The Aide-de-Camp by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
Age has a point or two in common with greatness; few willingly achieve it, indeed, but most have it thrust upon them, and some are born old. But there are people who, beginning young, are young forever. One might fancy that the careless fates who shape souls--from cotton-batting, from stone, from wood and dynamite and cheese--once in an aeon catch, by chance, a drop of the fountain of youth, and use it in their business, and the soul so made goes on bubbling and sparkling eternally, and gray dust of years cannot dim it. It might be imagined, in another flight of fancy, that a spark of divine fire from the brazier of the immortals snaps loose once in a century and lodges in somebody, and is a heart--with such a clean and happy flame burns sometimes a heart one knows.
On a January evening, in a room where were books and a blazing hearth, a man with a famous name and a long record told me a story, and through his blunt speech flashed in and out all the time the sparkle of the fire and the ripple of the fountain. Unsuspecting, he betrayed every minute the queer thing that had happened to him--how he had never grown up and his blood had never grown cold. So that the story, as it fell in easy sequence, had a charm which was his and is hard to trap, yet it is too good a story to leave unwritten. A picture goes with it, what I looked at as I listened: a massive head on tremendous shoulders; bright white hair and a black bar of eyebrows, striking and dramatic; underneath, eyes dark and alive, a face deep red-and-brown with out of doors. His voice had a rough command in it, because, I suppose, he had given many orders to men. I tell the tale with this memory for a setting; the firelight, the soldierly presence, the gayety of youth echoing through it.
The fire had been forgotten as we talked, and I turned to see it dull and lifeless. "It hasn't gone out, however," I said, and coughed as I swallowed smoke. "There's no smoke without some fire," I poked the logs together. "That's an old saw; but it's true all the same."
"Old saws always are true," said the General. "If there isn't something in them that people know is so they don't get old--they die young. I believe in the ridden-to-death proverbs--little pitchers with big ears--cats with nine lives--still waters running deep--love at first sight, and the rest. They're true, too." His straight look challenged me to dispute him.
The pine knots caught and blazed up, and I went back comfortably into my chair and laughed at him.
"O General! Come! You don't believe in love at first sight."
I liked to make him talk sentiment. He was no more afraid of it than of anything else, and the warmest sort came out of his handling natural and unashamed.
"I don't? Yes, I do, too," he fired at me. "I know it happens, sometimes."
With that the lines of his face broke into the sunshiniest smile. He threw back his head with sudden boyishness, and chuckled, "I ought to know; I've had experience," he said. His look settled again thoughtfully. "Did I ever tell you that story--the story about the day I rode seventy-five miles? Well, I did that several times--I rode it once to see my wife. But this was the first time, and a good deal happened. It was a history-making day for me all right. That was when I was aide-de-camp to General Stoneman. Have I told you that?"
"No," I said; and "oh, do tell me." I knew already that a fire and a deep chair and one of the General's stories made a good combination.
His manner had a quality uncommon to storytellers; he spoke as if what he told had occurred not in times gone by, but perhaps last week; it was more gossip than history. Probably the sharp, full years had been so short to him that the interval between twenty and seventy was no great matter; things looked as clear and his interest was as lively as a half-century ago. This trick of mind made a narrative of his vivid. With eyes on the fire, with his dominant voice absorbing the crisp sound of the crackling wood, he began to talk.
"It was down in Virginia in--let me see--why, certainly, it was in '63--right away after the battle of Chancellorsville, you know." I kept still and hoped the General thought I knew the date of the battle of Chancellorsville. "I was part of a cavalry command that was sent from the Army of the Potomac under General Stoneman--I was his aide. Well, we did a lot of things--knocked out bridges and railroads, and all that; our object was, you see, to destroy communication between Lee's army and Richmond. We even got into Richmond--we thought every Confederate soldier was with Lee at the front, and we had a scheme to free the prisoners in Libby, and perhaps capture Jefferson Davis--but we counted wrong. The defence was too strong, and our force too small; we had to skedaddle, or we'd have seen Libby in a way we didn't like. We found a negro who could pilot us, and we slipped out through fields and swamps beyond the reach of the enemy. Then the return march began. Let me put that log on."
"No. Talk," I protested; but the General had the wood in his vigorous left hand--where a big scar cut across the back.
"You needn't be so independent," he threw at me. "Now you've got a splinter in your finger--serves you right." I laughed at the savage tone, and his eyes flashed fiercely--and he laughed back.
"What was I talking about--you interrupted. Oh, that march. Well, we'd had a pretty rough time when the march back began. For nine days we hadn't had a real meal--just eaten standing up, whatever we could get cooked--or uncooked. We hadn't changed our clothes, and we'd slept on the ground every night."
"Goodness!" I interjected with amateur vagueness. "What about the horses?"
"Oh, they got it, too," the General said carelessly. "We seldom unsaddled them at all, and when we did it was just to give them a rub-down and saddle again. We'd made one march toward home and halted, late at night, when General Stoneman called for his aide-de-camp. I went to him, rather sleepy, and he told me he'd decided to communicate with his chief and report his success, and that I was to start at daylight and find the Army of the Potomac. I had my pick of ten of the best men and horses from the brigade, and I got off at gray dawn with them, and with the written report in my boot to the commanding general, and verbal orders to find him wherever he might be. Nothing else, except the tools--swords and pistols, and that sort of thing. Oh, yes, there was one thing more. General Ladd, who was a Virginian, had given my chief a letter for his people, thinking we'd get into their country. His family were all on the Confederate side of the fence, while he was a Union officer. That was not uncommon in our civil war. But we didn't get near the Ladd estate, and so Stoneman commissioned me to return the letter to the general with the explanation. Does this bore you?" he stopped suddenly to ask, and his alert eye shot the glance at me like a bullet.
"Stop once more and I'll be likely to cry," I predicted.
"For Heaven's sake don't do that." He reached across and took the poker. "Here's the Rapidan River," he sketched down the rug. "Runs east and west. And this blue diagonal north of it is the Rappahannock. I started south of the Rapidan, to cross it and go north, hoping to find our army victorious and south of the Rappahannock. Which I didn't--but that's farther along. Well, we were off at daylight, ten men and the officer--me. It was a fine spring morning, and the bunch of horsemen made a pretty sight as the sun came up, moving through the greenness--the foliage is well out down there in May. The bits jingled and the saddles creaked under our legs--I remember how it sounded as we started off. We'd had a strenuous week, but we were a strong lot and ready for anything. We were going to get it, too." The General chuckled suddenly, as if something had hit his funny-bone. "I skirted along the south bank of the Rapidan, keeping off the roads most of the time, and out of sight, which was better for our health--we were in Confederate country--and we got to Germania Ford without seeing anybody, or being seen. Said I, 'Here's the place we'll cross.' We'd had breakfast before starting, but we'd been in the saddle three hours since that, and I was thirsty. I could see a house back in the trees as we came to the ford--a beautiful old house--the kind you see a lot of in the South--high white pillars--dignified and aristocratic. It seemed to be quiet and safe, so we trotted up the drive, the eleven of us. The front door was open, and I jumped off my horse and ran up the steps and stood in the doorway. There were four or five people in the hall, and they'd seen us coming and were scared. A nice old lady was lying back in a chair, as pale as ashes, with her hand to her heart, gasping ninety to the second, and two or three negroes stood around her with their eyes rolling. And right in the middle of the place a red-headed girl in a white dress was bending over a grizzled old negro man who was locking a large travelling-bag. As cool as a cucumber that girl was."
The General stopped and considered.
"I wish I could describe the scene the way I saw it--I remember exactly. It was a big, square hall running through from front to back, and the back door was open, and you saw a garden with box hedges, and woods behind it. Stairs went up each side the hall and a balcony ran around the second story, with bedrooms opening off it. There was a high, oval window at the back over the balcony, and the sun poured through.
"The girl finished locking her bag as if she hadn't noticed scum of the earth like us, and then she deliberately picked up a bunch of long white flowers that lay by the bag--lilies, I think you call them--and stood up, and looked right past me, as if she was struck with the landscape, and didn't see me. She was a tall girl, and when she stood straight the light from the back window just hit her hair and shone through the loose part of it--there was a lot, and it was curly. I give you my word that, as she stood there and looked calmly beyond me, in her white dress, with the stalk of flowers over her shoulder, and the sun turning that wonderful red-gold hair into a halo--I give you my word she was a perfect picture of a saint out of a stained-glass window in a church. But she didn't act like one."
The General was seized with sudden, irresistible laughter. He sobered quickly.
"I took one look at the vision, and I knew it was all up with me. Talk about love at first sight--before she ever spoke a word I--well." He pulled up the sentence as if it were a horse. "I snatched off my cap and I said, said I, 'I'm very sorry to disturb you,' just as politely as I knew how, but all the answer she gave me was to glance across at the old lady. Then she went find put her arm around her as she lay back gasping in a great curved chair.
"'Don't be afraid, Aunt Virginia,' she said. 'Nothing shall hurt you. I can manage this man.'
"The way she said 'this man' was about as contemptuous as they make 'em. I guess she was right, too--I guess she could. She turned her head toward me, but did not look at me.
"'Do you want anything here?'" she asked.
"Her voice was the prettiest, softest sound you ever heard--she was mad as a hornet, too." The General's swift chuckle caught him. "'Hyer,' she said it," he repeated. "'Hyer.'" He liked to say it, evidently. "I stood holding my cap in my hand, so tame by this time you could have put me on a perch in a cage, for the pluck of the girl was as fascinating as her looks. I spoke up like a man all the same.
"'I wanted to ask,' said I, 'if I might send my men around to your well for a drink of water. They're thirsty.'
"The way she answered, looking all around me and never once at me, made me uncomfortable. 'I suppose you can if you wish,' she said. 'You're stronger than we are. You can take what you choose. But I won't give you anything--not if you were dying--not a glass of water.'
"Well, in spite of her having played football with my heart, that made me angry.
"'I didn't know before that to be Southern made a woman unwomanly,' I said. 'Where I came from I don't believe there's a girl would say a cruel thing like that or refuse a drink of cold water to soldiers doing their duty, friends or enemies. We've slept on the ground nine nights and ridden nine days, and had very little to eat--my men are tired and thirsty. I shan't make them go without any refreshment they can get, even if it is grudged.'
"I gave an order over my shoulder, and my party went off to the back of the house. Then I made a low bow to the old lady and to Miss High-and-Mighty, and I swung about and walked down the steps and mounted my horse. I was parched for water, but I wouldn't have had it if I'd choked, after that. Between taking an almighty shine to the girl and getting stirred up that way, and then being all frozen over with icicles by her cool insultingness, I was pretty savage, and I stared away from the place and thought the men would never come. All of a sudden I felt something touch my arm, and I looked around quick, and there was the girl. She stood by the horse, her red hair close to my elbow as I sat in the saddle, and she held up a glass of water. I never was so astonished in my life.
"'You're thirsty and tired, too,' she said, speaking as low as if she was afraid the horse might hear. 'For my self-respect--for Southern women'--she brought it out in that soft, sliding way, but the words were all mixed up with embarrassment--and red--my, but she blushed! Then she went on. 'You were right,' said she. 'I was cruel; you're my enemy and I hate you, but I ought not to grudge you water. Take it.'
"I put my hand right on top of hers as she held the glass, and bent down and drank so, making her hold it to my lips, and my hand over hers--bless her heart!"
The General came to a full stop. He was smiling into the fire, and his face was as if a flame burned back of it. I waited very quietly, fearing to change the current by a word, and in a moment the strong voice, with its vibrating note, not to be described, began again.
"I drained every drop," he said, "I'd have drunk a hogshead. When I finished I raised my head and looked down at her without a word said--but I didn't let go of the glass with her hand holding it inside mine--and she lifted her eyes very slowly, and for the first time looked at me. Well--" he shut his lips a moment--"these things don't tell well, but something happened. I held her eyes into mine, us if I gripped them with my muscles, and there came over her face an extraordinary expression--first as if she was surprised that it was me, then as if she was glad, and then--well, you may believe it or not, but I knew that second that the girl--loved me. She hated me all right five minutes before--I was her people's enemy--the chances were she'd never see me again--all that's true, but it simply didn't count. She cared for me, and I for her, and we both knew it--that's all there was about it. People live faster in war-time, I think--anyhow, that's the way it was.
"The men and horses came pouring around the house, and I let her hand loose--it was hard to do it, too--and then she was gone, and we rode on to the ford. We stopped when we got to the stream to let the horses have their turn at drinking, and as I sat loafing in the saddle, with my mind pretty full of what had just passed, my eyes were all over. Every cavalry officer, and especially an aide-de-camp, gets to be a sort of hawk in active service--nothing can move within range that he doesn't see. So as I looked about me I took in among other things the house we'd just left, and suddenly I spied a handkerchief waving from behind one of the big white pillars. Of course you've got to be wary in an enemy's country, and these people were rabid Confederates, as I'd occasion to know. All the same it would have been bad judgment to neglect such a signal, and what's more, I'd have staked my life on that girl's honesty. If the handkerchief had been a cannon I'd have gone back. So back I went, taking a couple of men with me. As I jumped off my horse I saw her standing inside the front door, back in the shadow, and I ran up the steps to her.
"'Well?' said I.
"She looked up at me and laughed, showing a row of white teeth. That was the first time I ever saw her laugh. 'I knew you'd come back,' said she, as mischievous as a child, and her eyes danced.
"I didn't mean to be made a fool of, for I had my duty to think about, so I spoke rather shortly. 'Well, and now I'm here--what?'
"With that she drew an excited little gasp. 'I couldn't let you be killed,' she brought out in a sort of breathless whisper, so low I had to bend over close to hear her. 'You mustn't go on--in that direction--you'll be taken. The Union army's been defeated--at Chancellorsville. They're driven north of the Rappahannock--to Falmouth. Our troops are in their old camps. There's an outpost across the ford--just over the hill.'
"It was the first I'd heard of the defeat at Chancellorsville, and it stunned me for a second. 'Are you telling me the truth?' I asked her pretty sharply.
"'You know I am,' she said, as haughty as you please all of a sudden, and drew herself up with her head in the air.
"And I did know it. Something else struck me just about then. The old lady and the servants were gone from the hall. There wasn't anybody in it but herself and me; my men were out of sight on the driveway. I forgot our army and the war and everything else, and I caught her bands in between mine, and said I, 'Why couldn't you let me be killed?'"
At his words I drew a quick breath, too. For a moment I was the Southern girl with the red-gold hair. I could feel the clasp of the young officer's hands; I could hear his voice asking the rough, tender question, "Why couldn't you let me be killed?"
"It was mighty still for a minute. Then she lifted up her eyes as I held her fingers in a vise, and gave me a steady look. That was all--but it was plenty.
"I don't know how I got on my horse or what order I gave, but my head was clear enough for business purposes, and I had to use it--quickly, too. There were thick woods near by, and I hurried my party into them and gave men and horses a short rest till I could decide what to do. The Confederates were east of us, around Chancellorsville and in the triangle between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, so that It was unsafe travelling in that direction. It's the business of an aide-de-camp carrying despatches to steal as quietly as possible through an enemy's country, and the one fatal thing is to be captured. So I concluded I wouldn't get into the thick of it till I had to, but would turn west and make a detour, crossing by Morton's Ford, farther up the Rapidan. Germania Ford lies in a deep loop of the river, and that made our ride longer, but we found a road and crossed all right as I planned it, and then we doubled back, as we had to, eastward.
"It was a pretty ride in the May weather, through that beautiful Virginia country. We kept in the woods and the lonely roads as much as we could and hardly saw a soul for hours, and though I knew we were getting into dangerous parts again, I hoped we might work through all right. Of course I thought first about my errand, and my mind was on every turn of the road and every speck in the landscape, but all the same there was one corner of it--or of something--that didn't forget that red-headed girl--not an instant. I kept wondering if I'd ever see her again, and I was mighty clear that I would, if there was enough left of me by the time I could get off duty to go and look her up. The touch of her hands stayed with me all day.
"About two o'clock or so we passed a house, just a cabin, but a neat sort of place, and I looked at it as I did at everything, and saw an old negro with grizzled hair standing some distance in front of it. Now everything reminded me of that girl because she was on my mind, and instantly I was struck with the idea, that the old fellow looked like the servant who had been locking the bag in the house by Germania Ford. I wasn't sure it was the same darky, but I thought I'd see. There was a patch of woods back of the house, and I ordered the party to wait there till I joined them, and I threw my bridle to a soldier and turned in at the gate. The man loped out for the house, but I halted him. Then I went along past the negro to the cabin, and opened the door, which had been shut tight.
"There was a table littered with papers in the middle of the room, and behind it, in a gray riding-habit, with a gray soldier-cap on her red hair, writing for dear life, sat the girl. She lifted her head quick, as the door swung open, and then made a jump to get between me and the table. I took off my cap, and said I:
"'I'm very glad to see you. I was just wondering if we'd ever meet again.' She only stared at me. Then I said: 'I'm sorry, but I'll have to ask you for those papers.' I knew by the look of them that they were some sort of despatches.
"At that she laughed in a kind of a friendly, cocksure way. She wasn't afraid of anything, that girl. 'No,' she threw at me--just like that--'No.'" The General tossed back his big head and did a poor imitation of a girl's light tone--a poor imitation, but the way he did it was winning. "'No,' said she, shaking her head sidewise. 'You can't have those papers--not ever,' and with that she swept them together and popped them into a drawer of the table and then hopped up on the table and sat there laughing at me, with her little riding-hoots swinging. 'At least, unless you knock me down, and I don't believe you'll do that,' said she.
"Well, I had to have those papers. I didn't know how important they might be, but if this girl was sending information to the Southern commanders I was inclined to think it would be accurate and worth while. It wouldn't do not to capture it. At the same time I wouldn't have laid a finger on her, to compel her, for a million dollars. I stood and stared like a blockhead for a minute, at my wit's end, and she sat there and smiled. All of a sudden I had an idea. I caught the end of the table and tipped it up, and off slid the young lady, and I snatched at the knob of the drawer, and had the papers in a second.
"It was simple, but it worked. Then it was her turn to look foolish. Of course she had a temper, with that colored hair, and she was raging. She looked at me as if she'd like to tear me to pieces. There wasn't anything she could say, however, and not lose her dignity, and I guess she pretty nearly exploded for a minute, and then, in a flash, the joke of it struck her. Her eyes began to dance, and she laughed because she couldn't help it, and I with her. For a whole minute we forgot what a big business we were both after, and acted like two children.
"'That's right,' said I finally. 'I had to get them, but I did it in the kindest spirit. I see you understand that.'
"'Oh, I don't care,' she answered with her chin up--a little way she had. 'They're not much, anyway. I hadn't got to the important part.'
"'Won't you finish?' said I politely, and pretended to offer her the papers--and then I got serious. 'What are you doing here?' I asked her. 'Where are you going?'
"She looked up at me, and--I knew she liked me. She caught her breath before she answered. 'What right have you got to ask me questions?' said she, making a bluff at righteous indignation.
"But I just gripped her fingers into mine--it was getting to be a habit, holding her hand.
"'And what are you doing here?' she went on saucily, but her voice was a whisper, and she let her hand lie.
"'I'll tell you what I'm doing,' said I. 'I'm obeying the Bible. My Bible tells me to love my enemies, and I'm going to. I do,' said I. 'What does your Bible tell you?'
"'My Bible tells me to resist the devil and he will flee from me,' she answered back like a flash, standing up straight and looking at me squarely, as solemn as a church.
"'Well, I guess I'm not that kind of a devil,' said I. 'I don't want to flee worth a cent.'
"And at that she broke into a laugh and showed all her little teeth at me. That was one of the prettiest things about her, the row of small white teeth she showed every time she laughed.
"'Just at that second the old negro stuck his head in at the door. 'We're busy, uncle,' said I. 'I'll give you five dollars for five minutes.'
"But the girl put her hand on my arm to stop me, 'What is it, Uncle Ebenezer?' she asked him anxiously.
"'It's young Marse, Miss Lindy,' the man said, 'Him'n Marse Philip Breck'nridge 'n' Marse Tom's ridin' down de branch right now. Close to hyer--dey'll be hyer in fo'-five minutes.'
"She nodded at him coolly. 'All right. Shut the door, Uncle Ebenezer,' said she, and he went out and shut it.
"And before I could say Jack Robinson she was dragging me into the next room, and pushing me out of a door at the back.
"'Go--hurry up--oh, go!' she begged. 'I won't let them take you.'
"Well, I didn't like to leave her suddenly like that, so I said, said I: 'What's the hurry? I want to tell you something.'
"'No,' she shot at me. 'You can't. Go--won't you, please go?' Then I picked up a little hand and hold it against my coat. I knew by now just how she would catch her breath when I did it."
At about this point the General forgot me. Such good comrades we were that my presence did not trouble him, but as for telling the story to me, that was past--he was living it over, to himself alone, with every nerve in action.
"'Look here,' said I, 'I don't believe a thing like this ever happened on the globe before, but this has. It's so--I love you, and I believe you love me, and I'm not going till you tell me so.'
"By that time she was in a fit. 'They'll be here in two minutes; they're Confederate officers. Oh, and you mustn't cross at Kelly's Ford--take the ford above it'--and she thumped me excitedly with the hand I held. I laughed, and she burst out again: 'They'll take you--oh, please go!'
"'Tell me, then,' said I, and she stopped half a second, and gasped again, and looked up in my eyes and said it. 'I love you,' said she. And she meant it.
"'Give me a kiss,' said I, and I leaned close to her, but she pulled away.
"'Oh, no--oh, please go now,' she begged.
"'All right,' said I, 'but you don't know what you're missing,' and I slid out of the back door at the second the Southerners came in at the front.
"There were bushes back there, and I crawled behind them and looked through into the window, and what do you suppose I saw? I saw the biggest and best-looking man of the three walk up to the girl who'd just told me she loved me, and I saw her put up her face and give him the kiss she wouldn't give me. Well, I went smashing down to the woods, making such a rumpus that if those officers had been half awake they'd have been after me twice over. I was so maddened at the sight of that kiss that I didn't realize what I was doing or that I was endangering the lives of my men. 'Of course,' said I to myself, 'it's her brother or her cousin,' but I knew it was a hundred to one that it wasn't, and I was in a mighty bad temper.
"I got my men away from the neighborhood quietly, and we rode pretty cautiously all that afternoon, I knew the road leading to Kelly's Ford, and I bore to the north, away from there, for I trusted the girl and believed I'd be safe if I followed her orders. She'd saved my life twice that day, so I had reason to trust her. But all the time as I jogged along I was wondering about that man, and wondering what the dickens she was up to, anyway, and why she was travelling in the same direction that I was, and where she was going--and over and over I wondered if I'd over see her again. I felt sure I would, though--I couldn't imagine not seeing her, after what she'd said. I didn't even know her name, except that the old negro had called her 'Miss Lindy.' I said that a lot of times to myself as I rode, with the men's bits jingling at my buck and their horses' hoofs thud-thudding. 'Lindy--Miss Lindy--Linda--my Linda--I said it half aloud. It kept first-rate time to the hoof-beats--'Lindy--Miss Lindy.'
"I wondered, too, why she wouldn't let me cross the Rappahannock by Kelly's Ford, for I had reason to think there'd be a Union post on the east side of the river there, but there was a sense of brains and capability about the girl, as well as charm--in fact, that's likely to be a large part of any real charm--and so I trusted to her.
"Well, late in the afternoon we were trotting along, feeling pretty secure. I'd left the Kelly's Ford road at the last turn, and was beginning to think that we ought to be within a few miles of the river, when all of a sudden, coming out of some woods into a small clearing with a farmhouse about the centre of it, we rode on a strong outpost of the enemy, infantry and cavalry both. We were in the open before I saw them, so there was nothing to do but make a dash for it and rush past the cabin before they could reach their arms, and we drew our revolvers and put the spurs in deep and flew past with a fire that settled some of them. But a surprise of this sort doesn't last long, and it was only a few minutes before they were after us--and with fresh mounts. Then it was a horse-race for the river, and I wasn't certain of the roads. However, I knew a trick or two about this business, and I was sure some of the pursuers would forge ahead; so three times I got behind a turn and fired as a man came on alone. I dismounted several that way. This relieved the strain enough so that I got within sight of the river with all my men. It was a quarter of a mile away when I saw it, and at that point the road split, and which branch led to the ford for the life of me I didn't know. There wasn't time for meditation, however, so I shot down the turn to the left, on the gamble, and sure enough there was the ford--only it wasn't any ford. The Rappahannock was full to the banks and perhaps two hundred yards across. The Confederates were within rifle-shot, so there were exactly two things to do--surrender or swim. I gave my men the choice--to follow me or be captured--and I plunged in, without any of them."
"What!" I demanded here, puzzled. "Didn't the men know how to swim?"
"Oh, yes, they knew how," the General answered, and looked embarrassed.
"Well, then, why didn't they?" It began to dawn on me, "Were they afraid--was it dangerous--was the river swift?"
"Yes," he acknowledged. "The river was swift--it was a foaming torrent."
"They were afraid--all ten of them--and you weren't--you alone?" The General looked annoyed. "I didn't want to be captured," he explained crossly. "I had the despatches besides." He went on: "I slipped off my horse, keeping hold of the bridle to guide him, and swam low beside him, because they were firing from the bank. But all at once the shots stopped, and I heard shouting, and shortly after I got a glimpse, over my horse's back, of a rider in the water near me, and there was a flash of a gray cap. One of the Southerners was swimming after me, and I was due for a tussle when we landed. I made it first. I scrambled to shore and snatched out my sword--the pistols were wet--and rushed for the other man as he jumped to the bank, and just as I got to him--just in time--I saw him. It wasn't him--it was her--the girl. Heavens!" gasped the General; "she gave me a start that time. I dropped my sword on the ground, I was so surprised, and stared at her with my mouth open.
"'Oo-ee!' said that girl, shaking her skirt, as calm as a May morning. 'Oo-ee!' like a baby crowing. 'My, but that's a cold river!' And her teeth chattered.
"Well, that time I didn't ask permission. I took her in my arms and held her--I had to, to keep her warm. Couldn't let her stand there and click her teeth--could I? And she didn't fight me. 'What did you do such a crazy thing for?' asked I.
"'Well, you're mighty par-particular,' said she as saucy as you please, but still shivering so she couldn't talk straight. 'They were popping g-guns at you--that's what for. Roger's a right bad shot, but he might have hit you.'
"'And he might, have hit you,' said I. 'Did you happen to think of that?'
"She just laughed. 'Oh, no--they wouldn't risk hitting me. I'm too valuable--that's why I jumped in--to protect you.'
"'Oh!' said I. 'I'm a delicate flower, it seems. You've been protecting me all day. Who's Roger?'
"'My brother,' said she, smiling up at me.
"'Was that the man you kissed in the cabin back yonder?'
"'Shame!' said she. 'You peeped.'
"'Was it?' I insisted, for I wanted to know. And she told me.
"'Yes,' she told me, in that low voice of hers that was hard to hear, only it paid to listen.
"'Did you ever kiss any other man?' said I.
"'It's none of your business,' said the girl. 'But I didn't--the way you mean.'
"'Well, it wouldn't make any difference, anyway--nothing would,' I said. 'Except this--are you ever going to?'
"All this time that bright-colored head of hers was on my shoulder, Confederate cap and all, and I was afraid of my life to stir, for fear she'd take it away. But when I said that I put my face down against hers and repeated the question, 'Are you ever going to?'
"It seemed like ages before she answered and I was scared--yet she didn't pull away,--and finally the words came--low, but I heard. 'One,' said she. 'If he wants it.'
"Then--" the General stopped suddenly, and the splendid claret and honey color of his cheeks went a dark shade more to claret. He had come to from his trance, and remembered me. "I don't know why I'm telling you all these details," he declared abruptly. "I suppose you're tired to death listening." His alert eyes questioned me.
"General," I begged, "don't stop like that again. Don't leave out a syllable. 'Then--'"
But he threw back his head boyishly and laughed with a touch of self-consciousness. "No, madam, I won't tell you about 'then.' I'll leave so much to your imagination. I guess you're equal to it. It wasn't a second anyway before she gave a jump that took her six feet from me, and there she was tugging at the girth of her saddle.
"'Quick--change the saddles!' she ordered me. 'I must be out of my mind to throw away time when your life's in danger. They're coming around by the bridge,' she explained, 'two miles down. And you have to have a fresh mount. They'd catch you on that.' She threw a contemptuous glance at my tired brute, and began unbuckling the wet straps with her little wet fingers.
"'Don't do that,' said I. 'Let me.' But she pushed me away. 'Mustn't waste time.' She gave her orders as business-like as an officer. 'Do your own saddle while I attend to this. Zero can run right away from anything they're riding--from anything at all. Can't you, Zero?' and she gave the horse a quick pat in between unbuckling. He was a powerful, rangy bay, and not winded by his run and his swim. 'He's my father's,' she went on. 'He'll carry you through to General Hooker's camp at Falmouth--he knows that camp. It's twenty-five miles yet, and you've ridden fifty to-day, poor boy.'
"I wish I could tell you how pretty her voice was when she said things like that, as if she cared that I'd had a strenuous day and was a little tired.
"'How do you know I'm going to Falmouth? How do you know how far I've ridden?' I asked her, astonished again.
"'I'm a witch,' she said. 'I find out everything about you-all by magic, and then I tell our officers. They know it's so if I tell them. Ask Stonewall Jackson how he discovered the road to take his cavalry around for the attack on Howard. I reckon I helped a lot at Chancellorsville.'
"'Do you reckon you're helping now?' I asked, throwing my saddle over Zero's back. 'Strikes me you're giving aid and comfort to the enemy hand over fist.'
"That girl surprised me whatever she did, and the reason was--I figured it out afterward--that she let herself be what few people let themselves be--absolutely straightforward. She had the gentlest ways, but she always hit straight from the shoulder, and that's likely to surprise people. This time she took three steps to where I stood by Zero and caught my finger in the middle of pulling up the cinch and held to it.
"'I'm not a traitor,' she threw at me. 'I'm loyal to my people, and you're my enemy--and I'm saving you from them. But it's you--it's you,' she whispered, looking up at me. It was getting dark by now, but I could see her eyes. 'When you put your hand over mine this morning it was like somebody'd telegraphed that the one man was coming; and then I looked at you, and I knew he'd got there. I've never bothered about men--mostly they're not worth while, when there are horses--but ever since I've been grown I've known that you'd come some time, and that I'd know you when you came. Do you think I'm going to let you be taken--shot, maybe? Not much--I'll guard your life with every breath of mine--and I'll keep it safe, too.'
"Now, wasn't that a strange way for a girl to talk? Did you ever hear of another woman who could talk that way, and live up to it?" he demanded of me unexpectedly.
I was afraid to say the wrong thing and I spoke timidly. "What did you do then?"
He gave me a glance smouldering with mischief. "I didn't do it. I tried to, but she wouldn't let me.
"'Hurry, hurry,' said she, in a panic all of a sudden. 'They'll be coming. Zero's fast, but you ought to get a good start.'
"And she hustled me on the horse. And just as I was off, as I bent from the saddle to catch her hand for the last time, she gave me two more shocks together." Silent reminiscent laughter shook him.
"'When am I going to see you again?' asked I hopelessly, for I felt as if everything was mighty uncertain, and I couldn't bear to leave her.
"'To-morrow,' said she, prompt as taxes. 'To-morrow. Good-by, Captain Carruthers.'
"And she gave the horse a slap that scared him into a leap, and off I went galloping into darkness, with my brain in a whirl as to where I could see her to-morrow, and how under creation she knew my name. The cold bath had refreshed me--I hadn't had the like of it for nine days--and I galloped on for a while feeling fine, and thinking mighty hard about the girl I'd left behind me. Twenty-four hours before I'd never seen her, yet I felt, as if I had known her all my life. I was sure of this, that in all my days I'd never seen anybody like her, and never would. And that's true to this minute. I'd had sweethearts a-plenty--in a way--but the affair of that day was the only time I was ever in love in my life."
To tell the truth I had been a little scandalized all through this story, for I knew well enough that there was a Mrs. Carruthers. I had not met her--she had been South through the months which her husband had spent in New York--but the General's strong language concerning the red-haired girl made me sympathize with his wife, and this last sentiment was staggering. Poor Mrs. Carruthers! thought I--poor, staid lady, with this gay lad of a husband declaring his heart forever buried with the adventure of a day of long ago. Yet, a soldier boy of twenty-three--the romance of war-time--the glamour of lost love--there were certainly alleviating circumstances. At all events, it was not my affair--I could enjoy the story as it came with a clear conscience. So I smiled at the wicked General--who looked as innocent as a baby--and he went on.
"I knew every road on that side the river, and I knew the Confederates wouldn't dare chase me but a few miles, as it wasn't their country any longer, so pretty soon I began to take things easy. I thought over everything that had happened through the day, everything she'd said and done, every look--I could remember it all. I can now. I wondered who under heaven she was, and I kicked myself that I hadn't asked her name. 'Lindy'--that's all I knew, and I guess I said that over a hundred times. I wondered why she'd told me not to go to Kelly's Ford, but I worked that out the right way--as I found later--that her party expected to cross there, and she didn't want me to encounter them; and then the river was too full and they tried a higher ford. And I'd run into them. Yet I couldn't understand why she planned to cross at Kelly's, anyway, because there was pretty sure to be a Union outpost on the east bank there, and she'd have landed right among them. That puzzled me. Who was the girl, and why on earth was she travelling in that direction, and where could she be going? I went over that problem again and again, and couldn't find an answer.
"Meanwhile it was getting late, and the bracing effect of the cold water of the Rappahannock was wearing off, and I began to feel the fatigue of an exciting day and a seventy-five-mile ride--on top of nine other days with little to eat and not much rest. My wet clothes chilled me, and the last few miles I have never been able to remember distinctly--I think I was misty in my mind. At any rate, when I got to headquarters camp I was just about clear enough to guide Zero through the maze of tents, and not any more, and when the horse stopped with his nose against the front pole of the general's fly I was unconscious."
I exclaimed, horrified: "It was too much for human nature! You must have been nearly dead. Did you fall off? Were you hurt?"
"Oh, no--I was all right," he said cheerfully. "I just sat there. But an equestrian statue in front of the general's tent at 11 P.M. wasn't usual, and there was a small sensation. It brought out the adjutant-general and he recognized me, and they carried me into a tent, and got a surgeon, and he had me stripped and rubbed and rolled in blankets. They found the despatches in my boots, and those gave all the information necessary. They found the letter, too, which Stoneman had given me to hand back to General Ladd, and they didn't understand that, as it was addressed simply to 'Miss Ladd, Ford Hall,' so they left it till I waked up. That wasn't till noon the next day."
The General began chuckling contagiously, and I was alive with curiosity to know the coming joke.
"I believe every officer in the camp, from the commanding general down, had sent me clothes. When I unclosed my eyes that tent was alive with them. It was a spring opening, I can tell you--all sorts. Well, when I got the meaning of the array, I lay there and laughed out loud, and an orderly appeared at that, and then the adjutant-general, and I reported to him. Then I got into an assortment of the clothes, and did my duty by a pile of food and drink, and I was ready to start back to join my chief. Except for the letter of General Ladd--I had to deliver that in person to give the explanation. General Ladd had been wounded, I found, at Chancellorsville, but would see me. So off I went to his tent, and the orderly showed me in at once. He was in bed with his arm and shoulder bandaged, and by his side, looking as fresh as a rose and as mischievous as a monkey, sat a girl with red hair--Linda Ladd--Miss Ladd, of Ford Hall--the old house where I first saw her. Her father presented me in due form and told me to give her the letter and--that's all."
The General stopped short and regarded me quietly.
"Oh, but--" I stammered. "But that isn't all--why, I don't understand--it's criminal not to tell the rest--there's a lot."
"What do you want to hear?" he demanded, "I don't know any more--that's all that happened."
"Don't be brutal," I pleaded. "I want to know, for one thing, how she knew your name."
"Oh--that." He laughed like an amused child. "That was rather odd. You remember I told you that when they were chasing us I took shelter and shot the horses from under some of the Southerners."
"Well, the first man dismounted was Tom Ladd, the girl's cousin, who'd been my classmate at the Point, and he recognized me. He ran back and told them to make every effort to capture the party, as its leader was Captain Carruthers, of Stoneman's staff, and undoubtedly carried despatches."
"Oh!" I said. "I see. And where was Miss Ladd going, travelling your way all day?"
"To see her wounded father at Falmouth, don't you understand? She'd had word from him the day before. She was escorted by a strong party of Confederates, including her brother and cousin. She started out with just the old negro, and it was arranged that she should meet the party at the cabin where I found her writing. They were to go with her to Kelly's Ford, where she was to pass over to the Union post on the other bank--she had a safe-conduct."
"Oh!" I assimilated this. "And she and her brother were Confederates, and the father was a Northern general--how extraordinary!"
"Not in the least," the General corrected me. "It happened so in a number of cases. She was a power in that campaign. She did more work than either father or brother. A Southern officer told me afterward that the men half believed what she said--that she was a witch, and got news of our movements by magic. Nothing escaped her--she had a wonderful mind, and did not know what fear was. A wonderful woman!"
He was smiling to himself again as he sat, with his great shoulders bent forward and his scarred hand on his knee, looking into the fire.
"General," I said tentatively, "aren't you going to tell me what she said when she saw you come into her father's tent?"
"Said?" asked the General, looking up and frowning. "What could she say? Good-morning, I guess."
I wasn't afraid of his frown or of his hammer-and-tongs manner. I'd got behind both before now. I persisted.
"But I mean--what did you say to each other, like the day before--how did it all come out?"
"Oh, we couldn't do any love-making, if that's what you mean," he explained in a business-like way, "because the old man was on deck. And I had to leave in about ten minutes to ride back to join my command. That was all there was to it."
I sighed with disappointment. Of course I knew it was just an idyll of youth, a day long, and that the book was closed forty years before. But I could not bear to have it closed with a bang. Somewhere in the narrative had come to me the impression that the heroine of it had died young in those exciting war-times of long ago. I had a picture in my mind of the dancing eyes closed meekly in a last sleep; of the young officer's hand laid sorrowing on the bright halo of hair.
"Did you ever see the girl again?" I asked softly.
The General turned on me a quick, queer look. Fun was in it, and memory gave it gentleness; yet there was impatience, too, at my slowness, in the boyish brown eyes.
"Mrs. Carruthers has red hair," he said briefly.