Read CHAPTER XXVI of Cudjo's Cave , free online book, by J. T. Trowbridge, on ReadCentral.com.

WHY AUGUSTUS DID NOT PROPOSE.

The valiant confederates, returning from the pursuit of the escaped prisoners, proved themselves possessed of at least one important qualification for serving the rebel cause. They were able to give a marvellously good account of themselves. Whatever the military authorities may have thought of it, the people believed that the little band of Union men had been nearly annihilated.

In the midst of the excitement, Mr. Augustus Bythewood returned home, and went in the evening to call upon, counsel, and console the daughters of the old man Villars.

“O, Massa Bythewood!” cried Toby, in great joy at sight of him, “dey been killin’ ol’ massa up on de mountain; and de young ladies O, Massa Bythewood! ye must do sumfin’ for de young ladies and ol’ massa!”

Mr. Augustus flattered himself that he had arrived at just the right time.

“My dear Virginia! you cannot conceive of my astonishment and grief on hearing what has happened to your family! I have but just this hour returned to town, or I should have hastened before to assure you that all I can do for you I will most gladly undertake. My very dear young lady, be comforted, I conjure you; for it grieves me to the heart to see how pale, how very pale and distressed, you look!”

Thus the amiable, the chivalrous, the friendly Gus overflowed with eloquent sympathy and protestation, pressing affectionately the hand of the “very pale and distressed” fair one, and bowing low his dark, aristocratic southern curls over it; appearing, in short, the very courteous, noble, and devoted gentleman he wasn’t.

Virginia breathed hard, compressed her lips, white with indignation as well as with suffering, and let him act his part. And the confident lover did not dream that those eyes, red with grief and surrounded by dark circles, saw through all his hypocritical professions, or that the cold, passive little hand, abandoned through the apathy of despair to his caresses, would have been thrust into the fire, before ever he would have been allowed to win it.

“Surely,” she managed to say in a voice scarce above a whisper, “if ever we needed a true, disinterested friend, it is now. Sit down; and be so kind as to excuse me a moment. I will call my sister.”

So she withdrew. And Augustus smiled. “Now is my time!” he said complacently to himself, resolved to make an offer of that valuable hand of his that very night: forlorn, friendless, wretched, was it possible that she could refuse such a prize? So he sat, and fondled his curls, and practised sweet smiles, and sympathized with Salina when she came, and waited for Virginia, little knowing what was to happen to her, and to him, and to all, before ever he saw that vanished face again.

For Virginia had business on her hands that night. She remembered the hurried directions Penn had given for communicating with her father, and she was already preparing to send off Toby to the round rock.

“Gracious, missis!” said the old negro, returning hastily to the kitchen door where she stood watching his departure, “dar’s a man out dar, a waitin’! Did ye see him, missis?”

She had indeed seen a human figure advance in the darkness, as if with intent to intercept or follow him. Perplexed and indignant at the discovery, she suffered the old servant to return into the house, and remained herself to see what became of the figure. It moved off a little way in the darkness, and disappeared.

“Wha’ sh’ll we do?” Toby rolled up his eyes in consternation. “Do jes’ speak to Mr. Bythewood, Miss Jinny; he’s de bestist friend he’ll tell what to do.”

“No, no, Toby!” said Virginia, collecting herself, and speaking with decision. “He is the last person I would consult. Toby, you must try again; for either you or I must be at the rock before ten o’clock.”

“You, Miss Jinny? Who eber heern o’ sich a ting!”

“Go yourself, then, good Toby!” And she earnestly reminded him of the necessity.

“O, yes, yes! I’ll go! Massa can’t lib widout ol’ Toby, dat’s a fac’!”

But looking out again in the dark, his zeal was suddenly damped. “Dey cotch me, dey sarve me wus ‘n dey sarved ol’ Pete, shore! Can’t help tinkin’ ob dat!”

Virginia saw what serious cause there was to dread such a catastrophe. But her resolution was unshaken.

“Toby, listen. That man out there is a spy. His object is to see if any of our friends come to the house, or if we send to them. He won’t molest you; but he may follow to see where you go. If he does, then make a wide circuit, and return home, and I will find some other means of communication.”

Thus encouraged, the negro set out a second time. Virginia followed him at a distance. She saw, as she anticipated, the figure start up again, and move off in the direction he was going. Toby accordingly commenced making a large detour through the fields, and both he and the shadow dogging him were soon out of sight.

Then Virginia lost no time in executing the other plan at which she had hinted. Instead of returning, to give up the undertaking in despair, and listen to matrimonial proposals from Gus Bythewood, she took a long breath, gathered up her skirts, and set out for the mountain.

There was a new moon, but it was hidden by clouds. Still the evening was not very dark. The long twilight of the summer day still lingered in the valley. Here and there she could distinguish landmarks, a knoll, a rock, or a tree, which gave her confidence. I will not say that she feared nothing. She was by nature timid, imaginative, and she feared many things. Her own footsteps were a terror to her. The moving of a bush in the wind, the starting of a rabbit from her path, caused her flesh to thrill. At sight of an object slowly and noiselessly emerging from the darkness and standing before her, motionless and spectral, she almost fainted, until she discovered that it was an old acquaintance, a tall pine stump. But all these childish terrors she resolutely overcame. Her heart never faltered in its purpose. Affection for her father, anxiety for his welfare, and, it may be, some little solicitude for her father’s friend, who had appointed the tryst at the rock, not with herself, indeed, but with Toby, kept her firm and unwavering in her course. And beneath all, deep in her soul, was a strong religious sense, a faith in a divine guidance and protection.

What most she feared was neither ghost nor wild beast of the mountains. She felt that, if she could avoid encountering the brutal soldiers of secession, keeping watch along the mountain-side, she would willingly risk everything else. With the utmost caution, with breathless tread, she drew near the road she was to cross. Her footsteps were less loud than her heart-beats. Dogs barked in the distance. In a pool near by, some happy frogs were singing. The shrill cry of a katydid came from a poplar tree by the road “Katy did! Katy didn’t!” with vehement iteration and contradiction. No other sounds; she waited and listened long; then glided across the road.

She had come far from the village in order to avoid meeting any one. Her course now lay directly up the mountain-side. The round rock was a famous bowlder known to picnic parties that frequented the spot in summer to enjoy a view from its summit, and a luncheon under its shadow. She had been there a dozen times; but could she find it in the night? In vain, as she toiled upwards, she strained her eyes to see the huge dim stone jutting out from the shadowy rocks and bushes.

At length a sudden light, faint and silvery, streamed down upon her. She looked and saw the clouds parted, and below them the crescent moon setting, like a cimeter of white flame withdrawn by an invisible hand behind the vast shadowy summit of the mountain. Almost at the same moment she discovered the object she sought. The rock was close before her; and close upon her right was the grove which she herself had so often helped to fill with singing and laughter. How little she felt like either singing or laughing now!

She remembered indeed, had she not remembered all the way? that the last time she visited the spot it was in company with Penn. Now she had come to meet him again how unmaidenly the act! In darkness, in loneliness, far from the village and its twinkling lights, to meet an attractive and a very good looking young man! What would the world say? Virginia did not care what the world would say. But now she began to question within herself, “What would Penn think?” and almost to shrink from meeting him. Strong, however, in her own conscious purity of heart, strong also in her confidence in him, she put behind her every unworthy thought, and sought the shelter of the rock.

And there, after all her labors and fears, scratches in her flesh and rents in her clothes, there she was alone. Penn had not come. Perhaps he would not come. It was by this time ten o’clock. What should she do? Remain, hoping that he would yet fulfil his promise? or return the way she came, unsatisfied, disheartened, weary, her heart and strength sustained by no word of comfort from him, by no tidings from her father?

She waited. It was not long before her eager ear caught the sound of footsteps. An active figure was coming along the edge of the grove. How joyously her heart bounded! In order that Penn might not be too suddenly surprised at finding her in Toby’s place, she stepped out from the shadow of the bowlder, and advanced to meet him. She shrank back again as suddenly, fear curdling her blood.

The comer was not Penn. He wore the confederate uniform: this was what terrified her. She crouched down under the rock; but perceiving that the man did not pass by, that he walked straight up to her, she started forth again, in the vain hope to escape by flight. Almost at the first step she tripped and fell; and the hand of the confederate soldier was on her arm.