The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XI. A Vain Pursuit
Youth was strong in Harry, and, while he danced and the music played, he forgot all about the incident in the smoking-room. With him it was just one pretty girl after another. He had heart enough for them all, and only one who was so young and who had been so long on battlefields could well understand what a keen, even poignant, pleasure it was to be with them.
Those were the days when a ball lasted long. Pleasures did not come often, but when they came they were to be enjoyed to the full. But as the morning hours grew the manner of the older people became slightly feverish and unnatural. They were pursuing pleasure and forgetfulness with so much zeal and energy that it bore the aspect of force rather than spontaneity. Harry noticed it and divined the cause. Beneath his high spirits he now felt it himself. It was that looming shadow in the North and that other in that far Southwest hovering over lost Vicksburg. Serious men and serious women could not keep these shadows from their eyes long.
The incident of the smoking-room and the missing map came back to him with renewed force. It could not have walked away. They had searched the room and the court so thoroughly that they would have found it, had it been there. The disappearance of a document, which men of authority and knowledge had built up almost unconsciously, puzzled and alarmed him.
It was almost day when he and Dalton left. They paid their respects to Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, and said many good-bys to "the girls they left behind them." Then they went out into the street, and inhaled great draughts of the cool night air.
"A splendid night," said Dalton.
"Yes, truly," said Harry.
"I hope you didn't propose to more than six girls."
"To none. But I love them all together."
"I'm glad to hear it, because you're entirely too young to marry, and your occupation is precarious."
"You needn't be so preachy. You're not more'n a hundred years old yourself."
"But I'm two months older than you are and often two months makes a vast difference, particularly in our cases. I notice about you, Harry, at times, a certain juvenility which I feel it my duty to repress."
"Don't do it, George. Let's enjoy it while we can, because as you say my occupation is precarious and yours is the same."
They stopped at the corner of the iron fence enclosing the Curtis home, in which many lights were still shining. It was near a dark alley opening on the street and running by this side of the house.
"I'm going to see what's behind Mr. Curtis's house," said Harry.
Dalton stared at him.
"What's got into your head, Harry!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean to be a burglar prowling about the home of the man who has entertained you?"
Harry hesitated. He was sorry that Dalton was with him. Then he could have gone on without question, but he must make some excuse to Dalton.
"George," he said at last, "will you swear to keep a secret, a most important one which I am pledged to tell to nobody, but which I must confide in you in order to give a good reason for what I am about to do."
"If you are pledged to keep such a secret," replied Dalton, "then don't explain it to me. Your word is good enough, Harry. Go ahead and do what you want to do. I'll ask nothing about any of your actions, no matter how strange it may look."
"You're a man in a million, George. Come on, your confidence is going to be tested. Besides, you'll run the danger of being shot."
But Dalton followed him fearlessly as he led the way down the alley. Richmond was not lighted then, save along the main streets, and a few steps took them into the full dark. The brilliant windows threw bright bands across the lines, but they themselves were in darkness.
The alley ran through the next street and so did the Curtis grounds. They were as extensive in the rear of the house as in front, and contained small pines carefully trimmed, banks of roses and two grape arbors. Harry could hear no sound of any one stirring among them, but people, obviously the cooks and other servants, were talking in the big kitchen at the rear of the house.
The street itself running in the rear of the building was as well lighted as it was in front, but Harry saw no one in it save a member of the city police, who seemed to be keeping a good watch. But as he did not wish to be observed by the man he waited a little while in the mouth of the alley, until he had moved on and was out of sight.
"Now, George," he said, "you and I are going to do a little scouting. You know I'm descended from the greatest natural scout and trailer ever known in the West, one whose senses were preternaturally acute, one who could almost track a bird in the air by its flight."
"Yes, I've heard of the renowned Henry Ware, and I know that you've inherited a lot of his skill and intuition. Go ahead. I promised that I would help you and ask no questions. I keep my word."
Harry climbed silently over the low fence, and Dalton followed in the same manner. The light from the street and house did not penetrate the pines and rosebushes, where Harry quickly found a refuge, Dalton as usual following him.
"What next?" whispered Dalton.
"Now, I do my trailing and scouting, and you help me all you can, George, but be sure you don't make any noise. There's enough moonlight filtering through the pines to show the ground to me, but not enough to disclose us to anybody twenty feet away."
He dropped to his hands and knees, and, crawling back and forth, began to examine every inch of ground with minute care, while Dalton stared at him in amazement.
"I'd help," whispered Dalton, "if I only knew what you were doing."
"Suppose, George, that somebody wanted to see the Curtis house, and yet not be seen, wanted to observe as well as he could, without detection, what was going on there. He'd watch his chance, jump over the fence as we have done and enter this group of pines. He could ask no finer point of observation. We are perfectly hidden and yet we can see the whole rear of the house and one side of it."
"So we can. I infer that you are looking for some one who you think has been acting as a spy."
"Ah! here we are. The earth is a bit soft by this pine, and I see the trace of a footstep! And here is another trace, close by it, undoubtedly the imprint of the other foot. It's as plain as day."
Dalton knelt, looked at the traces, and shook his head. "I can't make out any of them," he said. "I see nothing but a slight displacement of the grass caused by the wind."
"That's because you haven't my keen eye, an inherited and natural ability as a trailer, although you may beat me out of sight in other things. The shape of these traces indicates that they were made by human feet, and their closeness together shows that the man stood looking at the house. If he had been walking along they would be much wider apart."
He examined the traces again with long and minute care.
"The toes point toward the house, consequently he was looking at it," he said. "He was a heavy man, and he stood here a long time, not moving from his tracks. That's why he left these traces, which are so clear and evident to me, George, although they're hidden from a blind man like you."
"Well, what of it?"
"Nothing much to you, but a lot to me."
He rose to his feet and examined the boughs of the pine.
"As I thought," he whispered with great satisfaction. "Despite his courage and power over himself, both of which were very great, he became a little excited. Doubtless he saw something that stirred him deeply."
"What under the stars are you talking about, Harry?"
"See, he broke off three twigs of the pine. Just snapped them in two with nervous fingers. Here are pieces lying on the ground. Now, a man does that sort of thing almost unconsciously. He will not reach up for the twig or down for it, but he breaks it because it presents itself to him at the corner of his eye. This man was six feet in height or more and built very powerfully. I think I know him! Yes, I'm sure I know him! Nor is it at all strange that he should be here."
"Shall we make a thorough search for him among the pines? You say he's tall and built powerfully. But maybe the two of us could master him, and if not we could call for help."
"Too late, George. He left a long time ago, and he took with him what he wanted. We needn't look any farther."
"Lead on, then, King of Trailers and Master of Secrets! If the mighty Caliph, Haroun al Kenton, wishes to prowl in these grounds, seeking the heart of some great conspiracy, it is not for his loyal vizier, the Sheikh Ul Dalton to ask him questions."
"I'm not certain that a vizier is a sheikh."
"Nor am I, but I'm certain that I want to go home and go to bed. Vikings of the land like ourselves can't stand much luxury. It weakens the tissues, made strong on the march and in the fields."
They left the grounds silently and unobserved and soon were in their own quarters, where they slept nearly the whole day. Then they spent three or four days more in the social affairs which were such a keen pleasure to them after such a long deprivation. But wherever they went, and they were in demand everywhere, Harry was always looking for somebody, a man, tall, heavy and broad shouldered, not a man who would come into a room where he was, or who would join a company of people that he had joined, but one who would hang upon the outskirts, and hide behind the corners of buildings or trees. He did not see the shadow, but once or twice he felt that it was there.
The officer, Bathurst, told him one night that some important papers had been stolen from the White House of the Confederacy itself.
"They pertain to our army," said Bathurst, "and they will be of value to the enemy, if they reach him."
"I'm quite certain that the most daring and dangerous of all northern spies is in Richmond," said Harry.
Then he told Bathurst of Shepard and of the trails that he had seen among the pines behind Curtis's house.
"Do you think this man got our map?" asked Bathurst.
"It may have been so. Perhaps he was hidden in the court and when he saw us go out, leaving the map on the table, he slipped in at the window and seized it."
"But the court was enclosed. He would have had to go with the paper through the house itself."
"That's where my theory fails. I can provide for his taking the paper, but I can't provide for his escape."
"I'll tell the General about it. I think you're right, Harry. I've heard of Shepard myself, and he's worth ten thousand men to the Yankees. It's more than that. At such a critical stage of our affairs he might ruin us. We'll make a general search for him. We'll rake the city with a fine tooth comb."
The search was made everywhere. Soldiers pried in every possible place, but they found nobody who could not give an adequate account of his presence in Richmond. Harry felt sure nevertheless that Shepard was somewhere in the capital, protected by his infinite daring and resource, and they received the startling news the next day after the search that a messenger sent northward with dispatches for Lee had been attacked only a short distance from the city. He had been struck from behind, and did not see his assailant, but the wound in the head--the man had been found unconscious--and the missing dispatches were sufficient proof.
A night later precious documents were purloined from the office of the Secretary of War and a list of important earthworks on the North and South Carolina coast disappeared from the office of the Secretary of the Navy. Alarm spread through all the departments of the Confederacy. Some one, spy and burglar too, had come into the very capital, and he was having uncommon success.
Harry had not the least doubt that it was Shepard, and he was filled with an ambition to capture this man, whom he really liked. If Shepard were caught he would certainly be hanged, but then a spy must take his chances.
They heard meanwhile that General Lee had gone to a former camp of his on the Opequan, but that later in response to maneuvers by General Meade, he moved to a position near Front Royal. No orders came for Harry or Dalton to rejoin him, and, as a period of inactivity seemed to be at hand, they were glad to remain a while longer in Richmond. They still stayed with the Lanhams, who refused to take any pay, although the two young officers, chipping together, bought for Mrs. Lanham a little watch which had just come through the blockade from England.
Thus their days lengthened in Richmond, and, despite the shadow of the spy and his doings which was over Harry, they were still very pleasant. The members of the Mosaic Club, although older men, made much of them, and Harry and Dalton, being youths of sprighty wit, were able to hold their own in such company. The time had now passed into August, and they sat one afternoon in the lobby of the big hotel with their new friends. Richmond without was quiet and blazing in the sun. Harry had received a second letter from his father from an unnamed point in Georgia. It did not contain much news, but it was full of cheerfulness, and it intimated in more than one place that Bragg's army was going to strike a great blow.
All eyes were turned toward the West. The opinion had been spreading in the Confederacy that the chief danger was on that line. It seemed that the Army of Northern Virginia could take care of anything to the north and east, but in the south and west affairs did not go well.
"It's a pity that General Bragg is President Davis' brother-in-law," said Randolph.
"Why?" asked Daniel.
"Then he wouldn't be in command of our Western Army."
"Bragg's a fighter, though."
"But not a reaper."
"What do you mean?"
"He wins the victory, but lets the enemy take it."
"It may be so. But to come closer home, what about the Yankee spy in Richmond? It's an established fact that a man of most uncommon daring and skill is here."
"No doubt of it, what's the latest from him?"
"The house of William Curtis was entered last night and robbed."
"Robbed of what?"
"Papers. The man never takes any valuables."
"But Curtis is not in the government!"
"No, but he carries on a lot of blockade running, chiefly through Norfolk and Wilmington. I think the papers related to several blockade running vessels coming out from England, and of course the Yankee blockading ships will be ready for them. There's not a trace of the man who took them."
"Something is deucedly sinister about it," said Bagby. "It seems to be the work of one man, and he must have a hiding place in Richmond, but we can't find it. Kenton, you and Dalton are army officers, supposedly of intelligence. Now, why don't you find this mysterious terror? Ah, will you excuse me for a minute! I see Miss Carden leaving the counter with her basket, and there is no other seamstress in Richmond who can put the ruffles on a man's finest shirt as she can. She's been doing work for me for some time."
He arose, and, leaving them, bowed very politely to the seamstress. Her face, although thin and lined, was that of an educated woman of strong character. Harry thought it probable that she was a lady in the conventional meaning of the word. Many a woman of breeding and culture was now compelled to earn her own living in the South. She and Bagby exchanged only a few words, he returning to his chair, and she leaving the hotel at a side door, walking with dignity.
"I've seen Miss Carden three times before, once on the train, once at this hotel and once at Mr. Curtis's house; can you tell me anything about her?" said Harry.
"It's an ordinary tale," replied Bagby. "I think she lived well up the valley and her house being destroyed in some raid of the Federal troops she came down to the capital to earn a living. She's been doing work for me and others I know for a year past, and I know she's not been out of Richmond in that time."
The talk changed now to the books that had come through from Europe in the blockade runners. There was a new novel by Dickens and another by Thackeray, new at least to the South, and the members of the Mosaic Club were soon deep in criticism and defense.
Harry strolled away after a while. He did not tell his friends--nothing was to be gained by telling them--that he was absolutely sure of the identity of the spy, that it was Shepard. The question of identity did not matter if they caught him, and his old feeling that it was a duel between Shepard and himself returned. He believed that the duty to catch the man had been laid upon him.
He began to haunt Richmond at all hours of the night. More than once he had to give explanations to watchmen about public buildings, but he clung to the task that he had imposed upon himself. He explained to Dalton and the Virginian found no fault except for Harry's loss of time that might be devoted to amusement. Harry sometimes rebuked himself for his own persistency, but Bagby's taunt had stung a little, and he felt that it applied more to himself than to Dalton. He knew Shepard and he knew something of his ways. Moreover, his was the blood of the greatest of all trailers, and it was incumbent upon him to find the spy. Yet he was trailing in a city and not in a forest. In spite of everything he clung to his work.
On a later night about one o'clock in the morning he was near the building that housed army headquarters, and he noticed a figure come from some bushes near it. He instantly stepped back into the shadow and saw a man glance up and down the street, probably to see if it was clear. It was a night to favor the spy, dark, with heavy clouds and gusts of rain.
The figure, evidently satisfied that no one was watching, walked briskly down the street, and Harry's heart beat hard against his side. He knew that it was Shepard, the king of spies, against whom he had matched himself. He could not mistake, despite the darkness, his figure, his walk and the swing of his powerful shoulders.
His impulse was to cry for help, to shout that the spy was here, but at the first sound of his voice Shepard would at once dart into the shrubbery, and escape through the alleys of Richmond. No, his old feeling that it was a duel between Shepard and himself was right, and so they must fight it out.
Shepard walked swiftly toward the narrower and more obscure streets, and Harry followed at equal speed. The night grew darker and the rain, instead of coming in gusts, now fell steadily. Twice Shepard stopped and looked back. But on each occasion Harry flattened himself against a plank fence and he did not believe the spy had seen him.
Then Shepard went faster and his pursuer had difficulty in keeping him in view. He went through an alley, turned into a street, and Harry ran in order not to lose sight of him.
The alley came into the street at a right angle, and, when Harry turned the corner, a heavy, dark figure thrust itself into his path.
"Shepard!" he cried.
"Yes!" said the man, "and I hate to do this, but I must."
His heavy fist shot out and caught his pursuer on the jaw. Harry saw stars in constellations, then floated away into blackness, and, when he came out of it, found himself lying on a bed in a small room. His jaw was bandaged and very sore, but otherwise he felt all right. A candle was burning on a table near him and an unshuttered window on the other side of the room told him that it was still night and raining.
Harry looked leisurely about the room, into which he had been wafted on the magic carpet of the Arabian genii, so far as he knew. It was small and without splendor and he knew at once from the character of its belongings that it was a woman's room.
He sat up. His head throbbed, but touching it cautiously he knew that he had sustained no serious injury. But he felt chagrin, and a lot of it. Shepard had known that he was following him and had laid a trap, into which he had walked without hesitation. The man, however, had spared his life, although he could have killed him as easily as he had stunned him. Then he laughed bitterly at himself. A duel between them, he had called it! Shepard wouldn't regard it as much of a duel.
His head became so dizzy that he lay down again rather abruptly and began to wonder. What was he doing in a woman's room, and who was the woman and how had he got there? This would be a great joke for Dalton and St. Clair and Happy Tom.
He was fully dressed, except for his boots, and he saw them standing on the floor against the wall. He surveyed once more the immaculate neatness of the room. It was certainly a woman's, and most likely that of an old maid. He sat up again, but his head throbbed so fearfully that he was compelled to lie down quickly. Shepard had certainly put a lot in that right hand punch of his and he had obtained a considerable percentage of revenge for his defeat in the river.
Then Harry forgot his pain in the intensity of his curiosity. He had sustained a certain temporary numbing of the faculties from the blow and his fancy, though vivid now, was vague. He was not at all sure that he was still in Richmond. The window still showed that it was night, and the rain was pouring so hard that he could hear it beating against the walls. At all events, he thought whimsically, he had secured shelter, though at an uncommon high price.
He heard a creak, and a door at the end of the room opened, revealing the figure and the strong, haggard features of Henrietta Carden. Evidently she had taken off a hood and cloak in an outer room, as there were rain drops on her hair and her shoes were wet.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Kenton?" she asked.
"Full of aches and wonder."
"Both will pass."
She smiled, and, although she was not young, Harry thought her distinctly handsome, when she smiled.
"I seem to have driven you out of your room and to have taken your bed from you, Miss Carden," he said, "but I assure you it was unintentional. I ran against something pretty hard, and since then I haven't been exactly responsible for what I was doing."
She smiled again, and this time Harry found the smile positively winning.
"I'm responsible for your being here," she said.
Then she went back to the door and said to some one waiting in the outer room:
"You can come in, Lieutenant Dalton. He's all right except for his headache, and an extraordinary spell of curiosity."
Dalton stalked solemnly in, and regarded Harry with a stern and reproving eye.
"You're a fine fellow," he said. "A lady finds you dripping blood from the chin, and out of your head, wandering about the street in the darkness and rain. Fortunately she knows who you are, takes you into her own house, gives you an opiate or some kind of a drug, binds up your jaw where some man good and true has hit you with all his goodness and truth, and then goes for me, your guardian, who should never have let you out of his sight. I was awakened out of a sound sleep in our very comfortable room at the Lanham house, and I've come here through a pouring rain with Miss Carden to see you."
"I do seem to be the original trouble maker," said Harry. "How did you happen to find me, Miss Carden?"
"I was sitting at my window, working very late on a dress that Mrs. Curtis wants to-morrow. It was not raining hard then, and I could see very well outside. I saw a dark shadow in the street at the mouth of the alley. I saw that it was the figure of a man staggering very much. I ran out and found that it was you, Lieutenant Kenton. You were bleeding at the chin, where apparently some one had struck you very hard, and you were so thoroughly dazed that you did not know where you were or who you were."
"Yes, he hit me very hard, just as you supposed, Miss Carden," said Harry, feeling gently his sore and swollen chin.
"I half led and half dragged you into my house--there was nowhere else I could take you--and, as you were sinking into a stupor, I managed to make you lie down on my bed. I bound up your wound, while you were unconscious, and then I went for Lieutenant Dalton."
"And she saved your life, too, you young wanderer. No doubt of that," said Dalton reprovingly. "This is what you get for roaming away from my care. Lucky you were that an angel like Miss Carden saved you from dying of exposure. If I didn't know you so well, Harry, I should say that you had been in some drunken row."
"Oh, no! not that!" exclaimed Miss Carden. "There was no odor of liquor on his breath."
"I was merely joking, Miss Carden," said Dalton. "Old Harry here is one of the best of boys, and I'm grateful to you for saving him and coming to me. If there is any way we can repay you we'll do it."
"I don't want any repayment. We must all help in these times."
"But we won't forget it. We can't. How are you feeling, Harry?"
"My head doesn't throb so hard. The jarred works inside are gradually getting into place, and I think that in a half-hour I can walk again, that is, resting upon that stout right arm of yours, George."
"Then we'll go. I've brought an extra coat that will protect you from the rain."
"You are welcome to stay here!" exclaimed Miss Carden. "Perhaps you'd be wiser to do so."
"We thank you for such generous hospitality," said Dalton gallantly, "but it will be best for many reasons that we go back to Mrs. Lanham's as soon as we can. But first can we ask one favor of you, Miss Carden?"
"That you say nothing of Mr. Kenton's accident. Remember that he was on military duty and that in the darkness and rain he fell, striking upon his jaw."
"I'll remember it. Our first impression that he had been struck by somebody was a mistake, of course. You can depend upon me, both of you. Neither of you was ever in my house. The incident never occurred."
"But we're just as grateful to you as if it had happened."
A half-hour later they left the cottage, Miss Carden holding open the door a little to watch them until they were out of sight. But Harry had recovered his strength and he was able to walk without Dalton's assistance, although the Virginian kept close by his side in case of necessity.
"Harry," said Dalton, when they were nearly to the Lanham house, "are you willing to tell what happened?"
"As nearly as I know. I got upon the trail of that spy who has been infesting Richmond. I knew at the time that it couldn't have been any one else. I followed him up an alley, but he waited for me at the turn, and before I could defend myself he let loose with his right. When I came drifting back into the world I was lying upon the bed in Miss Carden's cottage."
"He showed you some consideration. He might have quietly put you out of the way with a knife."
"Shepard and I don't care to kill each other. Each wants to defeat the other's plans. It's got to be a sort of duel between us."
"So I see, and he has scored latest."
"But not last."
"We'd better stick to the tale about the fall. Such a thing could happen to anybody in these dark streets. But that Miss Carden is a fine woman. She showed true human sympathy, and what's more, she gave help."
"She's all that," agreed Harry heartily.
They had their own keys to the Lanham house and slipped in without awakening anybody. Their explanations the next day were received without question and in another day Harry's jaw was no longer sore, though his spirit was. Yet the taking of important documents ceased suddenly, and Harry was quite sure that his encounter with Shepard had at least caused him to leave the city.