Read CHAPTER XIX - LE GAIRE FORCES A DECISION of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

He left the room reluctantly enough, pausing at the door to glance back, but she had sunk down into the rocker, and made no relenting sign. Every sense of right compelled me to withdraw; I could not remain, a hidden spy, to listen to her conversation with Le Gaire. My heart leaped with exultation, with sudden faith that possibly her memory of me might lie back of this sudden distrust, this determination for freedom. Yet this possibility alone rendered impossible my lingering here to overhear what should pass between them in confidence. Interested as I was personally I possessed no excuse to remain; every claim of duty was elsewhere. I had already learned General Johnston was not present, and that an attack was projected against our left and centre. This was news of sufficient importance to be reported at headquarters without delay. To be sure the withdrawal of troops from this end of the Confederate line made our own return trip less dangerous, still, even if I ventured to remain longer, I must early despatch a courier with the news.

I drew silently back from the window, flinging one limb over the balcony rail, preparing to drop to the ground below. Her back was toward me, and she heard nothing; then a man came round the end of the house, walking slowly and smoking. I could see the red glow of his cigar, and inhale the fragrance of the tobacco. I hung on desperately, bending my body along the rail, and he passed directly beneath, yet so shadowed I could merely distinguish his outline. The fellow an officer, no doubt, seeking a breath of fresh air strolled to the opposite corner, and then turned off into the orchard. I dared not risk an attempt to drop and run, for I knew not what might await me in the darkness. Yet where I clung I was exposed to discovery, and, when he turned his back, I sank down once more within the shelter of the balcony. He stopped under the trees, apparently having found a seat of some kind, although I could see nothing except the tip of the burning cigar, as he flipped aside the ashes. I had almost forgotten what might be occurring within, until aroused by the sound of Le Gaire’s voice.

He certainly looked a handsome fellow, standing there with hand still on the knob of the door, dressed in a new uniform tailored to perfection, his lips and eyes smiling pleasantly, never suspecting the reason for which he was summoned.

“What is it, Billie?” he asked easily. “A last word, hey?”

“Yes,” she answered, lifting her eyes to his face, but not advancing. “I I have been thinking it all over while waiting here alone, and and I find I am not quite ready. I sent for you to ask release from my promise, or, at least, that you will not insist upon our our marriage to-night.”

The man’s dark face actually grew white, his surprise at this request leaving him gasping for breath, as he stared at her.

“Why, good God, girl, do you realize what you are saying?” he exclaimed, all self-control gone. “Why, we are ready now; Bradshaw just arrived and every arrangement has been made for our journey. It cannot be postponed.”

“Oh, yes, indeed, it can,” and she rose, facing him. “Surely you would not force me against my will, Captain Le Gaire? I do not desire to rebel, to absolutely refuse, but I hope you will listen to me, and then act the part of a gentleman. I presume you desire me for your wife, not your slave.”

I thought he had lost his voice he was so long in answering; then the tones were hoarse, indistinct.

“Listen! Yes! I want you to explain; only don’t expect too much from me.”

She looked directly at him, her cheeks flushing to the insolence of his accent.

“I am hardly likely to err in that way any more,” rather coldly, “but I do owe you an explanation. I have done wrong to permit this affair to go so far without protest, but I did not comprehend my own feelings clearly until to-night. I merely drifted without realizing the danger, and now the shock of discovery leaves me almost helpless. I realize distinctly only one thing I can not, I will not, marry you.

“Do these words seem cruel, unjust?” she went on, strangely calm. “Perhaps they are, yet it is surely better for me to speak them now than to wreck both our lives by remaining silent longer. You came to me a year ago, Captain Le Gaire, at a time when I was particularly lonely, and susceptible to kindness. You were an officer in the army, fighting for a cause I loved, and your friendly attentions were very welcome. My father liked you, and we were constantly thrown together. I have lived rather a secluded life, here on this plantation since my school days, meeting few men of my own station, and still young enough to be romantic. I thought I loved you, and perhaps the feeling I cherished might have truly become love had you always remained the same considerate gentleman I first believed you to be. Instead, little by little, I have been driven away, hurt by your coarseness, your lack of chivalry, until now, when it comes to the supreme test, I find my soul in revolt. Am I altogether to blame?”

I do not think he comprehended, grasped the truth she sought to convey, for he broke forth angrily:

“Very pretty, indeed! And do you think I will ever stand for it? Why, I should be the laughing stock of the army, a butt for every brainless joker in the camp. I am not such a fool, my girl.” He stepped forward, grasping her hands, and holding them in spite of her slight effort to break away. “I am a frank-spoken man, yes, but I have never failed to treat you with respect.”

“You may call it that, but you have repeatedly sworn in my presence, have ordered me harshly about, have even arranged this affair without first consulting me. If this be your manner before marriage, what brand of brutality could I expect after?”

“Poof! I may be quick-tempered; perhaps we are neither of us angels, but you choose a poor time for a quarrel. Come, Billie, let’s kiss and make up. What! Still angry? Surely you are not in earnest?”

“But I am very much in earnest.”

“You mean to throw me down? Now at the last moment, with all the fellows waiting in the next room?”

She had her hands freed, and with them held behind her, stood motionless facing him.

“Would you marry me against my wish?” she asked. “Would you hold me to a promise I regret having made? I sent for you merely to tell you the truth, to throw myself on your generosity. I am scarcely more than a girl, Captain Le Gaire, and acknowledge I have done wrong, have been deceived in my own feelings. You have my word the word of a Hardy and we keep our pledges. I suppose I must marry you if you insist, but I implore you as a man of honor, a Southern gentleman, to release me.”

Her voice faltered, and Le Gaire laughed.

“Oh, I begin to see how the wind blows. You do stand to your promise then. Very well, that’s all I ask.”

“I do not love you; I do not think I even respect you.”

“Nevertheless you cannot shake me off like that. It’s only a whim, a mood, Billie; once married I’ll teach you the lesson over again. You were loving enough a month ago.”

“I was in the midst of a girl’s dream,” she said slowly, “from which I have awakened won’t you release me, Captain Le Gaire?”

“I should say not,” walking savagely across the room. “Come, Billie, I’m tired of this tantrum. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way with me. You’re a headstrong, spoiled girl, and I’ve already put up with enough to try the patience of Job. Now I’m going to show my authority, insist on my rights. You’ve promised to marry me, now, to-night, and you are going to do it, if I have to go to your father and tell him plainly just what is the matter with you.”

“With me! the only matter is that I have ceased to care for you.”

“Yes, in the last week! Do you think I am blind? Do you suppose I don’t know what has changed your mind so suddenly? Do you imagine I’m going to let you go for the sake of a damned Yankee?”

She fairly gasped in surprise, her fingers clinched, her cheeks flaming.

“A Yankee! Captain Le Gaire, are you crazy?”

“No,” his temper bursting all control. “That’s what’s the matter with you. Oh, of course, you’ll deny, and pretend to be horrified. I saw into your little game then, but I kept still; now you are carrying it too far.”

“What do you mean? I am not accustomed to such language.”

“I mean this: You think you are in love with that sneaking Yankee spy I don’t know his name the fellow you helped through our lines, and then hid at Moran’s. Now don’t deny it; I asked some questions before I left there, and you were with him out under the grape arbor. I saw the imprint of your feet in the soft dirt. By God, I believe you knew he struck me, and permitted me to lie there while he got away.”

“Captain Le Gaire ”

“Now you wait; this is my turn to talk. You thought you had fooled me, but you had not. Under other conditions I might accede to your request, but not now not to give you over to a Yank. I’ve got your promise, and I propose to hold you to it.”

“But it is not that,” she protested. “I I am not in love with Lieutenant Galesworth.”

“So that is the fellow’s name, is it Galesworth,” sneeringly. “I thought you pretended before you did not know.”

She remained silent, confused.

“I’m glad to know who he is; some day we may have a settlement. Well, all I know about the affair is this, but that’s enough you rode with him all one night, hid him all the next day, and then helped him escape. You lied to me repeatedly, and now you want to break away from me at the last minute. It’s either this Galesworth or somebody else now who is it?”

Billie sank back into a chair, but with her eyes still on the man’s face.

“It is no one,” she said wearily. “It is not that at all; I I simply do not care for you in that way any longer.”

“Poof! do you mean you won’t keep your word?”

“I mean I want to be released at least a postponement until I can be sure of myself.”

“And I refuse refuse, do you understand that? You either marry me to-night or I go to your father with the whole story. He’ll be pleased to learn of your affair with a Yankee spy, no doubt, and of how you helped the fellow through our lines. And I’ve got the proofs too. Now, young lady, it is about time to stop this quarrel, and come down to facts. What are you going to do?”

“You insist?”

“Of course I do.”

Her head sank upon her hand, and even from where I peered in upon them, helpless to get away, equally helpless to aid, I could see her form tremble.

“Then there is no escape, I suppose; I must keep my promise.”

He touched her on the shoulder, indifferent to her shrinking away, a sarcastic smile on his lips.

“I knew you would. I don’t take this Yankee business seriously, only I wanted you to know I understood all about it. You’re too sensible a girl to get tangled up that way. We’ll drop it now, and I’ll show you how good I can be. May I kiss you?”

“I I would rather not not yet. Don’t be angry, but I I am not myself. Where were you going?”

“To tell your father it is all settled. You must be ready when we come back.”

He paused with hand on the door looking back at her. There was a moment’s breathless silence; then her lips whispered:

“Yes.”

I turned to look out into the black orchard, and then gazed back into the lighted room. I knew not what to do, how to act. My remaining where I was could be of no possible service to her, indeed my discovery there would only add to her embarrassment, yet I had no reason to believe the officer had left his seat yonder, and therefore dare not drop to the ground. My heart ached for the girl, and I longed to get my hands on that cur of a Le Gaire, yet might venture to approach neither. It was a maddening situation, but I could only stand there in the dark, gripping the rail, unable to decide my duty. Perhaps she did love me in spite of that vigorous denial, perhaps she did and the very possibility made the blood surge hot through my veins. Could I help her in any way? Whatever her feeling toward me might be, there remained no question as to her growing dislike for Le Gaire. Not fear, but a peculiar sense of honor alone, held her to her pledge. And could I remain still, and permit her to be thus ruthlessly sacrificed? Would Major Hardy permit it if he knew? if the entire situation was explained to him? Le Gaire never would tell him the truth, but would laugh off the whole affair as a mere lovers’ quarrel. Could I venture to thrust myself in? If I did, would it be of any use? It would cost me my liberty, and the liberty of my men; probably I should not be believed. And would she ever forgive me for listening? I struggled with the temptation swayed by duty and by love until my heart throbbed in bewilderment. Then it was too late. Fate, tired of hesitancy, took the cards out of my hands.

Billie had been sitting, her head bowed on the table, the light above glistening on her hair. Suddenly she arose to her feet, her face white and drawn, her hands extended in a gesture of disgust. Attracted by the open window, and the black vista of night beyond, she stepped through onto the balcony, and stood there, leaning against the rail.