Read CHAPTER IX - IMPORTANT NEWS of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

In spite of the recognized fact that these men were enemies, my heart throbbed, almost in pride, as I watched them pass. They were Americans, and magnificent fighting men. I had seen them, or their fellows, in the ruck and toil of battle, playing with death, smiling in the face of defeat. Now they were marching grimly forward to another clash of arms, through the blinding dust, heedless of all else but duty. This was what stirred me. No proud review, with glittering uniforms and waving flags, would have choked my throat, or dimmed my eyes, as did the sight of that plodding, silent column, half hidden under the dust cloud, uniforms almost indistinguishable, officers and men mingled, the drums still, the only sounds the steady tread, the occasional hoarse shout of command. Here was no pomp and circumstance, but grim purpose personified in self-sacrifice and endurance. With heads bowed, and limbs moving wearily, guns held at will, they swept by in unbroken column cavalry, artillery, infantry scarcely a face lifted to glance toward the house, with here and there a straggler limping to the roadside, or an aide spurring past just a stream of armed men, who had been plodding on since daylight, footsore, hungry, unseeing, yet ready to die in battle at their commander’s word. It was war; it was magnificent.

Yet suddenly there recurred to me my own small part in this great tragedy. Here was opportunity. Down below, on the front steps, stood the old judge, and beside him Miss Hardy, forgetful for the time of all else save those passing troops. I sprang from the chair, drew the bed back to the centre of the room, and began my assault on the wall. There was no necessity now for silence, and I dug recklessly into the mortar with my broken knife blade, wrenching forth the loosened stones, until I had thus successfully opened a space amply sufficient for my purpose. A glance down the chimney was not reassuring, no gleam of light being visible, yet I was desperate enough to take the chance of discovering some opening below. There remained but this one means of attaining the lower floor, and no time for hesitation. I tore both sheets from the bed, binding them securely together, and twisting them into a rope strong enough to sustain my weight. The bed-post served to secure one end; the other I dropped down the interior of the chimney. A glance from the window exhibited a double line of canvas-covered wagons creaking past, mules toiling wearily in the traces, under close guard of a squad of infantry. The judge and the girl were still outside. I was back instantly, and clambered recklessly into the hole.

I went down slowly, clinging desperately to the twisted sheets, unable to gain the slightest purchase on the smoothly plastered side walls. My fingers slipped, but I managed to hang on until I reached the very end of my improvised rope, my feet dangling, my arms aching from the weight. To hold on longer was seemingly impossible, yet I could neither see nor feel bottom. I let go, confident the distance could not be great, and came down without much shock a half-dozen feet below. I was in a large fire-place, apparently never utilized, the opening entirely covered by a screen of cast-iron. This fitted closely, but was unfastened, and, after feeling about cautiously in the darkness, I pushed it slightly to one side, and peered forth.

A large, rather handsomely furnished room was revealed, evidently a back-parlor, closed folding doors being conspicuous in the front wall. Three windows faced the north, their curtains partially drawn, and I could perceive through them the lattice work of a porch, covered with the green and red of a rambler rose. I recognized instantly the situation; this room was opposite, directly across the hall from where we had eaten breakfast, its windows also commanding a view of the road. Impelled by a desire to see what was continuing to take place without, I stole silently across the soft carpet, and peered forth. The last of the wagon train was lumbering past, and back of these, just wheeling around the corner, approached another column of horsemen. It would be madness for me to emerge from concealment yet, for even if I remained unnoticed by those marching troops, still there would surely be some stragglers about the premises seeking water. I sat down, staring out, endeavoring to decide about how large this Confederate force was surely it composed all of Beauregard’s corps, and, once united with Johnston, would render the Federal position extremely dangerous, perhaps untenable. Yet even now my warning of the sudden movement would be of comparatively small value, as the gap was too nearly closed for any swift advance to separate the two armies. All I could hope to accomplish was to prevent a surprise attack on our own exposed lines. And this could never be attempted before the next morning, even if Johnston swung his columns to the left in anticipation of Beauregard’s approach. The troops were too thoroughly exhausted by the forced march to be hurled immediately into battle they must be fed and rested first. Convinced as to this I remained quiet, glancing idly about the room, until sounds outside attracted attention.

A company or possibly two of cavalry was drawn up on the road directly fronting the house, their centre opposite the open gate, but I was compelled to lean out in order to discover just what was occurring on the driveway. A squad of a dozen horsemen, powdered with dust, yet excellently mounted, were riding slowly toward the veranda. The man slightly in advance was slender, with dark moustache and goatee, sitting straight in his saddle, and on the collar of his gray coat were the stars of a general officer. Even the hasty glance gained told me his identity Beauregard. As this cavalcade turned at the corner of the house, I drew back, shadowed by the curtain, able thus both to see and hear. At the bottom of the steps the Confederate chieftain halted, and bowed, hat in hand.

“Judge Moran, I presume. While we have never previously met, yet your name has long been familiar. Probably I need not introduce myself.”

The judge, his face beaming hospitality, grasped the outstretched hand, but Beauregard’s dark, appreciative eyes were upon the girl standing at Moran’s side.

“Your daughter, sir?” he asked quickly.

“Not so fortunate, General. This is Miss Willifred Hardy, of the ‘Gables.’”

“Ah, yes!” the stern face instantly brightened by a rare smile. “The same fair heroine who brought the despatches from Johnston. I hoped I might reach here in time, my dear, to tell you in person how greatly I appreciate your service. May I ask if you are Major Hardy’s daughter?”

Her cheeks burning, she murmured “Yes,” curtsying to his rather stately bow.

“I knew your mother rather well in the old days, a sweet girl, a Du Verne, of Baton Rouge. You have her eyes and hair.” He turned toward Moran. “A courier but just arrived has brought me orders to halt my men, as Johnston is marching westward, and it is imperative that we protect the bridge yonder with sufficient force. Would it inconvenience you, Judge, if I made your house my headquarters for the night?”

“Everything I possess is freely at your service.”

“Thank you. From all I have heard I could never question the loyalty of Judge Moran.” He spoke a few short orders, swung down from the saddle, and, followed by a half-dozen others, began climbing the steps, talking with Miss Willifred. I heard the party enter the hall, and pause for a moment, the sound of voices mingling but indistinguishable. Then a door opened, and the men trooped into the front parlor. There was a rattle as accoutrements were laid aside; then a table was drawn forth, and Beauregard’s voice spoke:

“The portfolio, Sternes; now, Captain, let me read over that last despatch again. Ah, yes, I see. Is Colonel O’Neil waiting? Tell him to post Williams’ brigade at the bridge, with Ozark’s battery. Pickets should be advanced at least two miles. Lieutenant Greer, ride to the Three Corners, and have the regimental commanders close all gaps in the line; in case of attack we must be able to exhibit a solid front. A moment, Major Mason, you are to bear my report to Johnston.” There followed the rapid scratching of a pen, and a subdued murmur of voices. Then the deep bass of the general again broke in: “You may as well clearly understand the proposed plans, gentlemen, so you can execute my orders with intelligence. They are extremely simple; our main attack will be directed against the enemy’s left flank; the troops selected for this service will cross at the lower ford early to-morrow night. Our own movements will depend altogether upon the success of Johnston’s advance. Chambers will be up sometime to-night, and will hold a position at rear of the centre in reserve. Is this sufficiently clear?”

“Do we cross the bridge?”

“Not until Johnston informs us his assaulting column is in touch with the enemy.”

“There is no absolute hour set?”

“No; that will depend upon the arrival of Chambers. And now, gentlemen, we will adjourn to the dining-room.”

They passed out, evidently in the best of humor, and I could hear them chatting and laughing in the hall. But my thoughts were now concentrated upon my own work. This was important news I had overheard, and must be in the possession of the Federal commander without delay. No personal danger could be considered. But how was it possible to get away unobserved? I was in full uniform, and unarmed; the house now Beauregard’s headquarters under close guard; the surrounding roads lined with troops. It would be simply madness to attempt crossing the river before nightfall, and yet I could not hope to remain where I was all the afternoon without discovery. As soon as the duties of hospitality were over Miss Willifred would certainly recall her prisoner, and it could not be long before my escape from the room above would be known. I must be safely out of the house before this occurred. It seemed to me the stables offered the best hiding-place, or else the deserted negro cabins.

I could examine the greater part of the front yard from the windows, the squad of troopers camped near the gate, and the sentinel pacing before the steps, but was compelled to lean far out to gain any glimpse of the rear. I could perceive no soldiers in this direction, however, and was encouraged to note a long grape arbor, thickly overgrown with vines, extending from the house to the other extremity of the garden. Once safely within its shadow I might get through unseen. And there was but one means of attaining the grape arbor through the back hall, via either the kitchen or the cellar. I opened the door with all possible caution, and took silent survey of the hall. The front door stood open and a guard was stationed without, but with his back toward me. I could hear voices in the dining-room, but the hall itself appeared deserted, and, feeling that it was either now or never, I slipped forth, and started toward the rear. There were two doors, one at the very extremity of the hall, the other upon the right, both closed. Uncertain which to choose I tried the first I came to, but, even as I cautiously turned the knob, the second was opened from without, and a man entered hurriedly. We stared into each others’ faces, both too completely surprised for speech. He was a cavalry sergeant, a gray-beard, and, with my first movement, was tugging at a weapon.

“Hold on there, my buck!” he said gruffly. “None o’ that, now. By God! it’s a Yank. Bill, come here.”

The guard at the front door ran down the hall toward us, his gun thrown forward.