy was my wife?” hesitated Brant.

The President twisted himself in his chair, so as to regard Brant more gravely with his deep-set eyes, and then thoughtfully rubbed his leg.

“Don’t let us travel out of the record, General,” he said after a pause. But as the color surged into Brant’s cheek he raised his eyes to the ceiling, and said, in half-humorous recollection,—

“No, I think that fact was first gathered from your other friend—Mr. Hooker.”

“Hooker!” said Brant, indignantly; “did he come here?”

“Pray don’t destroy my faith in Mr. Hooker, General,” said the President, in half-weary, half-humorous deprecation. “Don’t tell me that any of his inventions are true! Leave me at least that magnificent liar—the one perfectly intelligible witness you have. For from the time that he first appeared here with a grievance and a claim for a commission, he has been an unspeakable joy to me and a convincing testimony to you. Other witnesses have been partisans and prejudiced; Mr. Hooker was frankly true to himself. How else should I have known of the care you took to disguise yourself, save the honor of your uniform, and run the risk of being shot as an unknown spy at your wife’s side, except from his magnificent version of his part in it? How else should I have known the story of your discovery of the Californian conspiracy, except from his supreme portrayal of it, with himself as the hero? No, you must not forget to thank Mr. Hooker when you meet him. Miss Faulkner is at present more accessible; she is calling on some members of my family in the next room. Shall I leave you with her?”

Brant rose with a pale face and a quickly throbbing heart as the President, glancing at the clock, untwisted himself from the chair, and shook himself out full length, and rose gradually to his feet.

“Your wish for active service is granted, General Brant,” he said slowly, “and you will at once rejoin your old division commander, who is now at the head of the Tenth Army Corps. But,” he said, after a deliberate pause, “there are certain rules and regulations of your service that even I cannot, with decent respect to your department, override. You will, therefore, understand that you cannot rejoin the army in your former position.”

The slight flush that came to Brant’s cheek quickly passed. And there was only the unmistakable sparkle of renewed youth in his frank eyes as he said—

“Let me go to the front again, Mr. President, and I care not how.”

The President smiled, and, laying his heavy hand on Brant’s shoulder, pushed him gently towards the door of the inner room.

“I was only about to say,” he added, as he opened the door, “that it would be necessary for you to rejoin your promoted commander as a major-general. And,” he continued, lifting his voice, as he gently pushed his guest into the room, “he hasn’t even thanked me for it, Miss Faulkner!”

The door closed behind him, and he stood for a moment dazed, and still hearing the distant voice of the President, in the room he had just quitted, now welcoming a new visitor. But the room before him, opening into a conservatory, was empty, save for a single figure that turned, half timidly, half mischievously, towards him. The same quick, sympathetic glance was in both their faces; the same timid, happy look in both their eyes. He moved quickly to her side.

“Then you knew that—that—woman was my wife?” he said, hurriedly, as he grasped her hand.

She cast a half-appealing look at his face—a half-frightened one around the room and at the open door beyond.

“Let us,” she said faintly, “go into the conservatory.”

.     .     .     .     .

It is but a few years ago that the veracious chronicler of these pages moved with a wondering crowd of sightseers in the gardens of the White House. The war cloud had long since lifted and vanished; the Potomac flowed peacefully by and on to where once lay the broad plantation of a great Confederate leader—now a national cemetery that had gathered the soldier dead of both sections side by side in equal rest and honor—and the great goddess once more looked down serenely from the dome of the white Capitol. The chronicler’s attention was attracted by an erect, handsome soldierly-looking man, with a beard and moustache slightly streaked with gray, pointing out the various objects of interest to a boy of twelve or fourteen at his side.

“Yes; although, as I told you, this house belongs only to the President of the United States and his family,” said the gentleman, smilingly, “in that little conservatory I proposed to your mother.”

“Oh! Clarence, how can you!” said the lady, reprovingly, “you know it was long after that!”

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