Read CHAPTER XXIV - I BECOME A FAMOUS SWORDSMAN of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

“Sergeant,” I said shortly, “I think you can be of greater service in the hall.”

He disappeared reluctantly enough, and, as the door closed, I extended my hand to the major.

“I certainly appreciate your assistance,” I began warmly. “I know very little about these affairs, or how they are conducted.”

He took my hand, yet with no great cordiality, plainly enough already somewhat doubtful as to his course.

“I presumed as much, sir, but first, and before we proceed further, I should like to have some explanation of the trouble between you and Le Gaire. You are doubtless aware that I am the father of Willifred Hardy.”

“Yes, Major, and I am perfectly willing to tell you the whole story. Shall I send for Miss Hardy to corroborate whatever I may say?”

“No, sir. You are a Yankee, but a gentleman, and I accept your word. I prefer Billie should know nothing of what is occurring.”

I told it swiftly from the beginning, yet was careful to leave no impression that she had performed anything more than a mere friendly service to an enemy in danger. Even then it was difficult for the Confederate to appreciate fully the girl’s motives, and his face clearly expressed disapproval. As I came to an end, after telling of her effort to gain his release, and my locking her within her own room, he paced back and forth across the floor, scowling down at the carpet.

“By Gad, you tell the story all right,” he exclaimed, “but that doesn’t seem like Billie; whatever got into the girl to make her do a trick like that?”

“You mean helping me?”

“Yes, against Le Gaire. I can understand how she took you through to Jonesboro; that was necessary. But all the rest is a puzzle. Did you know she was engaged to Captain Le Gaire?”

“Yes; but evidently she did not think it would help him any to betray me, and she was careful enough I should not escape in time to do any harm to your army. There was no treason in her act, Major, only she felt sympathy toward me.”

“But she permitted your attack on the man.”

“She knew nothing of it, until it was all over with.” I hesitated, but why should I? Surely he must already begin to perceive the truth. “That she should have left him lying there until I was safely across the river is the only act which tells hard against Le Gaire. No woman could have done that, Major Hardy, if she really loved the wounded man.”

He did not reply, evidently endeavoring to realize all my meaning.

“This is where you have made your mistake,” I went on convincingly. “Nothing is holding your daughter to Le Gaire but her promise. I was obliged to overhear their conversation after you left, and he appealed to her pride, to the honor of the Hardys, in order to gain her consent to the marriage. She told him she no longer loved him, that he was not the man she had supposed him to be actually begged for release. I can understand the situation, and, it seems to me, you ought to now. He is a handsome fellow, dashing and reckless, the kind to make an impression. She was flattered by his attentions, and deceived into the thought that she really cared for him. Then she saw his true nature his selfishness, brutality, cowardice, even and revolted. I doubt if I had anything to do with this change it was bound to come. You are a man, Major Hardy, and must know men is Le Gaire the kind you would want your daughter to marry?”

“By Gad! the way you put it no!” emphatically. “I’ve thought well enough of him until to-night; probably he’s kept his best side turned toward me, and, besides, it never once occurred to me that Billie didn’t want him. I’ve heard stories about the man, pretty hard ones at that, but he appeared like a gentleman, and I naturally supposed them largely fairy tales. Because I felt sure Billie liked him, I did also, but to-night he has shown me the other side of his character. Still, I don’t know that I wonder much at his hating you.”

“I have given him all the cause I could would gladly give more if possible.”

Hardy’s eyes twinkled.

“I reckon your heart is all right, even if your uniform is the wrong color. But, young man, this affair puts me in a queer box. I spoke up rather hastily a while back, and now here I am seconding a damned Yankee in a fight against one of our own men it don’t just look right.”

“I merely accepted your own offer; no doubt my sergeant would act.”

“Oh, I’ll stay. The fact is, I rather like you, Lieutenant eh, what is the name? Oh, yes, Galesworth you see Billie never even so much as mentioned having met you. Anyway, I’m in this affair, and am going to stick, although if all they tell about Le Gaire is true I wouldn’t give much for your chances of coming out whole.”

“He is a duellist then?”

“Notorious; although, as near as I can learn, he has not had a serious affair for some time. He assured me once, when I ventured to question him, that he was through with that sort of thing. It’s common practice among the Louisiana hot-bloods, and I supposed he had got his senses. Probably Billie never even heard of his reputation in this respect. What do you do best shoot or fence?”

“Shoot, although I am hardly an expert at either.”

“Le Gaire will name swords,” he said soberly. “He’s a fine swordsman, and probably the only question is how badly he’ll try to hurt you.”

“A pleasant prospect surely.”

“For him, yes, but as your second I propose impressing Captain Bell, when he arrives, with the idea that you are particularly expert with the sabre, which happens to be the only sword weapon present. If I succeed he may decide that pistols will be better.”

I stared at him with full appreciation, realizing the man was really seeking to serve me.

“May make it too,” he went on calmly. “You’re a stronger man than Le Gaire, and that means something with the sabre. If I can convince Bell, he’ll make Le Gaire decide in favor of the gun. There he comes now. Well, Bell, you’ve been long enough about it must be your first case.”

The infantryman bowed rather coldly, his back against the closed door, as he surveyed us both.

“I have not had much experience in such affairs, Major Hardy, and I desired some understanding of the circumstances before finally consenting to act,” he replied stiffly. “I am informed that Captain Le Gaire is the challenged party.”

“Well, that might be a question, but we will waive the technicalities. Le Gaire provoked the fight, and was rather nasty about it in my judgment, but all we are anxious about now is to get the preliminaries over with as soon as possible. We acknowledge that your man was the one challenged.”

“Then, sir, we demand an immediate meeting, and name swords as the weapons.”

Hardy turned to me, a smile of delight illumining his face.

“Good enough,” he exclaimed, sufficiently loud to reach the ears of the astonished captain. “Not so bad, hey, Galesworth?”

I nodded, but without venturing a reply, and Bell exhibited his surprise in his face.

“Is is Lieutenant Galesworth an expert with the sabre?” he asked, after a moment’s silence.

“Is he!” echoed Hardy. “Do you mean to say Le Gaire has never heard of him?”

“I I think not.”

“That’s odd. Why, we of the staff knew all about those sabre trials in the Federal camp. I naturally supposed Le Gaire wished to try his skill with the champion for the honor of the South. Such a struggle ought to be worth seeing, but Galesworth would have the advantage of weight, and length of arm.”

Bell evidently did not know either what to say or do. This threw an entirely new light on the situation, and left him in an awkward position. He shuffled uneasily about.

“Would would you gentlemen mind my consulting Captain Le Gaire again?” he questioned doubtfully. “I think he should fully understand his opponent’s skill.”

Hardy laughed, completely at ease, and enjoying the other’s dilemma.

“Well, I hardly know about that, Bell. Under the laws of the code we can hold you to your first choice, and I’m inclined to do so. Great joke on Le Gaire. However, I am willing to leave it to my man. What do you say, Galesworth?”

I had retired to the opposite side of the room, and was leaning with one arm on the mantel. In spite of the seriousness of the affair, it was impossible not to be amused by this sudden turn. Bell’s eyes shifted questioningly toward me.

“Surely Lieutenant Galesworth will not desire to take any undue advantage,” he ventured.

“Was not that Captain Le Gaire’s idea?” I returned sharply. “He has the reputation of expert swordsmanship.”

“He is a swordsman, yes, but does not profess to excel with the sabre.”

I waited a moment in silence, permitting my hesitancy to become plainly apparent.

“Well, Captain Bell, much as I prefer the weapons already named, I will nevertheless consent to a change. I am ready to concede anything if I can only compel your man to fight.”

“Do you mean to question Captain Le Gaire’s courage, sir?” hotly.

“He seems to be fairly solicitous about his own safety, at least,” chimed in Hardy. “Go on, Bell, and talk it over with him this is not our row.”

The little captain backed out still raging, and the major followed him to the door, lingering there as though listening. I watched curiously until he straightened up, struggling to keep back a laugh.

“That’s some liar you’ve got for a sergeant, Galesworth,” he said genially. “Bell ran up against him in the hall, and stopped to ask a question. He wasn’t exactly certain we had been telling the truth. Your man must have been primed for the occasion the way he turned loose. Would like to have seen Bell’s eyes pop out as the fellow described your exploits. Makes me proud to know you myself.”

“Did Miles say I was an expert with the sabre?” I questioned in astonishment.

“Did he! Champion of the Army of the Tennessee; undefeated for two years, both afoot and on horse-back; described a wonderful stroke that caught them all; told about how you accidentally drove it an inch too far once, and killed your opponent. Oh, he was great. It will be pistols when Bell comes back; don’t doubt that, my boy, and I know the very spot out back of the stable, level ground, and no interference.”

The interest which Major Hardy was exhibiting, as well as the promptness with which he had espoused my side of the quarrel, made me suspicious that he was not altogether sorry to be thus easily rid of Le Gaire. I could not venture questioning him on so delicate a matter, but without doubt he also saw the Louisianian in a new light, and began to comprehend the change in his daughter. Moreover the humor in the situation appealed to him, and, having once volunteered to serve me, he became thoroughly loyal to that purpose. His very presence gave me courage, and his words stiffened me for the coming ordeal. This was my first occasion of the kind and, as the earlier anger wore off, I found myself looking forward with some dread to the encounter. It was not fear, but the newness of the experience jarred my nerves. I paced back and forth across the room, only partially aware of what he was saying, endeavoring to straighten matters out in my own mind. Was I doing right? Was I justified in this course of action? I had followed the impulse of passion, the sting of Le Gaire’s blow driving all other memory from me. But now I realized the peril in which my action might involve others, the men under my command, for instance, and wondered what Billie would think and say when the news of the quarrel reached her. She would understand the real cause, yet, with her father upon my side, I was not likely to suffer greatly. Anyway the die was cast; it was too late now to regret. Bell returned full of apology and explanation, expressing a desire that the weapons be changed to pistols. Hardy arose from his chair, his eyes twinkling behind heavy lashes.

“Sure; Galesworth is easily satisfied. I have two derringers up stairs exactly alike; my father was out with them twice! Quite a fad duelling was in his day, but the guns haven’t been used for years. Come handy now. By the way, Lieutenant, you shoot equally well with either hand, I believe? Very valuable accomplishment; never could myself. We will meet you, Captain Bell, back of the stable in fifteen minutes. Sorry we have no surgeon present. That is all, is it not?” as the infantryman still lingered. “The minor details can be arranged on the field.”