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Love Under Fire by Randall Parrish

Part 3 out of 5

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where Willifred Hardy lived--to which she had probably already returned.
I was going as an enemy to her cause, guided by an ex-slave of Le
Gaire's. It was rather an odd turn of Fate's wheel, and, while there was
no probability of our meeting, yet the conditions were suggestive. My
eyes were upon the dim form in advance, and I was strongly tempted to
ask if he knew where Major Hardy's plantation was. Beyond doubt he did,
but this was no time for dalliance with love, and I drove the temptation
sternly from me, endeavoring to concentrate my mind on present duty. But
in spite of all Billie would intervene, her blue-gray eyes challenging
me to forget, and the remembrance of her making my step light. I was
going to be near her again, at least, if only for an hour; perhaps,
whether I succeeded or failed, she would hear my name mentioned. Even
that would be better than forgetfulness, and she was one to appreciate a
deed like this. I should like to see her eyes when they told her--when
they spoke my name. I wondered where Captain Le Gaire was, and whether
he had been her escort back through the Confederate lines. Most probably
yes, and perhaps he had remained at the Hardy house, still incapacitated
from duty by the blow I had struck him--an interesting invalid. Even
this thought did not trouble me as it might have done otherwise, for I
believed Billie had already begun to see the real man behind the
fellow's handsome face; if so, then time and companionship would only
widen the breach between them--perhaps my memory also.

It was a hard three hours' travel, practically feeling a passage through
the darkness, for the narrow path extended but little beyond a mile,
after losing which we stumbled forward through a maze of rock and
underbrush. This finally became so dense that the negro veered to the
left, where there was a grassy ledge, along which we made more rapid
progress, although facing greater danger of discovery. However, the
night was black, and to any picket looking down from above the ravine
must have appeared a dark, impenetrable void, while our feet in the
grass scarcely made a sound. Once we saw a moving figure above us,
barely visible against the sky-line, and halted breathlessly, every eye
uplifted, until the apparition vanished; and once, warned by the
cracking of a twig, we lay flat on our faces while a spectral company
went past us on foot, heading at right-angles across our path. I counted
twenty men in the party, but could distinguish nothing as to uniform or
equipment. We waited motionless until the last straggler had
disappeared. By this time we were well behind the Confederate lines,
with troops probably on either side, for this gash in the surface had
both narrowed and veered sharply to the east. It still remained
sufficiently deep to conceal our movements, and, as we had circled the
picket lines, we could proceed with greater confidence. We were beyond
the vigilance of sentinels, and could be discovered now only through
some accidental encounter. I touched Le Gaire on the shoulder, and
whispered in his ear:

"How much farther is it?"

"'Bout half a mile, sah," staring about into what to me was impenetrable
darkness. "Yo' see de forked tree dar on de lef'?"

I was not sure, yet there was something in that direction which might
be what he described.

"I guess so--why?"

"I 'members dat tree, for dar's a spring just at de foot ob it."

"Is the rest of the way hard?"

"No, sah, not wid me goin' ahead of yo', for dar's a medium good path
from de spring up to de top o' de hill. I'se pow'ful feared though we
might run across some ob dem Confed sojers 'round yere."

I tried to look at him, but could see only the whites of his eyes, but
his voice somehow belied his words--to my mind there was no fear in the
fellow. I passed back word along the line, and found all the men
present. Not a sound came out of the night, and I ordered the ex-slave
to lead on.

CHAPTER XVIII

OVERHEARD CONVERSATION

It was a little gully, hardly more than a tramped footpath, leading down
the bank up which we crept until we attained the level. With eyes
sharpened by the long night vigil we could perceive the dim outlines of
buildings, and a glow or two of distant lights. I felt of the face of my
watch, deciding the time to be not far from half-past twelve. Our tramp
had seemed longer than a trifle over three hours, and it was a relief to
know we still had so much of darkness left in which to operate. I
touched the man lying next me, unable to tell one dark form
from another.

"Who are you?"

"Wilson, sir."

"Where is the guide?"

"Right yere, sah," and the speaker wriggled toward me on his face. "Dis
yere is de place."

"I supposed so, but it is all a mere blur out there to me. What are
these buildings just ahead of us?"

"De slave quarters, sah; dey's all deserted, 'cept maybe dat first one
yonder," pointing. "I reckon Aunt Mandy an' her ol' man are dar yet,
but de field hands dey all done cleared out long time ago. De stable was
ober dar toward de right, whar dat lantern was dodgin' 'round. Yo' creep
'long yere, an' I'll point out de house--see, it's back o' de bunch o'
trees, whar de yaller light shows in de winder. I reckon dar's some of
'em up yet."

From his description I received a fair impression of the surroundings,
questioning briefly as I stared out at the inanimate objects faintly
revealed, and endeavoring to plan some feasible course of action. The
stable was a hundred yards to the rear of the house, a fenced-off garden
between, the driveway circling to the right. Between the slave quarters
and the mansion extended an orchard, the trees of good size and
affording ample cover. We were to the left of the house, and the light
seen evidently streamed through one of the windows of the front room.
Where the guard was stationed no one of us could guess, yet this had to
be determined first of all. I called for Miles, and the sergeant, still
holding his position at the rear, crept forward.

"I am going in closer to discover what I can," I said quietly. "I may be
gone for half an hour. Advance your men carefully into the shadow of
that cabin there, and wait orders. Don't let them straggle, for I want
to know where they are." I bent lower and whispered in his ear, "Don't
let that negro out of your sight; but no shooting--rap him with a butt
if necessary. You understand?"

"Sure; I'll keep a grip on his leg."

I paused an instant thinking.

"If luck helps me to get inside, and I find the way clear, I'll draw
that shade up and down twice--this way--and you can come on. Move
quickly, but without noise, and wait outside for orders, unless you are
certain I am in trouble."

"Yes, sir; we'll be there."

"Have one man watch that light all the time; don't let him take his eyes
off it. Be careful no prowling trooper stumbles on you; keep the
men still."

I saw the dim movement as he saluted and felt no doubt of obedience,--he
was too old and tried a soldier to fail. I crept forward, scouted about
the cabin to make sure it was unoccupied, and then advanced into the
shadows of the orchard. I was all nerves now, all alertness, every
instinct awake, seeing the slightest movement, hearing the faintest
noise. There were voices--just a mumble--in the direction of the stable,
and, as I drew in closer toward the house I could distinguish sounds as
though a considerable party were at table--yet even the tinkle of knife
and plate was muffled; probably the dining-room was on the opposite
side. However, this would seem to indicate the presence of the one we
sought, although so late a supper would render our task more difficult
of execution. I was tempted to try the other side first, but the open
window with the light burning inside was nearer, and I wished first to
assure myself as to that. I could see no sentries, but the embers of a
fire were visible on the front driveway. Whatever guard might be about
the steps, none patrolled this side; I must have waited several minutes,
lying concealed in the dense shrubbery, peering and listening, before
becoming fully convinced. The omission brought a vague suspicion that
Johnston might not be present after all--that this was instead a mere
party of convivial officers. If so, the sooner I could convince myself
the better, to make good our safe return. The thought urged me forward.

A small clump of low bushes--gooseberries, I judged from the thorns--was
within a few yards of the house, the balance of the distance a closely
trimmed turf. The bottom of the window through which the light shone was
even with my eyes when standing erect, but I could perceive no movement
of any occupants, a small wooden balcony, more for ornament than for
practical use, shutting off the view. I grasped the rail of this with my
hands and drew my body slowly up, endeavoring to keep to one side out of
the direct range of light. This effort yielded but a glimpse of one
corner of the seemingly deserted interior, and I crouched down within
the rail, cautiously seeking to discover more. Fortunately the wooden
support did not creak under my weight. The apartment was apparently
parlor and sitting-room combined, some of the furniture massive and
handsome, especially the centre-table and a sofa of black walnut, but
there was also a light sewing-table and a cane-seated rocker, more
suggestive of comfort. At first glance I thought the place empty,
although I could plainly hear the murmuring sound of voices from beyond;
then I perceived some one--a woman--seated on a low stool before the
open fire-place. She sat with back toward me, her head bent upon one
hand. I was still studying the figure in uncertainty when a door,
evidently leading into the hall, opened and a man entered. He was in
Confederate field uniform, the insignia on his collar that of a
major,--a tall, broad-shouldered man, with abundant hair and an
aggressive expression. The woman glanced up, but he closed the door,
shutting out a jangle of voices, before speaking.

"What was it? You sent for me?"

She rose to her feet, and came a step forward,--my heart leapt into my
throat, my fingers gripped the rail.

"Yes," she said quietly, looking into his face, "I have decided I cannot
do it."

"Decided! What now?" and his surprise was beyond question. "Why, what
does all this mean? No one has sought to coerce or drive you; this was
your own choice. Surely you have had ample time in which to consider!"

"Oh, yes," wearily, her hand pressing back her hair, "but--but I really
never understood myself until to-night; I am not sure I do even now."

"A girlish whim," he broke in impatiently. "Why, daughter, this is
foolish, impossible; all arrangements are made, and even now they are
toasting the captain in the dining-room. Under no other conditions could
he have got leave of absence, for his injuries are trivial. Johnston
told me as much before he left, and I know we shall need every man
to-morrow if we force the fighting."

"Why does he accept leave then, if he is needed here?" she asked
quickly.

"For your sake and mine, not fear of battle, I am sure. There will be no
heavy action at this end of our line, as we shall fall back to protect
the centre. But the movement as contemplated will leave all this ground
to be occupied by the Yankees; they'll be here by to-morrow night beyond
doubt; even now we retain only a skeleton force west of the pike. I
cannot leave you here alone, unprotected."

"Is that why you have pressed me so to assent to this hurried
arrangement?"

"Yes, Billie," and he took her hands tenderly. "Captain Le Gaire
suggested it as soon as we learned this region was to be left unguarded,
and when he succeeded in getting leave to go south it seemed to me the
very best thing possible for you. Why, daughter, I do not understand
your action--by having the ceremony to-night we merely advance it a
few months."

"But--father," her voice trembling, "I--I am not so sure that I wish to
marry Captain Le Gaire at--at all."

"Not marry him! Why, I supposed that was settled--you seemed very
happy--"

"Yes, once," she broke in. "I thought I loved him--perhaps I did--but he
has not appeared the same man to me of late. I cannot explain; I cannot
even tell what it is I mean, but I am afraid to go on. I want more time
to decide, to learn my own heart."

"You poor little girl, you are nervous, excited."

"No, it is not that, papa. I simply doubt myself, my future happiness
with this man. Surely you will not urge me to marry one I do not love?"

"No, girlie; but this decision comes so suddenly. I had believed you
very happy together, and even to-night, when this plan was first
broached, there was no word of protest uttered. I thought you
were glad."

"Not glad! I was stunned, too completely surprised to object. You all
took my willingness so for granted that I could find no words to express
my real feelings. Indeed I do not believe I knew what they were--not
until I sat here alone thinking, and then there came to me a perfect
horror of it all. I tried to fight my doubts, tried to convince myself
that it was right to proceed, but only to find it impossible. I loathe
the very thought; if I consent I know I shall regret the act as long as
I live." "But, Billie," he urged earnestly, "what can have occurred to
make this sudden change in you? Captain Le Gaire belongs to one of the
most distinguished families of the South; is wealthy, educated, a
polished gentleman. He will give you everything to make life attractive.
Surely this is but a mere whim!"

"Have you found me to be a nervous girl, full of whims?"

"No, certainly not, but--"

"And this is no whim, no mood. I cannot tell, cannot explain all that
has of late caused me to distrust Captain Le Gaire, only I do not feel
toward him as I once did. I never can again, and if you insist on this
marriage, it will mean to me unhappiness--I am, sure of that."

"But what can we do at this late hour! Everything is prepared, arranged
for; even the minister has arrived, and is waiting."

She stood before him, her hands clasped, trembling from head to foot,
yet with eyes determined.

"Will you delay action a few moments, and send Captain Le Gaire to me?
I--I must see him alone."

He hesitated, avoiding her eyes and permitting his glance to wander
about the room.

"Please do this for me."

"But in your present mood--"

"I am perfectly sane," and she stood straight before him, insistent,
resolute. "Indeed I think I know myself better than for months past. I
shall say nothing wrong to Captain Le Gaire, and if he is a gentleman he
will honor me more for my frankness. Either you will send him here to
me, or else I shall go to him."

The major bowed with all the ceremony of the old school, convinced of
the utter futility of further argument.

"You will have you own way; you always have," regretfully. "I shall
request the captain to join you here."

CHAPTER XIX

LE GAIRE FORCES A DECISION

He left the room reluctantly enough, pausing at the door to glance back,
but she had sunk down into the rocker, and made no relenting sign. Every
sense of right compelled me to withdraw; I could not remain, a hidden
spy, to listen to her conversation with Le Gaire. My heart leaped with
exultation, with sudden faith that possibly her memory of me might lie
back of this sudden distrust, this determination for freedom. Yet this
possibility alone rendered impossible my lingering here to overhear what
should pass between them in confidence. Interested as I was personally I
possessed no excuse to remain; every claim of duty was elsewhere. I had
already learned General Johnston was not present, and that an attack was
projected against our left and centre. This was news of sufficient
importance to be reported at headquarters without delay. To be sure the
withdrawal of troops from this end of the Confederate line made our own
return trip less dangerous, still, even if I ventured to remain longer,
I must early despatch a courier with the news.

I drew silently back from the window, flinging one limb over the balcony
rail, preparing to drop to the ground below. Her back was toward me, and
she heard nothing; then a man came round the end of the house, walking
slowly and smoking. I could see the red glow of his cigar, and inhale
the fragrance of the tobacco. I hung on desperately, bending my body
along the rail, and he passed directly beneath, yet so shadowed I could
merely distinguish his outline. The fellow--an officer, no doubt,
seeking a breath of fresh air--strolled to the opposite corner, and then
turned off into the orchard. I dared not risk an attempt to drop and
run, for I knew not what might await me in the darkness. Yet where I
clung I was exposed to discovery, and, when he turned his back, I sank
down once more within the shelter of the balcony. He stopped under the
trees, apparently having found a seat of some kind, although I could see
nothing except the tip of the burning cigar, as he flipped aside the
ashes. I had almost forgotten what might be occurring within, until
aroused by the sound of Le Gaire's voice.

He certainly looked a handsome fellow, standing there with hand still on
the knob of the door, dressed in a new uniform tailored to perfection,
his lips and eyes smiling pleasantly, never suspecting the reason for
which he was summoned.

"What is it, Billie?" he asked easily. "A last word, hey?"

"Yes," she answered, lifting her eyes to his face, but not advancing.
"I--I have been thinking it all over while waiting here alone, and--and
I find I am not quite ready. I sent for you to ask release from my
promise, or, at least, that you will not insist upon our--our marriage
to-night."

The man's dark face actually grew white, his surprise at this request
leaving him gasping for breath, as he stared at her.

"Why, good God, girl, do you realize what you are saying?" he exclaimed,
all self-control gone. "Why, we are ready now; Bradshaw just arrived and
every arrangement has been made for our journey. It cannot be
postponed."

"Oh, yes, indeed, it can," and she rose, facing him. "Surely you would
not force me against my will, Captain Le Gaire? I do not desire to
rebel, to absolutely refuse, but I hope you will listen to me, and then
act the part of a gentleman. I presume you desire me for your wife, not
your slave."

I thought he had lost his voice he was so long in answering; then the
tones were hoarse, indistinct.

"Listen! Yes! I want you to explain; only don't expect too much from
me."

She looked directly at him, her cheeks flushing to the insolence of his
accent.

"I am hardly likely to err in that way any more," rather coldly, "but I
do owe you an explanation. I have done wrong to permit this affair to go
so far without protest, but I did not comprehend my own feelings clearly
until to-night. I merely drifted without realizing the danger, and now
the shock of discovery leaves me almost helpless. I realize distinctly
only one thing--I can not, I will not, marry you.

"Do these words seem cruel, unjust?" she went on, strangely calm.
"Perhaps they are, yet it is surely better for me to speak them now than
to wreck both our lives by remaining silent longer. You came to me a
year ago, Captain Le Gaire, at a time when I was particularly lonely,
and susceptible to kindness. You were an officer in the army, fighting
for a cause I loved, and your friendly attentions were very welcome. My
father liked you, and we were constantly thrown together. I have lived
rather a secluded life, here on this plantation since my school days,
meeting few men of my own station, and still young enough to be
romantic. I thought I loved you, and perhaps the feeling I cherished
might have truly become love had you always remained the same
considerate gentleman I first believed you to be. Instead, little by
little, I have been driven away, hurt by your coarseness, your lack of
chivalry, until now, when it comes to the supreme test, I find my soul
in revolt. Am I altogether to blame?"

I do not think he comprehended, grasped the truth she sought to convey,
for he broke forth angrily:

"Very pretty, indeed! And do you think I will ever stand for it? Why, I
should be the laughing stock of the army, a butt for every brainless
joker in the camp. I am not such a fool, my girl." He stepped forward,
grasping her hands, and holding them in spite of her slight effort to
break away. "I am a frank-spoken man, yes, but I have never failed to
treat you with respect."

"You may call it that, but you have repeatedly sworn in my presence,
have ordered me harshly about, have even arranged this affair without
first consulting me. If this be your manner before marriage, what brand
of brutality could I expect after?"

"Poof! I may be quick-tempered; perhaps we are neither of us angels, but
you choose a poor time for a quarrel. Come, Billie, let's kiss and make
up. What! Still angry? Surely you are not in earnest?"

"But I am--very much in earnest."

"You mean to throw me down? Now at the last moment, with all the fellows
waiting in the next room?"

She had her hands freed, and with them held behind her, stood motionless
facing him.

"Would you marry me against my wish?" she asked. "Would you hold me to a
promise I regret having made? I sent for you merely to tell you the
truth, to throw myself on your generosity. I am scarcely more than a
girl, Captain Le Gaire, and acknowledge I have done wrong, have been
deceived in my own feelings. You have my word--the word of a Hardy--and
we keep our pledges. I suppose I must marry you if you insist, but I
implore you as a man of honor, a Southern gentleman, to release me."

Her voice faltered, and Le Gaire laughed.

"Oh, I begin to see how the wind blows. You do stand to your promise
then. Very well, that's all I ask."

"I do not love you; I do not think I even respect you."

"Nevertheless you cannot shake me off like that. It's only a whim, a
mood, Billie; once married I'll teach you the lesson over again. You
were loving enough a month ago."

"I was in the midst of a girl's dream," she said slowly, "from which I
have awakened--won't you release me, Captain Le Gaire?"

"I should say not," walking savagely across the room. "Come, Billie, I'm
tired of this tantrum. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way
with me. You're a headstrong, spoiled girl, and I've already put up with
enough to try the patience of Job. Now I'm going to show my authority,
insist on my rights. You've promised to marry me, now, to-night, and you
are going to do it, if I have to go to your father and tell him plainly
just what is the matter with you."

"With me! the only matter is that I have ceased to care for you."

"Yes, in the last week! Do you think I am blind? Do you suppose I don't
know what has changed your mind so suddenly? Do you imagine I'm going
to let you go for the sake of a damned Yankee?"

She fairly gasped in surprise, her fingers clinched, her cheeks flaming.

"A Yankee! Captain Le Gaire, are you crazy?"

"No," his temper bursting all control. "That's what's the matter with
you. Oh, of course, you'll deny, and pretend to be horrified. I saw into
your little game then, but I kept still; now you are carrying it
too far."

"What do you mean? I am not accustomed to such language."

"I mean this: You think you are in love with that sneaking Yankee spy--I
don't know his name--the fellow you helped through our lines, and then
hid at Moran's. Now don't deny it; I asked some questions before I left
there, and you were with him out under the grape arbor. I saw the
imprint of your feet in the soft dirt. By God, I believe you knew he
struck me, and permitted me to lie there while he got away."

"Captain Le Gaire--"

"Now you wait; this is my turn to talk. You thought you had fooled me,
but you had not. Under other conditions I might accede to your request,
but not now--not to give you over to a Yank. I've got your promise, and
I propose to hold you to it."

"But it is not that," she protested. "I--I am not in love with
Lieutenant Galesworth."

"So that is the fellow's name, is it--Galesworth," sneeringly. "I
thought you pretended before you did not know."

She remained silent, confused.

"I'm glad to know who he is; some day we may have a settlement. Well,
all I know about the affair is this, but that's enough--you rode with
him all one night, hid him all the next day, and then helped him escape.
You lied to me repeatedly, and now you want to break away from me at the
last minute. It's either this Galesworth or somebody else--now who
is it?"

Billie sank back into a chair, but with her eyes still on the man's
face.

"It is no--one," she said wearily. "It is not that at all; I--I simply
do not care for you in that way any longer."

"Poof! do you mean you won't keep your word?"

"I mean I want to be released--at least a postponement until I can be
sure of myself."

"And I refuse--refuse, do you understand that? You either marry me
to-night or I go to your father with the whole story. He'll be pleased
to learn of your affair with a Yankee spy, no doubt, and of how you
helped the fellow through our lines. And I've got the proofs too. Now,
young lady, it is about time to stop this quarrel, and come down to
facts. What are you going to do?"

"You insist?"

"Of course I do."

Her head sank upon her hand, and even from where I peered in upon them,
helpless to get away, equally helpless to aid, I could see her
form tremble.

"Then there is no escape, I suppose; I must keep my promise."

He touched her on the shoulder, indifferent to her shrinking away, a
sarcastic smile on his lips.

"I knew you would. I don't take this Yankee business seriously, only I
wanted you to know I understood all about it. You're too sensible a girl
to get tangled up that way. We'll drop it now, and I'll show you how
good I can be. May I kiss you?"

"I--I would rather not--not yet. Don't be angry, but I--I am not myself.
Where were you going?"

"To tell your father it is all settled. You must be ready when we come
back."

He paused with hand on the door looking back at her. There was a
moment's breathless silence; then her lips whispered:

"Yes."

I turned to look out into the black orchard, and then gazed back into
the lighted room. I knew not what to do, how to act. My remaining where
I was could be of no possible service to her, indeed my discovery there
would only add to her embarrassment, yet I had no reason to believe the
officer had left his seat yonder, and therefore dare not drop to the
ground. My heart ached for the girl, and I longed to get my hands on
that cur of a Le Gaire, yet might venture to approach neither. It was a
maddening situation, but I could only stand there in the dark, gripping
the rail, unable to decide my duty. Perhaps she did love me--in spite of
that vigorous denial, perhaps she did--and the very possibility made the
blood surge hot through my veins. Could I help her in any way? Whatever
her feeling toward me might be, there remained no question as to her
growing dislike for Le Gaire. Not fear, but a peculiar sense of honor
alone, held her to her pledge. And could I remain still, and permit her
to be thus ruthlessly sacrificed? Would Major Hardy permit it if he
knew?--if the entire situation was explained to him? Le Gaire never
would tell him the truth, but would laugh off the whole affair as a mere
lovers' quarrel. Could I venture to thrust myself in? If I did, would it
be of any use? It would cost me my liberty, and the liberty of my men;
probably I should not be believed. And would she ever forgive me for
listening? I struggled with the temptation--swayed by duty and by
love--until my heart throbbed in bewilderment. Then it was too late.
Fate, tired of hesitancy, took the cards out of my hands.

Billie had been sitting, her head bowed on the table, the light above
glistening on her hair. Suddenly she arose to her feet, her face white
and drawn, her hands extended in a gesture of disgust. Attracted by the
open window, and the black vista of night beyond, she stepped through
onto the balcony, and stood there, leaning against the rail.

CHAPTER XX

WE ARRIVE AT A CRISIS

I remained there, pressed into one corner, unable to move, scarcely
venturing to breathe, her skirt brushing my leg, the strands of her
hair, loosened by the night wind, almost in my face. She was gazing
straight out into the night, utterly unconscious of my presence, so
deeply buried in her own trouble that all else seemed as nothing. For a
moment she remained motionless, silent; then her hands pressed against
her forehead, and her lips gave utterance to a single exclamation:

"Oh, God! I can never, never stand it! What shall I do?"

Perhaps I moved, perhaps some sense of the occult revealed my presence,
for she turned swiftly, with a sharp gasp of the breath, and looked
straight into my eyes. The recognition was instant, bewildering, a shock
which left her speechless, choking back the cry of alarm which rose into
her throat. She gripped the rail and stared as though at a ghost.

"Don't cry out," I entreated quickly. "Surely you know whom I am."

"Yes, yes," struggling to regain her voice. "I--know; but why are you
here? How long have you been here?"

"It is a story too complex to repeat," I said earnestly, "but I have
been here since your father first came--don't blame me, for I couldn't
get away."

"Then--then you heard--"

"Yes; I heard everything. I tried not to; I pledge you my word it was
all an accident. I was here for another purpose, a military purpose. I
did not even know this was your home. I am trapped on this balcony, and
dare not attempt to get away--I had to listen. You will believe what
I say?"

I was pleading so desperately that she stopped me, one hand grasping my
sleeve.

"Yes, of course. I am sure you could never do that purposely. But I do
not know what to say, how to explain. You must go at once. Can you not
realize my position if you are discovered here? What--what Captain Le
Gaire would say?"

"Very easily," my voice insensibly hardening at the memory, "and I
should like to remain to meet him, if that were the only danger. No,
please stand exactly where you are, Miss Hardy, so as to keep me in the
shadow. Thank you. There is a man sitting on a bench yonder just within
the orchard. He has been there for the last twenty minutes, and it is
his presence which has made it impossible for me to get away. Can I
escape in any manner through the house?"

She shook her head, her glance wandering from the lighted room out again
into the night.

"No; there is only the one door."

"Who are here besides Le Gaire and your father?"

"A half-dozen officers, two from the Louisiana regiment, the rest
belonging to the staff; they are just ending up a feast in the
dining-room."

"And is the house under guard?"

She hesitated, looking me now squarely in the eyes, her face clearly
revealed as the light from within fell upon it.

"Why do you ask?--for military reasons?"

"No; that is all passed and gone. We came hoping to capture General
Johnston, as scouts informed us this was his headquarters for the night.
But he is not here, and you will do your cause no harm by telling me
all I ask."

"I do not think there are any guards posted," she answered, convinced
that I spoke the truth. "I have not been out, but I am sure there are no
soldiers about the place, except the officers' servants at the stable
with the horses. The general departed before dark, and took his
bodyguard with him."

She had no reason to deceive me, and her sincerity was beyond question.
This was better than I had dared hope, and instantly a new plan leaped
into my mind, the very audacity of which made me gasp. Yet it might
work, carried out with sufficient boldness, although only to be resorted
to as a last desperate necessity. As I stood there, revolving this new
thought swiftly through my mind, the old fear seemed to return to her.

"Did--did you hear--everything?" she asked again.

"I am afraid I did," I confessed humbly, "but I am going to forget."

"No, that is not necessary. I am not sure I am altogether sorry that you
overheard."

"But I am--at least, a part of what I overheard struck me rather hard."

"What was that?"

"Your reference to me. Billie, I had been dreaming dreams."

Her eyes dropped, the long lashes shading them.

"But I had previously warned you," she said at last, very soberly. "You
knew how impossible such a thought was; you were aware of my
engagement."

"Yes, and I also knew Le Gaire. All I hoped for was time, sufficient
time for you to discover his character. He is no bug-a-boo to me any
longer, nor shall any tie between you keep me from speaking. As I have
told you I did not come here expecting to meet you--not even knowing
this was your home--yet you have been in my mind all through the night,
and what has occurred yonder between you and that fellow has set me
free. Do you know what I mean to do?"

"No, of course not; only--"

"Only I must believe what you said about me to him; only I must continue
to respect an agreement which has been wrung out of you by threat. I
refuse to be bound. I know now the one thing I wanted most to know,
Billie--that you do not love him. Oh, you can never make me think
that again--"

"Stop!" and she was looking straight at me again. "I shall listen to you
no longer, Lieutenant Galesworth. I cannot deny the truth of much which
you have said, but it is not generous of you to thus take advantage of
what was overheard. It was merely a quarrel, and not to be taken
seriously. He is coming back, and--and I am going to marry him."

There was a little catch in her voice, yet she finished the sentence
bravely enough, flinging the words at me in open defiance.

"When? To-night?"

"Yes, immediately, as soon as Captain Le Gaire can confer with my
father."

I smiled, not wholly at ease, yet confident I knew her struggle.

"You might deceive some one else, Miss Billie," I said quietly, "and
perhaps if I were not here this programme might indeed be carried out--I
believe Le Gaire is cur enough to insist upon it. But I am here, and you
are not going to marry him, unless you tell me with your own lips that
you love the man."

She stared into my eyes, as though doubting my sanity.

"Will you consent to say that?"

"I deny your right to even ask."

"Yet I shall take silence as a negative, and act accordingly. No, you
will not hate me for it; you may imagine you do for the moment, but the
time will come when your heart will thank me for interference, for
saving you from a foolish sacrifice. You do not love Le Gaire; you
cannot look me in the eyes and say that you do."

"You are impertinent, ungentlemanly. I simply refuse to answer a
question you have no right to ask."

"I assume the right in accordance with a law as old as man."

"What law?"

"The law of love," I returned earnestly, "the love of a man for the one
woman."

I could see her slight form sway as the full significance of these words
came to her; her cheeks flamed, but there was no shadowing of her eyes.

"I am going in, Lieutenant Galesworth," she said finally, drawing back
to the open window. "You have forgotten yourself, forgotten the
respect due me."

"But I have not, Billie," and in my earnestness I neglected all caution,
stepping forward into the full glare of light. "The highest respect is
the basis of true love, and, little girl, I love you."

She clung to the frame of the window, rendered speechless by my
audacity, struggling with herself.

"Oh, don't say that! I cannot listen; I must not. Believe me, Lieutenant
Galesworth, I do not altogether blame you, for I have been indiscreet,
foolish. I--I have not meant to be; I merely endeavored to prove kind
and friendly, never once dreaming it would come to this. Now it must
end, absolutely end; even if you despise me for a heartless coquette,
there is no other way. My path is laid out for me, and I must walk in
it. It may not be altogether pleasant, but I made my choice, and it is
too late now for retreat. I want you to help me, not make it
any harder."

"By going away, you mean? By leaving you to be coerced?"

"I was not coerced; it was my own free choice."

We were both so interested as to forget everything except ourselves,
utterly oblivious to the situation, or to what was occurring without. My
eyes were upon her face, endeavoring to read the real truth, and I knew
nothing of the two men at the edge of the orchard. Like a shot out of
the night broke in a voice:

"Billie, who is that you have with you?"

I saw her reel against the side of the window, every trace of color
deserting her face, her eyes staring down into the darkness. She gasped
for breath, yet answered, before a thought flashed through my brain:

"Only a friend, papa. Did you suppose I would consent to remain alone
long?"

"Le Gaire said he just left you."

She leaned out over the rail, half concealing me from view.

"Oh, that must have been fifteen minutes ago," and she laughed. "It is
never safe to leave me as long as that. You know that, papa, and now I
warn Captain Le Gaire."

The older man echoed her laugh, striking his companion lightly on the
shoulder.

"I fear the little witch is right, Gerald," he said pleasantly. "Come,
we'll go in, and uncover the whole conspiracy."

Their backs were toward us, and she straightened up, grasping me by the
hand. She was shaking from head to foot, even her voice trembled.

"You must not be found here, and we have but a moment. Drop to the
ground as soon as they turn the corner. Don't hesitate; don't
compromise me."

"But what will you tell them?"

"Oh, I do not know--anything that comes into my head. Don't mind me,
I'll take care of myself."

"But you will not; that is the whole trouble--if I go now I lose you
forever. Billie, let me stay!"

She broke from me, stepping back into the room, yet there was a look in
her eyes which made me desperate. She did not love Le Gaire, she
despised him. I was certain of that, and more than half convinced her
heart was already mine. Should I run from the fight like a coward, sneak
away in the night, leaving her to be sacrificed? The very thought
sickened me. Better to meet the issue squarely--and I believed I knew
how it could be done. I grasped the curtain, drew it down twice in
signal, and stepped into the room.

"I am going to take command here now, Billie," I said with new
sternness. "All you need to do is obey orders."

CHAPTER XXI

WE CAPTURE THE HOUSE

If she was startled and frightened before, she was doubly so now at this
sudden revolt on my part. But I had no time then for explanation, only
for the stern exercising of authority. If I was right, if deep down in
the girl's heart there was love for me, she would forgive this action as
soon as she realized its purpose--aye! she would respect me the more for
daring the deed.

"Don't attempt to interfere now, my girl; go over to the big chair and
sit down."

My revolver was in my hand, and she saw it, her eyes wide open.

"You--you are not going to hurt them?"

"No, not if they use any sense, but this is not going to be boys' play.
Will you do as I say?"

She sat down, gripping the arms of the chair, and leaning forward, half
inclined to scream, yet afraid to utter a sound. Without taking my eyes
from her, I slipped across the room to where I would be partially
concealed as the door opened. I knew what I was going to do, or, at
least, attempt to do, and realized fully the risk I ran, and the chance
of failure. It would require daring and coolness to capture those in the
house, without raising any alarm, and likewise the prompt cooperation of
my men. If they had seen my signal, and if I could disarm these first
two, the rest should be comparatively easy. There were steps in the
hall, and the jingle of spurs. Hardy entered first, his head turned
backward as though he spoke to Le Gaire. I saw the girl rise to her
feet, but my whole attention was concentrated upon the two men. The
instant the space was sufficient, I forced the door shut, and stood with
my back against it, the black muzzle of my Colt staring them in
the eyes.

"Hands up, gentlemen!" I said sternly, "a movement means death."

They presented two astounded faces, Hardy's absolutely blank, so
complete his surprise, but Le Gaire recognized me instantly, his mouth
flying open, his eyes glaring.

"Good God!--you!"

"Yes; hands up, Le Gaire! Don't be a fool."

His dark complexion was yellow with pallor, and I knew him for a coward
at heart, yet his very hatred of me made him dangerous. Hardy was
different, realizing his helplessness, but eying me coolly, his hands
held over his head.

"What does all this mean?" he asked quietly. "Who the devil are you?"

"He's that damned Yank Billie's been so interested in," broke out the
captain, "the same fellow who knocked me off my horse at Jonesboro."

Major Hardy glanced toward his daughter inquiringly, but before she
could utter a word in explanation I cut in:

"This has nothing to do with Miss Hardy. She is as much a prisoner as
you are. Now, Captain, hand me your revolver--butt first, please. Major
Hardy, I will also trouble you. Now both of you back up slowly against
the wall."

Their faces were a study, Hardy rather seeming to enjoy the experience,
his thin lips smiling grimly, but Le Gaire was mad, his jaw set, his
eyes glaring at me.

"I should rather like to know what all this means, young man," said the
former. "Do you expect to capture the house single-handed?"

"Hardly, but I've made a good start," now fully at ease, with a revolver
in each hand, the third thrust in my belt. "However I've no time now
to explain."

Without turning my face from them I sidled over to the window, speaking
quietly into the darkness without:

"Come in, men, one at a time."

Almost to my surprise they came over the rail like so many monkeys,
scarcely a sound revealing the movements. I saw the smile fade from off
the major's lips, and my eyes caught Billie's wide open in astonishment.
The fellows hustled in behind me, not knowing what was expected of them,
but ready enough for anything. I glanced at them, beckoning to Miles.

"All here, Sergeant? Then draw down the shade. Wilson, you and Carney
come over here, and keep an eye on these two men. Miles, let me speak to
you a moment."

I led him into one corner, outlining the situation in a dozen words.

"There may be half a dozen in the dining-room--yes, just across the
hall--including a preacher--armed, of course, but they don't suspect
there is a Blue-coat within ten miles. They're out for a good time, and
have been having it. If you can get the bunch covered first, there need
be no fight. Don't fire a shot; just lay the iron down on them. Take all
the men along, except the two I need here. You know your business."

"Sure," grinning, "and what then?"

"Scout around the house. I don't believe there are any guards set, but
it will be safer to make sure."

"There's some cavalrymen at the stable, sir; we heard 'em singin' out
there."

"A few officers' servants; you can attend to them easily enough after
you are certain about the house. By the way, who is the best man to
send back?"

"Into our lines, sir? Young Ross would be all right."

There was a desk in one corner, with writing materials on it, but I was
most anxious just then to be assured we controlled the situation. Some
of those fellows across the hall might become restless, and stroll in
here at any moment, to discover the cause for delay.

"Very well, Miles; leave Ross here, and carry out your orders; that
should give you seven men--why, no, it doesn't! Where is the negro?"

"He said you told him he didn't need go beyond the head of the ravine,
sir," explained the sergeant, "and as one of the men heard you say so, I
didn't feel like making him come along. He started back for camp."

"I believe I did promise something like that," I admitted, "and he
wouldn't have been much assistance anyway. Well, six men and yourself
ought to do the business. Watch the windows, so none get away."

Perhaps I should have gone myself, but I was disinclined to leave the
room, desirous of getting off my despatch without delay, and possessed
implicit confidence in the promptness and discretion of the sergeant. He
drew his revolver, the men silently following his example, and the
little party slipped quietly out into the hall, the last man closing the
door behind him. Evidently they encountered no one in the passageway.
Listening intently I heard the dining-room door thrown back violently, a
confused noise of feet, of chairs hurriedly pushed aside, a voice
uttering a stern order, the sound of a brief struggle, ended by a blow
and the thud of a body striking the floor, then numerous voices speaking
excitedly, followed by silence. Convinced the work had been
accomplished, and that the house was now entirely in our possession, I
walked across the room to the desk. Miss Hardy still sat where I had
ordered, and I was compelled to pass her chair. Her eyes met
mine coldly.

"Would you permit me to go across to my father?" she asked.

"Most certainly; you are in no sense a prisoner, except I shall have to
ask you to remain in the room for the present."

She inclined her head ever so slightly.

"I shall ask no further favor, and thank you for granting this."

I sank into the chair at the desk, and watched her cross the room. Her
words and actions hurt me, and yet it was scarcely to be expected that
she would be pleased with the sudden change in affairs. To see me thus
in complete control of the situation, her father and Le Gaire prisoners,
all their plans frustrated, was maddening, particularly so as she
realized that this result came largely through her own indiscretion. I
began myself to doubt the complete success of my scheme. Without
question I had the power now to prevent her marriage, yet I might have
gone too far, and caused a revulsion of feeling. She had been interested
in me before--for it had been her part to help me in times of danger,
and sympathy lies very close to love--but now the conditions were
changed, and she might feel very different toward my interference.
Perhaps I was destined to lose rather than gain, yet it was too late now
to draw back--I must play the game out to its ending. I wrote rapidly,
utterly ignoring her conversation with Hardy, yet someway conscious that
Le Gaire sought to join in, and was answered in a single swift sentence,
the girl not even turning to glance at him. The simple action caused my
heart to leap to my throat--could it be the lady played a part, her
coldness to me intended to deceive others? It was a hope, at least, and
I went to my task with fresh courage. I told it all in a dozen
sentences--Johnston's plans for the morrow; the withdrawal of
Confederate troops from our left, and their concentration in reserve of
the enemy's centre; our capture of the Hardy house, and my hope to
retain possession until the right of our line could be flung forward.
Then I called Ross, and he came across the room, looking scarcely more
than a boy, but with a serious face.

"Can you find your way back down the ravine to our lines, my lad?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then don't lose any time. The Confederate troops have been withdrawn,
but you must watch out for stragglers. Give this to Colonel Cochran, and
tell him it must be forwarded to headquarters at once. Explain to him
the situation here. Now be off."

He saluted, wheeled sharply about, and went out the window. I heard him
strike the ground. Then I sat silently looking at the others in the
room, wondering how the sergeant was getting along, and slowly realizing
that I had a white elephant on my hands. I was endeavoring to play two
games at once, love and war, and the various moves were confusing. It
might be possible even for my little squad to hold this advance
position until reinforcements arrived, but what could be done with the
prisoners? Billie might forgive me--realizing the motive--for all which
had occurred thus far, but if I were to turn her father and Le Gaire
over to the hardships of a Northern prison, I could expect no mercy. I
cared little as to the fate of the others, they had taken the chances of
war, but these two must be liberated before our troops came up. I could
not catch the girl's eyes; she sat with averted face, talking earnestly
to her father. Uneasy, and puzzled how best to straighten out the
tangle, I went out into the hall, and glanced in at the room opposite. A
bunch of gray-clad men were against the wall, disarmed and helpless,
even their tongues silent, and three watchful troopers guarded them,
revolvers in hand. All stared at me as I stepped forward.

"Where is the sergeant?"

"At the stable, sir."

"Oh, yes; hope he has as good luck there--got them all?"

"Every bloomin' one of 'em, sir. They was quite nice about it."

An indignant voice spoke from the gray line.

"Blamed if it ain't Atherton! Say, Major, what does all this mean?"

I laughed, stepping forward so as to see the speaker's face.

"Captain Bell, isn't it? Thought I recognized your voice. I'm not
Atherton, although I believe I was introduced to you under that name
once. I have wanted to thank you ever since for bearing testimony in
my favor."

His jaw fell, his eyes staring.

"Who the devil are you then?"

"A Federal officer; my name is Galesworth."

"And this is no joke?"

"Well, hardly, Captain. I shouldn't advise you to take the affair that
way. These fellows here might not appreciate the humor of it."

I turned back, and met Miles in the hall, just as he came in through the
front door. He grinned at sight of me, evidently well pleased.

"Got every mother's son of 'em, sir," he reported. "Easy job too; never
had to fire a shot, and only hit one fellow; he started a shindy in
there," with a glance toward the dining-room. "There were five
gray-jacks out in the stable, all asleep, an' they was like lambs. The
blamed fools never had a guard set."

"They felt safe enough, no doubt, back here," I returned. "The last
thing they thought about was any Yankees getting this far. Do you know
what they were gathered here for?"

He shook his head.

"It was intended for a wedding party, until we butted in."

"Hell! not that pretty girl back in there?"

"Yes," for somehow I felt I had better tell him enough of the truth to
make the situation clear. He was an honest, clear-headed fellow, and I
needed help. "And that Confederate Captain--Le Gaire--was to be the
bridegroom. I am going to tell you the whole story, Sergeant, and then
you'll see what sort of a fix I'm in."

I went over it hastily, yet with sufficient detail so as to make it all
clear to his mind. He listened soberly at first, and then his eyes began
to twinkle, and he interrupted with numerous questions. Apparently he
found the tale most amusing.

"Well, if that ain't the rummest story ever I heard! It beats a novel by
'bout a mile. I never was married myself, sir, but I've got a blamed
pretty girl waitin' for me back in ol' Illinoy, an' I reckon I know what
she'd want me to do in a case like this. Sure, I'm with you until the
cows come home, and so are the rest o' the boys. Lord, this is the kind
o' sojerin' I like; somethin' happenin' every minute. What's
next, sir?"

"Perhaps I better look over the house first," I said thoughtfully, "and
see where we can stow away these prisoners without needing all our men
to guard them. You take charge in there while I am gone, Miles, and let
the girl go anywhere she pleases so she promises not to leave
the house."

"All right, sir," and the sergeant saluted, his eyes shining, as I
started for the stairs.

CHAPTER XXII

MISS WILLIFRED DECLARES HERSELF

I glanced at the various rooms up stairs, but nothing seemed exactly
suitable for our purpose, and, finally, taking a trooper along to hold a
light, explored the basement with better results. Here I found a
considerable cellar, divided into two sections, the floor of stone
slabs, and the walls well bricked. Iron bars, firmly set, protected the
small windows, and altogether the place appeared favorable for our
purpose. To be sure, desperate prisoners could not be confined in such
quarters for any length of time, but it would answer temporarily,
providing we left a guard within. Satisfied as to this, after fixing up
a stout bar across the door, I returned to the first floor, and gave
orders to have the men taken below. We could not differentiate between
officers and privates, but robbed the rooms up stairs of bed-clothing,
and thus made them as comfortable as possible. Bell and the clergy-man
made voluble protests, but yielded to the inevitable, being persuaded by
the revolvers of the guards to accompany the others. So far as arms
went we were now well supplied, having added to our original equipment
the officers' pistols, and the carbines of the men captured in the
stable. This matter settled I turned to the consideration of the case of
the two men remaining in the front parlor.

Here was a more serious problem, for I could not herd Major Hardy with
those fellows below, nor was I willing to humiliate Le Gaire by any such
treatment. Not that I thought him too good to associate with these
others, but Billie must not think I was actuated by any feelings of
revenge. I talked the situation over with the sergeant, who proved a
hard-headed, practical man, and we decided upon an upstairs room, over
the kitchen, which had only one small window, through which a man of
ordinary size could hardly crawl. I went up to examine this more
carefully, and to nail down the window frame. As I came out into the
hall again, rather dreading the impending interview in the parlor, I saw
her coming alone up the broad stairway. She did not see me until her
foot was upon the last step, and then she stopped, suddenly, one hand
gripping the rail, her cheeks burning. One glance into her eyes caused
me to nerve myself for an unpleasant session.

"I have been waiting for you to return," she said very coldly, yet with
a slight falter in the voice, "and when I spoke to the sergeant, he said
you were up here."

I bowed, hat in hand, and waited, unwilling to speak until I knew
something of her purpose.

"Lieutenant Galesworth, what is the meaning of all this? What do you
propose doing with my father and Captain Le Gaire?"

"Did they send you to me to find out?"

"No; father merely supposed I was going to my own room after something I
needed."

"And Le Gaire?" I insisted.

She looked at me frankly, her eyes utterly fearless.

"We have scarcely spoken, and--and he certainly would never have advised
my coming to you. I came of my own volition, because--well, because you
claimed this was all a service to me. I--I do not understand what you
meant, or--or why you hold us prisoners."

I thought I saw light now. She forced herself to be angry with me, but
face to face was unable to carry out the programme.

"Will you come up here, Miss Billie?" I asked. "Let us take this settee
a moment, and I will endeavor to explain. We are alone here, and I would
not care to talk freely before the others. I prefer them to think this
is purely a military affair, don't you?"

She hesitated, biting her lip, and standing motionless. My hand was
extended, but she ignored it, yet, after a moment, she stepped up beside
me, her hand on the settee.

"It--it is not a military affair then?"

"Only incidentally--I told you the truth before."

"I--I do not remember."

"Perhaps I failed to make all clear; indeed, I was a little hazy myself,
events crowded upon us so rapidly. Won't you sit down while I talk?"

She sank upon the settee, as though to an order, looking into my face,
with an expression in her eyes I was unable to comprehend.

"I have wanted to see you alone," I began, determined there should be no
lack of courage on my part. "There is no longer need of any secrets
between us. We have met only once before to-night, but that meeting was
of such a character that we were instantly acquainted. To be sure we
were working at cross-purposes, and you outwitted me, but later you
squared all that by saving me from capture."

"Why go over that unfortunate occurrence?" she interrupted. "Do you not
suppose I regret that enough already?"

"I doubt if you regret it at all."

"But I do--I haven't had a moment's peace since."

"Indeed! Why?" and I bent lower, eager to read her eyes. "Because even
in that little time you had learned to care for me?"

"Your words are insolent," rising to her feet, proudly, but I remained
directly in her path.

"No, Miss Willifred," earnestly, "they are not, because they come from
the heart. You are a woman, and therefore you understand. You cannot be
angry with me, no matter how hard you try. You are endeavoring to
deceive yourself, but the effort is useless. You do care for me--that
was why you waited for me to get safely across the river; that was why
you have come to me now. Ever since I left you in the grape arbor I have
been in your thoughts."

"And why I was also about to marry Captain Le Gaire, I suppose," she
interposed defiantly, but with eyes unable to meet mine.

"I can comprehend that easily enough, helped by what I overheard. You
cannot tell me you desired to marry Captain Le Gaire--can you?"

"No," for I stopped, and thus compelled an answer. "It would be useless
to deny that."

"I was so sure of this that I acted, took the one course open to me to
prevent your doing this wrong. I deliberately determined to risk your
displeasure rather than permit the sacrifice. You were marrying him
merely because you had promised, because you could not explain to your
father why your feelings had changed--you were afraid to confess that
you loved a Yankee."

"But I didn't--it was not that!"

"Then what was it?"

She remained silent, but now I was fully aroused.

"Billie," my voice low, and barely reaching her ear. "When I rode away
that night I knew I loved you. I was a Yankee soldier, but I had been
captured by a Rebel. I scarcely possessed a hope then of meeting you
again, but I did believe you already realized what kind of a man Le
Gaire was. I could not conceive that you would marry him, and I swore to
myself to seek you out at the earliest moment possible. Don't draw back
from me, dear, but listen--you must listen. This means as much to you
as to me."

"But I cannot--I must not."

"What is there to prevent? Your pride of the South? Your adherence to
the Confederacy? I care nothing for that; we are not Rebel and Yankee,
but man and woman. As to Le Gaire, I have no respect for his claim upon
you, nor would your father have if he knew the truth. It is all an
accident our meeting again, but it was one of God's accidents. I
thought I was sent here to capture Johnston, but my real mission was to
save you. I've gone too far now to retreat. So have you."

"I?" in half indignant surprise.

"Dear, do you suppose I would dare this if I doubted you?--if I did not
believe your heart was mine?"

"And if convinced otherwise, what would you do?"

The tone in which this was spoken, the swift question startled me.

"Do? Why, there would be nothing to do, except return."

"Leaving your prisoners?"

I glanced out through the nearest window, noting the sky growing gray in
the east, and suddenly realized that, if we succeeded in getting away
ourselves now, the transporting of Confederates under guard would be
scarcely possible. She seemed to read all this in my face, before I
could frame an answer.

"I have listened to you, Lieutenant Galesworth," she burst forth,
"because I had to. You have had everything your own way thus far, but
now it is my turn. I am a woman, a woman of the South, a soldier's
daughter, and am not likely to surrender my heart, my principles, my
life before such an assault. You have taken too much for granted;
because I have not wished to hurt you, you have believed my silence
indicative of love; you have construed friendship into devotion. Now it
is my turn to speak. I did like you, and helped you; without doubt I was
indiscreet, but I thought only of friendship, supposing we would part
then, never to meet again. Under those circumstances," and her voice
faltered slightly, "it may be that I said and did more than I should,
enough--well, enough to encourage you. But--but I thought it all over
with. You knew of Captain Le Gaire, and that should have been
sufficient. Yet you come here, in face of all this, and--and dare to
make love to me."

"But you are forgetting what I overheard--the fact that I know your real
feelings toward Le Gaire."

"No, I do not forget, but that was nothing--nothing to do with you. It
was merely the result of a mood, a whim, a lovers' quarrel. No, don't
speak, don't stop me. I am not going to lie. It was not a mood, nor a
whim. I had been analyzing my own heart, and discovered Captain Le Gaire
was not what I had believed him to be. The very fact that both he and my
father so took everything for granted, arranged all details without
consulting my wishes, made me rebellious. But your dictation is even
worse than theirs. They had some right, while you have none, absolutely
none, Lieutenant Galesworth--have you?"

"I--I hardly know," confused by this direct question, and the flash of
her eyes. "I supposed I had."

"Yet with nothing but imagination to build upon. Have I ever told you I
did not care for Captain Le Gaire, or that I loved you?"

"No," I admitted, feeling myself driven relentlessly to the wall.

"I am not angry at you, for I understand how all this has occurred. I
believe you have been inspired by the highest motives, and a desire to
serve me. If I am angry at any one, it is myself. I have permitted you
to go too far, to assume too much. Now it ends, for I am going to marry
Captain Le Gaire."

She stood up straight before me, her head poised proudly, her cheeks
flushed, her eyes bright with excitement. Never before had she appeared
more attractive, and the love that swelled up into my heart seemed to
choke all utterance. Could I have mistaken everything? Could I have
deceived myself so completely? Did these hard words represent her true
purpose, or were they merely wrung out of her by stress of circumstance?
I could not determine, but I knew this--I could not turn about now and
retreat. If I did that I would certainly lose, while if I fought it out
there was still hope. No woman--at least no woman like Willifred
Hardy--ever loved a coward, or a quitter, and I was determined she
should not catalogue me in either class. All this came to me rather in
instinct than thought, yet I was ready enough when she began
questioning.

"Now you will go away, won't you?"

"Go away?"

"Yes, back to your own people, and leave us alone. There is no reason
why you should stay here longer. You are not serving me, nor your cause.
Release your prisoners, and get away safely before you yourself are
captured."

"Did Le Gaire tell you to make this proposition?"

"Certainly not," indignantly, "I have not spoken to Captain Le Gaire."

"Well, Miss Billie," soberly, "I accept your words just as they are
spoken, and will trouble you no longer with my attentions. But this has
become a military matter now. It is too late for us to attempt getting
back, but I have sent a man for reinforcements, and we shall hold this
house until they come. I do not propose to release a single prisoner, or
permit a rumor of what has occurred here to reach Confederate
headquarters. You are also a prisoner, although I will accept
your parole."

She flung back her head defiantly.

"Which I refuse to give."

"Then obey my orders; is that your room yonder?"

"Yes."

"I will trouble you to go in there."

She stared at me, biting her lip, with foot tapping the carpet, but I
had spoken sternly.

"Do you mean that?"

"Every word. I hope I shall not have to call one of my men, and place
you under guard."

There could be no doubt she was angry, yet I was the master, and, after
one glance into my face, her eyes burning, she swept by me, and entered
the room designated. I gave a glance about its interior, marking the
distance to the ground; then took the key-and inserted it in the outer
lock. She stood silently facing me, her face flushed, her bosom rising
and falling swiftly.

"I regret very much this necessity," I apologized, "but you have left me
no alternative."

"I have no desire to be spared," she returned, "and no favors to ask,
Lieutenant Galesworth."

Our eyes met, mine, I am sure, as resolute as her own, and I stepped
back into the hall, closing and locking the door.

CHAPTER XXIII

THE CHALLENGE

I went slowly down stairs, swayed by a conflict of emotions. Had I
indeed gone too far, been too stern and abrupt? Still it was surely
better to err in this direction than to exhibit weakness, and it was
only between these two that I had any choice remaining. What lay between
us and our own lines was uncertain--possibly Confederate pickets,
surely bands of stragglers, renegades from both armies. Now that we had
waited so long, it would be a desperate chance to attempt to traverse
that ravine in daylight. We were far safer here, hidden away, but must
guard well that no knowledge of our presence be scattered abroad. Billie
had defied me, threatened, and refused to accept parole; nothing
remained but to hold her prisoner. Besides her words had stung and
angered me. Even while I doubted their entire truth they still hurt,
serving to increase my bitterness toward Le Gaire.

I was in this mood as I paused a moment to glance out at the gray dawn.
The smooth pike was at least a hundred yards away, barely visible here
and there through the intervening trees. Everything about was quiet and
deserted--war seemed a long way off. Standing there alone, hearing the
birds singing in the branches, and gazing out across the green, closely
trimmed grass, I could scarcely realize our perilous position, or the
exciting events of the past night. I felt more like a guest than an
invader, and was compelled to bring myself back to realities with an
effort. I was helped by the sudden appearance of Miles in the hallway.

"Thought I better take another look down stairs, sir," he explained, as
I turned, facing him. "They are quiet enough in there."

"I was just going in," I said. "We will have to put those two with the
others at present. Our people should be up here before night, and
meanwhile we must remain quiet. Anything happened in there?"

"Nothing important. The old major fell asleep after the girl left, but
the other fellow is pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, and
cursing. He's asked me some leadin' questions 'bout you, an' where Miss
Hardy's gone. Were you goin' in, sir?"

"Yes; you better wait."

I opened the door, and stepped into the parlor, the sergeant following,
evidently anticipating a scene. The room showed some signs of disorder,
the furniture disarranged, and one chair overturned. Wilson sat in front
of the window, the shade of which had been drawn down, and the other
guard was near the door. Both men had their revolvers drawn, and, from
their positions, and Le Gaire's attitude, apparently trouble was
anticipated. He was in the middle of the room, with hands clinched and
eyes blazing, and wheeled to face me as I entered.

"Oh, it's you, is it!" he exclaimed, sudden anger sweeping away every
vestige of control. "I may be a prisoner, but I'll be damned if I'll
keep still. This whole affair is an outrage. What have you done with
Miss Hardy?"

"The lady has gone to her own room up stairs, Captain Le Gaire," I
replied courteously enough.

"But not until after seeing you, you sneaking Yankee hound," he burst
forth, striding forward. "What does this all mean? What influence have
you got over the girl?"

The major sat up suddenly.

"See here, Le Gaire, you leave my daughter's name out of this."

The enraged captain favored him with a glance.

"I know more about this affair than you do, Hardy. This blue-bellied
puppy was with Billie before, and I knew there was some infernal scheme
on the moment I saw him here to-night. The girl helped him to get away
once before, and there's some trick being worked off now."

The older man was upon his feet instantly.

"Hold on there; not another word; whatever my girl has done she is not
going to be condemned in my presence without a hearing."

"Major Hardy," I broke in, and stepped between them. "This is my
quarrel, and not yours. Your daughter has done nothing for which she can
be criticised. All her connection with me has been accidental, and
during our last interview she merely begged for your release. When I
refused to grant the request, she repudiated her parole, and I locked
her in her own room as a prisoner. I did not even know this was your
home, or that Miss Willifred was here, when I came. When Captain Le
Gaire insinuates that there was any arrangement between us he lies."

"Were you not on the balcony alone, talking together?"

"Yes, she caught me there, by coming out suddenly."

"And protected you, you coward--drew us into the trap."

"Miss Hardy had no knowledge of what I proposed doing, nor that I had
any men with me. Indeed, I myself acted merely on the spur of
the moment."

"What were you sneaking about there in the dark for then?" he sneered.
"You are nothing but a contemptible spy."

I was holding my temper fairly well, yet my patience was near the
breaking point.

"I may as well tell you," I answered at last, "and my men will
corroborate all I say. We came here under special orders hoping to
capture General Johnston, who, we were informed, was quartered here for
the night. We had no other object--"

"Until you saw Billie."

I wheeled upon him so fiercely that the fellow took a step backward.

"Captain Le Gaire, you have said enough--all I shall permit you to say.
Miss Hardy had no connection whatever with this affair. If it is true
that you are engaged to the lady, then you should be defending instead
of attacking her."

"I should hardly come to you for instructions."

"Then take them from Major Hardy."

"Oh, hell, Hardy don't understand. He's as blind as a bat, but you
cannot pull the wool over my eyes, Mr. Yankee spy. I've seen some of
your fine work before. If I wasn't a prisoner under guard I'd give you
a lesson you'd remember as long as you lived."

I stood holding my breath, looking at him, scarcely less angry than he,
yet outwardly cool.

"You would give me a lesson?"

"I spoke plainly enough, I hope. This is a personal matter between us,
and you know it, and a Southern gentleman settles his own affairs. Only
a Yankee coward would hide behind his authority."

"And you think I do?"

He glanced about, with a wave of the hand at the guards.

"Doesn't it look like it?" he asked sarcastically.

The sneer cut me to the quick, cut me so sharply I replied before
stopping to reflect. If he wished to fight me I would give him a chance;
either he must make good his boasting or have his bluff called. And
there was but one way. I looked at the two troopers, who were staring at
us in deep interest; at Miles' grinning appreciation of the scene, and
at Hardy, puzzled, but still angry at the use of his daughter's name.
Then my eyes met the captain's.

"I am greatly inclined to accommodate you, Captain Le Gaire," I said
quietly, "and give you any opportunity you may desire on equal terms.
Sergeant, take the men into the hall."

They passed out reluctantly enough, and I stepped over to make certain
the door was securely closed. Then I came back, and fronted the fellow.
He had not changed his position, although the major had again risen
to his feet.

"Well," I asked, "now what is it you wish to say?"

"Am I no longer a prisoner?"

"Not so far as our personal relations are concerned. My men will prevent
your leaving these grounds, or sending out any message before night.
Otherwise you are at liberty. Now what do you propose doing?"

My unexpected promptness dazed him, but in no way diminished his anger.

"Will you fight me?"

"I see no occasion for it."

"Then I will furnish one."

Before I could recoil, or even realize his purpose, he sprang the single
necessary step forward and, with open hand, struck me in the face.

"Even a blue-belly should understand the meaning of that," he exclaimed
hotly.

I did understand, the hot blood surging to my cheeks, yet in some
mysterious way I never in my life felt cooler, more completely in
control of myself. Every nerve tingled, yet not a muscle moved, and I
smiled into his face, truly glad it had come to this.

"Personal combat is not a habit with us, Captain Le Gaire," I said
coldly. "But in this case you will not find me seeking escape. I am very
much at your service."

"Now?" his eyes blazing.

"The quicker the better. Who seconds you?"

"Major Hardy, of course--"

"I'm damned if I will, Le Gaire," burst in the staff-officer
indignantly, thrusting himself forward. "You forced this matter with an
insult no gentleman could take, and besides have dragged my daughter's
name into the affair."

"You refuse to act for me?"

"Emphatically, yes! In the first place I don't believe in your damned
Louisiana code, and in my opinion, you've acted like a confounded bully.
So far as I can see Galesworth has done his duty, and nothing more. I'd
go out with him, under the circumstances, before I would with you."

"I could not think of asking such a favor," I blurted out in
astonishment.

"You do not need to ask--I volunteer, if you can use me."

I do not believe I shall ever forget the expression on the dark,
scowling face of Le Gaire. He had not expected this, that he would be
deserted by his own people, yet the fact merely served to increase his
bitterness, harden his purpose. The twist of his lips left his teeth
exposed in an ugly grin.

"All right, Hardy," he said, at last, "I'll not forget this, and I
reckon the story won't help you any in our army. I'll get the Yank,
second or no second, if the fellow doesn't back out."

"You need have no fear on that score," I replied soberly. "I am no
believer in the duel, and this will be my first appearance on the field,
but you have got to fight now. Moreover you shall have all your rights
guarded." I stepped to the door, and opened it.

"Sergeant, go down to the prisoners and bring Captain Bell here."

He was back in another moment, grasping the arm of the surprised
Confederate, who stared about at us in silent wonderment.

"Captain Bell," I asked, "I presume you have some acquaintance with the
duelling code?"

He bowed gravely, waiting for me to explain.

"Captain Le Gaire has seen fit to strike me in the face with his open
hand, and I have agreed to meet him at once. Will you act for the
gentleman?"

"Why not Major Hardy?"

"Because he will represent my interests."

Bell turned his eyes toward the major, puzzled and uncertain.

"This looks rather queer to me, Hardy. Has Le Gaire done something which
will prevent my acting in his behalf?"

Hardy stroked his chin, and squared his shoulders.

"Captain Le Gaire made some reflections on my family, sir, which I
resent. I refused to act for him on that ground, but I know of no reason
why you could not honorably serve. I merely prefer to assist
Galesworth."

Bell hesitated, feeling, no doubt, there was something behind all this
he did not comprehend. It was also evident enough that he was no admirer
of Le Gaire, the latter gazing at him without a word.

"Am I perfectly free to act?"

"Yes--on parole of the grounds."

"Very well, I accept; I presume my man Is the challenged party?"

Both Hardy and myself bowed.

"Then I will ask Captain Le Gaire to accompany me to the dining-room. I
shall return in a few moments."

We watched them pass out, and then Hardy and I turned, and looked into
each others' faces.

CHAPTER XXIV

I BECOME A FAMOUS SWORDSMAN

"Sergeant," I said shortly, "I think you can be of greater service in
the hall."

He disappeared reluctantly enough, and, as the door closed, I extended
my hand to the major.

"I certainly appreciate your assistance," I began warmly. "I know very
little about these affairs, or how they are conducted."

He took my hand, yet with no great cordiality, plainly enough already
somewhat doubtful as to his course.

"I presumed as much, sir, but first, and before we proceed further, I
should like to have some explanation of the trouble between you and Le
Gaire. You are doubtless aware that I am the father of Willifred Hardy."

"Yes, Major, and I am perfectly willing to tell you the whole story.
Shall I send for Miss Hardy to corroborate whatever I may say?"

"No, sir. You are a Yankee, but a gentleman, and I accept your word. I
prefer Billie should know nothing of what is occurring."

I told it swiftly from the beginning, yet was careful to leave no
impression that she had performed anything more than a mere friendly
service to an enemy in danger. Even then it was difficult for the
Confederate to appreciate fully the girl's motives, and his face clearly
expressed disapproval. As I came to an end, after telling of her effort
to gain his release, and my locking her within her own room, he paced
back and forth across the floor, scowling down at the carpet.

"By Gad, you tell the story all right," he exclaimed, "but that doesn't
seem like Billie; whatever got into the girl to make her do a trick
like that?"

"You mean helping me?"

"Yes, against Le Gaire. I can understand how she took you through to
Jonesboro; that was necessary. But all the rest is a puzzle. Did you
know she was engaged to Captain Le Gaire?"

"Yes; but evidently she did not think it would help him any to betray
me, and she was careful enough I should not escape in time to do any
harm to your army. There was no treason in her act, Major, only she felt
sympathy toward me."

"But she permitted your attack on the man."

"She knew nothing of it, until it was all over with." I hesitated, but
why should I? Surely he must already begin to perceive the truth. "That
she should have left him lying there until I was safely across the river
is the only act which tells hard against Le Gaire. No woman could have
done that, Major Hardy, if she really loved the wounded man."

He did not reply, evidently endeavoring to realize all my meaning.

"This is where you have made your mistake," I went on convincingly.
"Nothing is holding your daughter to Le Gaire but her promise. I was
obliged to overhear their conversation after you left, and he appealed
to her pride, to the honor of the Hardys, in order to gain her consent
to the marriage. She told him she no longer loved him, that he was not
the man she had supposed him to be--actually begged for release. I can
understand the situation, and, it seems to me, you ought to now. He is a
handsome fellow, dashing and reckless, the kind to make an impression.
She was flattered by his attentions, and deceived into the thought that
she really cared for him. Then she saw his true nature--his selfishness,
brutality, cowardice, even--and revolted. I doubt if I had anything to
do with this change--it was bound to come. You are a man, Major Hardy,
and must know men--is Le Gaire the kind you would want your daughter
to marry?"

"By Gad! the way you put it--no!" emphatically. "I've thought well
enough of him until to-night; probably he's kept his best side turned
toward me, and, besides, it never once occurred to me that Billie didn't
want him. I've heard stories about the man, pretty hard ones at that,
but he appeared like a gentleman, and I naturally supposed them largely
fairy tales. Because I felt sure Billie liked him, I did also, but
to-night he has shown me the other side of his character. Still, I don't
know that I wonder much at his hating you."

"I have given him all the cause I could--would gladly give more if
possible."

Hardy's eyes twinkled.

"I reckon your heart is all right, even if your uniform is the wrong
color. But, young man, this affair puts me in a queer box. I spoke up
rather hastily a while back, and now here I am seconding a damned Yankee
in a fight against one of our own men--it don't just look right."

"I merely accepted your own offer; no doubt my sergeant would act."

"Oh, I'll stay. The fact is, I rather like you, Lieutenant--eh, what is
the name? Oh, yes, Galesworth--you see Billie never even so much as
mentioned having met you. Anyway, I'm in this affair, and am going to
stick, although if all they tell about Le Gaire is true I wouldn't give
much for your chances of coming out whole."

"He is a duellist then?"

"Notorious; although, as near as I can learn, he has not had a serious
affair for some time. He assured me once, when I ventured to question
him, that he was through with that sort of thing. It's common practice
among the Louisiana hot-bloods, and I supposed he had got his senses.
Probably Billie never even heard of his reputation in this respect. What
do you do best--shoot or fence?"

"Shoot, although I am hardly an expert at either."

"Le Gaire will name swords," he said soberly. "He's a fine swordsman,
and probably the only question is how badly he'll try to hurt you."

"A pleasant prospect surely."

"For him, yes, but as your second I propose impressing Captain Bell,
when he arrives, with the idea that you are particularly expert with the
sabre, which happens to be the only sword weapon present. If I succeed
he may decide that pistols will be better."

I stared at him with full appreciation, realizing the man was really
seeking to serve me.

"May make it too," he went on calmly. "You're a stronger man than Le
Gaire, and that means something with the sabre. If I can convince Bell,
he'll make Le Gaire decide in favor of the gun. There he comes now.
Well, Bell, you've been long enough about it--must be your first case."

The infantryman bowed rather coldly, his back against the closed door,
as he surveyed us both.

"I have not had much experience in such affairs, Major Hardy, and I
desired some understanding of the circumstances before finally
consenting to act," he replied stiffly. "I am informed that Captain Le
Gaire is the challenged party."

"Well, that might be a question, but we will waive the technicalities.
Le Gaire provoked the fight, and was rather nasty about it in my
judgment, but all we are anxious about now is to get the preliminaries
over with as soon as possible. We acknowledge that your man was the one
challenged."

"Then, sir, we demand an immediate meeting, and name swords as the
weapons."

Hardy turned to me, a smile of delight illumining his face.

"Good enough," he exclaimed, sufficiently loud to reach the ears of the
astonished captain. "Not so bad, hey, Galesworth?"

I nodded, but without venturing a reply, and Bell exhibited his surprise
in his face.

"Is--is Lieutenant Galesworth an expert with the sabre?" he asked, after
a moment's silence.

"Is he!" echoed Hardy. "Do you mean to say Le Gaire has never heard of
him?"

"I--I think not."

"That's odd. Why, we of the staff knew all about those sabre trials in
the Federal camp. I naturally supposed Le Gaire wished to try his skill
with the champion for the honor of the South. Such a struggle ought to
be worth seeing, but Galesworth would have the advantage of weight, and
length of arm."

Bell evidently did not know either what to say or do. This threw an
entirely new light on the situation, and left him in an awkward
position. He shuffled uneasily about.

"Would--would you gentlemen mind my consulting Captain Le Gaire again?"
he questioned doubtfully. "I think he should fully understand his
opponent's skill."

Hardy laughed, completely at ease, and enjoying the other's dilemma.

"Well, I hardly know about that, Bell. Under the laws of the code we
can hold you to your first choice, and I'm inclined to do so. Great joke
on Le Gaire. However, I am willing to leave it to my man. What do you
say, Galesworth?"

I had retired to the opposite side of the room, and was leaning with one
arm on the mantel. In spite of the seriousness of the affair, it was
impossible not to be amused by this sudden turn. Bell's eyes shifted
questioningly toward me.

"Surely Lieutenant Galesworth will not desire to take any undue
advantage," he ventured.

"Was not that Captain Le Gaire's idea?" I returned sharply. "He has the
reputation of expert swordsmanship."

"He is a swordsman, yes, but does not profess to excel with the sabre."

I waited a moment in silence, permitting my hesitancy to become plainly
apparent.

"Well, Captain Bell, much as I prefer the weapons already named, I will
nevertheless consent to a change. I am ready to concede anything if I
can only compel your man to fight."

"Do you mean to question Captain Le Gaire's courage, sir?" hotly.

"He seems to be fairly solicitous about his own safety, at least,"
chimed in Hardy. "Go on, Bell, and talk it over with him--this is
not our row."

The little captain backed out still raging, and the major followed him
to the door, lingering there as though listening. I watched curiously
until he straightened up, struggling to keep back a laugh.

"That's some liar you've got for a sergeant, Galesworth," he said
genially. "Bell ran up against him in the hall, and stopped to ask a
question. He wasn't exactly certain we had been telling the truth. Your
man must have been primed for the occasion the way he turned loose.
Would like to have seen Bell's eyes pop out as the fellow described your
exploits. Makes me proud to know you myself."

"Did Miles say I was an expert with the sabre?" I questioned in
astonishment.

"Did he! Champion of the Army of the Tennessee; undefeated for two
years, both afoot and on horse-back; described a wonderful stroke that
caught them all; told about how you accidentally drove it an inch too
far once, and killed your opponent. Oh, he was great. It will be pistols
when Bell comes back; don't doubt that, my boy, and I know the very
spot--out back of the stable, level ground, and no interference."

The interest which Major Hardy was exhibiting, as well as the promptness
with which he had espoused my side of the quarrel, made me suspicious
that he was not altogether sorry to be thus easily rid of Le Gaire. I
could not venture questioning him on so delicate a matter, but without
doubt he also saw the Louisianian in a new light, and began to
comprehend the change in his daughter. Moreover the humor in the
situation appealed to him, and, having once volunteered to serve me, he
became thoroughly loyal to that purpose. His very presence gave me
courage, and his words stiffened me for the coming ordeal. This was my
first occasion of the kind and, as the earlier anger wore off, I found
myself looking forward with some dread to the encounter. It was not
fear, but the newness of the experience jarred my nerves. I paced back
and forth across the room, only partially aware of what he was saying,
endeavoring to straighten matters out in my own mind. Was I doing right?
Was I justified in this course of action? I had followed the impulse of
passion, the sting of Le Gaire's blow driving all other memory from me.
But now I realized the peril in which my action might involve others,
the men under my command, for instance, and wondered what Billie would
think and say when the news of the quarrel reached her. She would
understand the real cause, yet, with her father upon my side, I was not
likely to suffer greatly. Anyway the die was cast; it was too late now
to regret. Bell returned full of apology and explanation, expressing a
desire that the weapons be changed to pistols. Hardy arose from his
chair, his eyes twinkling behind heavy lashes.

"Sure; Galesworth is easily satisfied. I have two derringers up stairs
exactly alike; my father was out with them twice! Quite a fad duelling
was in his day, but the guns haven't been used for years. Come handy
now. By the way, Lieutenant, you shoot equally well with either hand, I
believe? Very valuable accomplishment; never could myself. We will meet
you, Captain Bell, back of the stable in fifteen minutes. Sorry we have
no surgeon present. That is all, is it not?" as the infantryman still
lingered. "The minor details can be arranged on the field."

CHAPTER XXV

THE END OF THE DUEL

The sun was slightly above the horizon, still showing round and red
through the slight mist of early morning, as the major and I passed down
the deserted front steps, and circled the house on our way to the place
of meeting. Under his arm was the leather case containing the
derringers, and we crossed the intervening turf without exchanging a
word. I was myself in no mood for conversation, and Hardy appeared
equally inclined to silence. I glanced across at him, noting how
straight he stood in his well-worn uniform, how gray his hair was, and
the stern manliness of his face. From head to foot he was the gentleman
and the soldier. By some chance our eyes met, and, with a quick glance
back at the house, he stopped suddenly.

"Galesworth," he said quietly, his glance searching my face, "I do not
wish you to have any misunderstanding about my exact position in this
affair. The war is not personal with me. We differ politically, and I am
as loyal to the South as any one, and you wear the Blue with just as
much honor as I wear the Gray. But when it comes to men I stand with
the one I believe to be nearest right. Le Gaire forced this quarrel on
you deliberately; he was threatening to do it before you came in. In
fact, his manner ever since our capture has disgusted me, and when he
finally dared to drag Billie's name into the controversy, I naturally
rebelled. If there is anything I despise in this world, sir, it is a
bullying duellist, and, by Gad! that's what the fellow looks like
to me."

"I comprehend perfectly, Major Hardy," I said, as he paused. "You are
merely doing as you would be done by."

"Well, yes, that's a partial explanation. I prefer to see fair play. Yet
I am going to confess that isn't all of it. I rather like you, young
man--not your damned uniform, understand--and the way you've acted
toward my girl. You've been honorable and square, and, by Gad, sir,
you're a gentleman. That's why I am going to see you through this
affair. If all I hear is true, Le Gaire came back to me with a lie, and
that is something I have never taken yet from any man."

He stood straight as an arrow, his shoulders squared, his slender form

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