Read CHAPTER X - MISS WILLIFRED INTERVENES of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

Any effort at escape was clearly useless; the noise and shouting had already attracted the attention of those within, and a half-dozen officers streamed out through the dining-room door, eager to learn what had occurred.

“What’s the trouble out here, Sims?” demanded the first to appear, striding forward. “Well, by all the gods, a Yank, and in full regalia! Where did you discover this fellow?”

“I’d been back fer a drink, sir,” explained the sergeant, still eying me, “an’ was just comin’ in through ther door yer, when I run inter him, sneakin’ ‘long ther wall thet’s ther whole bloomin’ story.”

The officer, a smooth-faced lad, turned abruptly to me.

“Well, what have you got to say?”

“Nothing,” I answered quietly, “you are perfectly welcome to draw your own conclusions.”

“Oh, indeed,” sarcastically. “We’ll see what more civil answer you’ll make to the general. Sims, bring the fellow along.”

The two soldiers grabbed me roughly by the arms, but I made no resistance, cool enough by this time, although realizing fully the peril of my position. I was marched in through the open door, and stood up in the centre of the dining-room, Sims posted on one side of me, the guard on the other, the officers forming a picturesque background. Beauregard was on his feet, and Miss Hardy stood between the windows, her hands clasped, her cheeks red.

“What is all this, gentlemen? A Federal officer in full uniform? How comes he here?”

I made no attempt to answer, unable to formulate an excuse, and the young fellow broke in swiftly,

“Sims caught him in the hall, General. He is unarmed, but refuses to explain.”

The general’s stern dark eyes were upon my face.

“Hardly a spy, I think,” he said quietly. “What is the explanation, sir? Are you the bearer of a message?”

I started to speak, but before the first uncertain word came to my lips, the girl swept forward, and stood between us.

“Let me explain,” she cried swiftly. “This gentleman is a friend of Captain Le Gaire’s, and was presented to me as Major Atherton, formerly on General Pemberton’s staff perhaps there may be some here who know him?”

She glanced inquiringly about on the faces of the group, and a stockily built infantry captain struck his open hand on the table.

“By Jove, that’s it! Thought I recognized the face. How are you, Atherton? met you at Big Shanty.”

Still puzzled, although evidently relieved, Beauregard remained motionless.

“But the uniform?” he questioned. “And how did you reach the hallway without being seen?”

Her eyes met mine in a rapid flash of understanding, a little nervous laugh drawing the general’s attention.

“It is almost ridiculous,” she exclaimed. “Major Atherton came through the lines with me last night. He was detailed on special service, for which purpose he donned that uniform. On meeting Captain Le Gaire here, and learning of your advance, it was no longer necessary for him to proceed at once, and, as he was very tired, he was persuaded to lie down in a room upstairs. Waking, he naturally came down into the hall, knowing nothing of your arrival. Have I correctly presented the case, Major Atherton?”

Her eyes challenged me, and I bowed.

“A perfectly clear statement.”

“And a most charming advocate,” added Beauregard. “We must find you some more appropriate garments, Major, but meanwhile there is room here at the table. Captain Bell, would you kindly move a little to the right. Now, Hughes, serve Major Atherton.”

I do not recall ever feeling more awkwardly embarrassed than during the next few minutes. Not that the assembled officers lacked in courtesy, or failed to interest in light conversation. Led by the general they all endeavored to make me forget my strange position, and the unpleasant episode of arrest. Indeed, but for the presence of Miss Willifred in the room I imagine I should have been very much at ease, perfectly capable of doing my full share of entertaining. But with the girl standing silently in the shadow of the curtains, her eyes occasionally meeting mine, I felt a constant restraint which impelled me to answer almost in mono-syllables. She had openly defended me, saved me from arrest; without telling a direct falsehood she had, nevertheless, led these men into a grievous misunderstanding. Why had she done this? Through personal interest in me? Through some wild impulse of the moment? I could not even guess; only, I was assured of one thing: her secret motive involved no lack of loyalty to the cause of the South. Realizing this I dare not presume on her continued friendliness, dare not sit there and lie calmly, filling these men with false information, and permitting imagination to run rampant. Her eyes condemned that, and I felt the slightest indiscretion on my part would result in betrayal. Perhaps even then she regretted her hasty action, and sought some excuse for blurting out the truth. Fortunately conversation drifted into safe channels. Bell was full of reminiscences of Big Shanty, requiring on my part but brief acquiescence, and, after a very few personal questions by the others, sufficiently direct to demand reply, Beauregard asked me about the disposition of Johnston’s forces, to which I was fortunately able to respond intelligently, giving him many details, sufficiently interesting, although of no great value. To his desire for information relative to Chambers’ advance from the south, and the number of his troops, I was obliged to guess rather vaguely, but finally got away with a vivid description of Miss Hardy’s night ride, which caused even the girl herself to laugh, and chime in with a word or two. With the officers the meal was nearly completed when I joined them, and it was therefore not long until the general, noting the others had finished, pushed back his own chair.

“We will adjourn to the parlor, gentlemen,” he said genially, “I shall have other orders to despatch presently. When you finish, Major, I shall be glad to talk with you more at length; until then we leave you to the care of Miss Hardy.”

They passed out, and as the door closed behind the last straggler, she came slowly across the room, and sat down in a chair opposite me, resting her flushed cheek on one hand.

“What made you do it?” I asked, impelled by a curiosity which could no longer be restrained.

“Oh, I don’t know,” and her lashes lifted, giving me one swift glimpse into the depths of her eyes. “A mere impulse when I first realized the danger of your position.”

“Then it was for me? because you cared?”

“Perhaps I would have done the same for any one I am a woman.”

“I can comprehend that, yes,” I insisted, “but am not willing to believe mere sympathy would carry you so far. Was there not, back of all, a feeling almost of friendship?”

“I make no such acknowledgment. I spoke before I thought; before I even realized what my words meant. And you? how came you there?”

I told her briefly, answering her questions without reserve, rejoicing in the interest she exhibited in my narrative, and eager to know at once how far I could still presume on her assistance. I wanted to get away, to escape from the web about me, but I could not understand this girl, or comprehend how far I dare venture on her good nature. Already I knew that some feeling either of friendship or sympathy had impelled her to save me from immediate betrayal, but would she go even further? Everything between us conspired to bewilder me as to her real purpose. Even as I concluded, it seemed to me her eyes hardened, and the expression of her face changed.

“That was extremely clever, Lieutenant Galesworth,” she commented quietly. “I never knew the chimney touched that wall. Now what do you propose doing?”

“You must understand my only interest is in getting away as soon as possible. I am in constant danger here.”

“Of course,” nodding, her cheeks flushed. “And you also possess very important information. Because I have aided you to escape capture, do you conclude I am a fool?”

“Most assuredly not.”

“Or a traitress to the South?”

“I could not think that.”

“Then let us clearly understand each other once for all. I have saved you from capture, perhaps death. The reason I have done this need not be discussed; indeed I could not satisfactorily explain my action even to myself. But if the truth ever becomes known I shall be placed in a most embarrassing position. Surely you understand this, and you are a gentleman; I am sure of that. You are not going to carry that news to your camp. Before I should permit that to happen I would denounce you openly, and permit those men yonder to think evil of me. But I do not believe that course necessary. Instead, I am going to trust you as a gentleman am going to accept your word of honor.”

“My word? You mean my parole?”

“You may call it that your pledge to remain in this house until I say you may go.”

“But ”

“Stop! Lieutenant Galesworth, do you not owe this to me?”

I hesitated, fronting this direct question, looking straight across the table into her serious face, as she leaned toward me. What was my most important duty that which I owed the Federal army, or that I owed to this girl? And then again did I really have a choice? There was never a doubt in my mind as to what she would do if the occasion arose. I had tested her quality already, and fully comprehended the promise to turn me over to the Confederate guard was no idle threat. She would trust my word, but, failing that, would certainly do the other thing. There was no spirit of play in those eyes watching me.

“Apparently I possess no real choice,” I answered, at last. “Either way I am a prisoner.”

She smiled, evidently relieved at my tone.

“Yes but have you no preference as to captors?”

“Put thus, hesitation ends; I accept the terms of parole.”

“You mean it?”

“Yes.”

She extended her hand across the table, and I as instantly grasped it, both almost unconscious of the actions.

“I ought to thank you,” I began, but she broke in as quickly:

“No; please don’t. I know I am not doing what I should. It is all so strange that I am actually dazed; I have lost all understanding of myself. It is painful enough to realize that I yield to these impulses, without being constantly reminded that I fail in duty. I do not want your gratitude.”

She had withdrawn her hand, and was upon her feet. I thought her whole form was trembling, her lips seeking to frame words.

“I certainly had no intention of hurting you.”

“Oh, I know I know that. You cannot understand. Only I am sorry you came came into my life, for ever since it has been trouble. Now you must simply wait until I say go, and then you will go; won’t you?”

“Yes but not to forget.”

She turned back toward me.

“You had better,” coldly. “It will be useless to remember.”

It was my turn to smile, for she could not play the part, her eyes veiling themselves behind the long lashes.

“Nevertheless I shall,” I insisted warmly. “I find it not altogether unpleasant being your prisoner.”