Read CHAPTER XIV - ACROSS THE RIVER of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

She came toward me swiftly, slipping through the night like a shadow, instantly recognizing my voice.

“You you are not hurt, Lieutenant Galesworth?” she asked, her voice trembling.

“No; merely bruised, and shaken up the horse did that.”

“Oh; was it you who had that struggle with the horse? I I thought he would surely kill the man.”

“The poor fellow was frightened,” and I stroked his neck softly, “and certainly gave me a hard tussle. But that’s all over now. I want to explain what has happened before I leave.”

“Yes.”

“I owe you that, do I not, wearing your colors?”

I could not perceive the expression of her face, but the tone of her voice was not altogether encouraging.

“They were but expressive of my best wishes; of course I wished you to succeed.”

“I wonder will you continue your good wishes after hearing my story?”

“What do you mean? You have not killed any one?”

“No; but I have hurt one who seems to have some claim upon you.”

She drew in her breath quickly, clasping her hands.

“Who? tell me! Can you mean Captain Le Gaire?”

“I regret to say ‘yes’; this was his horse. Now don’t blame me until you hear the whole story. I will tell it all in very few words, and then go.”

“But but you are sure he is not seriously hurt?”

“He may have a rib or collar-bone broken, and is still unconscious; nothing that will keep him out of mischief long. I wanted to tell you all about the affair myself I don’t trust Le Gaire.”

“Why say that to me?”

“Because I must. If I understand the man the very first thing he will do will be to poison your mind against me ”

“He? Why?”

“Miss Hardy,” I said soberly, “what use is there for us to play at cross-purposes? You realize that Captain Le Gaire suspects that you have an interest in me, that you have helped in my escape. He doesn’t like me any the better for that. Men will do strange things when they are in love such men as Le Gaire. Do you suppose I intend permitting him to thus influence you against me, when I am where I cannot defend myself?”

“But he would never do that; I am sure, he never would.”

“Possibly not, but I prefer you should have my version to compare with what he may say. We have met strangely, in a manner which could only happen in time of war, and one day and two nights of adventure together have already made us better acquainted than would a year of ordinary social intercourse. I value your good wishes, and feel more gratitude than words can express. I am not going away leaving you to think me unworthy. I will tell you this exactly as it occurred, and you are to believe me, no matter what is said later.”

My earnestness made an impression and as I paused her lips parted.

“Yes I am going to believe you.”

“I felt sure you would. Now listen, for I must be away, and Le Gaire attended to.”

I told it simply, clearly, making no attempt except to bring out the important facts, realizing that her own imagination would supply the details. She clung to the fence, our eyes meeting as I spoke swiftly, making no comment until I concluded.

“Could I have done otherwise?”

“No; you are not to be blamed, but I am so sorry it happened to be Captain Le Gaire.”

“You mean because ”

“He has been much to me,” she interrupted, “perhaps still is, although ” she paused suddenly, catching her breath, “yet this can make no difference.”

“But it does.”

She remained silent, and, I thought, drew slightly back.

“You do not wonder?” I asked, unable to restrain myself, “you do not ask why? May I not tell you?”

“I prefer you should not,” very quietly. “I am not foolish enough to pretend that I do not understand. We are going to part now, and you will forget.”

“Is it then so easy for you?”

“I need not confess, only I see how utterly foolish all this is. The conditions bringing us together in a few hours of intimacy have been romantic, and, perhaps, it is not strange that you should feel an interest in me. I I hope you do, for I shall certainly always feel most kindly toward you, Lieutenant Galesworth. We are going to part as friends, are we not? You will remember me as a little Rebel who served you once, even against her conscience, and I will continue to think of you as a brave soldier and courteous gentleman. Isn’t that worth while? Isn’t it even better than dreaming an impossible dream?”

“But why impossible?”

“Surely you know.”

“You mean Le Gaire?”

“I mean everything. Captain Le Gaire may be partially responsible, but there is much besides. Need we discuss this further?”

I should have hesitated, but I simply could not consent to be dismissed thus completely. Through the obscuring mist of the night I saw her face dimly, and it fascinated me. Behind the quiet decision of her voice there was a tremulousness which yielded courage. I could not part with her like this.

“Billie,” I said, and she started at the familiarity of the name, “I am going to risk even your good opinion rather than leave in doubt. Don’t treat me like a boy.” Her hand was upon the fence, and I placed both of my own upon it. “Be honest with me. Forget the uniform, this sectional war, and let us simply be man and woman can you not?”

She did not answer, her hand yet held in mine, so startled by my sudden outburst as to be helpless.

“I must know,” I went on heedlessly, the very touch of her flesh making me reckless. Our position, the danger of the night, all vanished, and I saw only the whiteness of her face. Perhaps, had I been able to read her eyes, their expression might have served to curb my tongue, but nothing else could have held me silent. “I am going away, going into the lines of a hostile army; I may not reach there alive, and, if I do, I may fall in the first battle. I must tell you the truth first I must. Don’t call it foolish, for it is not. Dear, I may be a Yankee, but I am also a man, and I ”

“Oh, stop! please stop!” her fingers clasping me, her form closer. “I can not I will not permit you to say this. I have no right. You have made me disloyal to my country; you shall not make me disloyal to all else. If I should listen I would have no self-respect left. For my sake be still, and go.”

“But I know you are not indifferent; you cannot conceal the truth.”

“Then be content, be satisfied, be generous.”

“If you will only say one thing.”

“What?”

“That I may come to you after the war.”

She stood a moment motionless, and then withdrew her hand.

“That would be equivalent to a hope which I cannot give,” she returned soberly. “When the war ends I shall probably no longer be Willifred Hardy.” My heart beat like a trip-hammer; I could hear it in the silence.

“The man yonder?”

She bent her head.

“You will not,” my voice firm with swift conviction. “If that is all, I am not afraid. If you loved him would you be standing here even to say a word of farewell? Whatever pledge may be between you, on your part it is not love. You cannot deny this not to me! Yes, and you are already beginning to know him. Remember, I have had to listen to some conversation between you I know his style. Ah, yes, I will go, because I dare not keep you out here longer, but, if God lets me live, I am going to find you again. Yes, I am; don’t doubt that, little girl. I could stand back for a real man, but not for Le Gaire; that’s not in human nature. See, I have your ribbon yet, and am going to wear it.”

“Without my permission?”

I reached out my arm and drew her gently against the fence barrier, so close I could look down into her eyes, gazing up into mine startled by the sudden movement.

“Lip permission, yes I prefer to read consent elsewhere.”

“And do you?”

“I shall believe I do. See, here is the ribbon; will you take it?”

“Of course not. Why should I care if you have that? It has no value to me. But I will not stay and talk longer. Let me go, Lieutenant! yes, you must. What shall I do to help to help Gerald?”

“Go straight into the house, and report to the guard. You were walking in the garden for a breath of air, and overheard the struggle. They will find him. Good-bye, Billie.”

I held out my hand, and she extended her own without a moment’s hesitation.

“Good-bye,” she said. “Shall I not wait here a few moments until you are across the road?”

I touched my lips to her fingers.

“What, with Gerald lying there!” happily. “Oh, Billie, are you so anxious as that for me to get safely away?”

“I I am certainly not anxious to have you caught not now. But you are almost impertinent; indeed you are. I cannot say a word you do not misinterpret. Please do not attempt to tease me; let us part friends.”

The tone in which she said this meant far more than the mere words; I had ventured enough, and recognized the limitation to her patience. However strong her interest in me might already be, no acknowledgment was probable under present circumstances. I would but waste time, perhaps seriously injure my standing with her, were I to continue. The future must be left to work out its own miracle to reveal her heart, and to prove the worthlessness of Le Gaire. For me to linger longer, holding her there in constant peril of discovery, would be simply madness.

I led the horse back, past where the disabled Confederate lay, pausing an instant to look down on the dim figure. He groaned, and turned partially over on one side, evidence that consciousness was returning. The man was not badly hurt, and I felt no deep regret at his condition. I could distinguish the narrow bridle path by my feet, and knew I would be less conspicuous out of the saddle. However, nothing opposed our progress, and we even succeeded in crossing the road without being observed. Here a long slope, rutted, and partially covered with low bushes, led directly down to the river, and we pushed through the tangle, keeping well hidden. Once on the bank of the stream all above was concealed from view, but I listened in vain for any sound indicative of pursuit. The night was mysteriously still, unbroken, even the air motionless. Obsessed now by the one controlling impulse to get away safely, I drove the horse into the water, and as he reached swimming depth, grasped a stirrup leather, and compelled him to strike out for the opposite shore. It was not a hard struggle, nor were we long at it, although the current was swift enough to bear us down a hundred feet, or more, before we struck bottom, wading out at the mouth of a small creek, the low banks offering some slight concealment. I looked back through the darkness, across the dim water, and up the shrouded hill on the opposite side. Lights were winking here and there like fire-flies. I stared at them, light-hearted, confident I had every advantage; then I patted the horse, and adjusted the stirrups.

“She waited until we were safe across, old fellow,” I said, too pleased to remain still. “Now we’ll ride for it.”

He turned his head, and rubbed his nose along my arm. The next moment I was in the saddle, spurring him up the bank.