Read CHAPTER XXVIII - I FORCE BILLIE TO LISTEN of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

There was a narrow settee against the wall, and I sat down upon it, to think and to wait for Hardy’s return. Eager as I was to discover the cause of Le Gaire’s death, yet it seemed almost more important that Billie be brought to an understanding of conditions. Her father could scarcely fail this time to relate in full the details of our encounter, and the girl would realize at once her injustice toward me. I hardly knew what I dared hope as a result, but she was impulsive, warm-hearted, and would surely endeavor to make amends. Bell came back from the front of the house.

“Some fight going on out there,” indicating the north and east, “and seems to be drifting this way.”

“Our fellows are driving you,” I replied. “Have been noticing that all the morning; looks as if your left and centre were giving way.”

“Wait until Chambers gets up, and you’ll hear another tune,” his pride touched. “What’s the sergeant doing?”

“Evidently going to get a look at the attic.” Then, deciding quickly, “I am going to turn you all loose, and try to get back to our lines, as soon as we can gain some understanding of this death mystery, Bell. It looks as though the battle would end up somewhere about here, and I can hardly expect to fight the entire Confederate army with ten men and a sergeant. It’s a dignified retreat for me. Where now?”

“To help your man. I am crazy to get away. I’m a soldier, Galesworth, and they’re wondering out there why I am not in my place. The earlier you say go, the better pleased I’ll be.”

He clambered out the window to where Miles was perched on the steep roof, and I was left alone, with no noise in my ears but the continuous firing, the reverberations already jarring the house. I found it difficult to collect my thoughts, or to reason out the situation. Everything had occurred so swiftly, so unexpectedly, as to leave me confused the surging of battle our way, the affair with Le Gaire, his strange death, the thought which had taken possession of Billie, the skulking murderer hid somewhere within the house all combined to leave me in a state of perplexity. I should have withdrawn my men before daylight; there was no sign of any Federal troops advancing up the ravine, and probably my messenger had failed to get through. It looked as though we were left to our fate. Every moment counted, and yet I could not leave until this mystery was made clear, and Miss Willifred convinced of my innocence. I was so involved in the tangled threads that to run away was almost a confession, and must risk remaining, moment by moment, in hope some discovery would make it all plain. Yet the longer I thought the less I understood. Le Gaire had come to Billie wounded but how? His very condition had appealed to her as a woman. She had pitied, sympathized, and he had taken advantage of her natural compassion to falsely charge me with the whole trouble. How far he had gone, what foul accusation he had made, could not be guessed, yet he had sufficiently poisoned her mind against me. Then circumstances had combined to make the case still blacker. Doubtless to her it was already conclusive. I had been seeking the fellow alone, revolver in hand. She had overheard what must have sounded like a struggle, and there was the dead man, his skull crushed by a blow. Everything pointed directly toward me from her point of view motive, opportunity. Who else could it be? Even I, anxious as I was, could not answer that question. I had seen no one, was not aware the dead man had an enemy about the place, could discover no clue except that bit of damp clay on the stairs. Yes, and my own boots were stained with it also only I knew that lump never came from mine. These thoughts swept across my mind in lightning-like flashes, but brought no solution to the problem. Then Major Hardy suddenly appeared, closing the door, and mopping his face with a handkerchief. His eyes met mine.

“By Gad, Galesworth,” he began, “woman is the hardest creature to comprehend on this foot-stool. I’ve been trying to understand them for fifty years, and am still in the primary class. You’d never have thought that girl of mine cared anything for Le Gaire to hear her talk last night, yet, now the fellow is dead, she is crazy. Lying in there on the bed, crying, and won’t say a word. Only thing she asked me when I came in was what he had been killed with. I said it looked as if he had been struck from behind with a pistol butt, and then she collapsed. Couldn’t get a thing out of her just cried, and begged me to go away; said she’d be all right, if left alone. Blamed if I know what to do with a woman like that over such a fellow as Le Gaire too! By Gad, I supposed Billie had more sense. When she wouldn’t talk to me I proposed sending you in to explain matters. You should have seen her eyes, Galesworth, through the tears. Mad! I never waited to hear what she was trying to say. I reckoned the best thing to do was to leave her alone a while.”

“You explained nothing?”

“No what was there to explain?”

“Major,” I said, every nerve braced for conflict, “with your permission I am going in there and have a talk with your daughter may I?”

“Certainly, as far as I am concerned, but I don’t envy you the job.”

“I’ll assume all risk, but I am not willing to leave her like this. Perhaps I understand the situation better than you do. You stay where I can call you if necessary, and look after the search for whoever got Le Gaire. Bell and Miles are out on the roof trying for the attic. I won’t be gone long.”

I have gone into battle with less trepidation than I approached that door, but never with greater determination to bear myself as became a man. Billie was going to know the truth just as clearly as I could tell it to her. I could not convince myself it was love for Le Gaire which had so affected her. I doubted if she had ever loved him. The fellow had played upon her sympathy, her pity, and circumstances had conspired to cause her to believe I was his murderer. This was amply sufficient to account for her feeling of horror, her evident desire to escape further contact with me. Hardy had been blind and blundering had made things worse, rather than better; now I must see what I could do. I rapped at the panel, and thought I heard a faint response. A moment later I stood within, and had closed the door behind me. She was on a couch at the opposite side of the room, but arose to her feet instantly, her face white, one hand sweeping back the strands of ruffled hair.

“You!” she exclaimed incredulously. “Why have you come here? I supposed it would be my father.”

“Major Hardy told me how you were feeling; that he could do nothing for you ”

“Did he understand I wished to confer with you?”

“No, but ”

“You decided to invade my room without permission. Do you not think you have persecuted me quite long enough?”

“Why do you say persecuted?”

“Because your acts have assumed that form, Lieutenant Galesworth. You persist in seeking me after I have requested to be left alone.”

“Miss Hardy,” and my eyes met hers, “has it ever occurred to you that you may be the one in the wrong, the one mistaken? I am simply here to explain, to tell you the truth, and compel you to do justice.”

“Indeed! how compel? With the revolver in your belt?”

“No; merely by a statement of facts, to be proven, if necessary, by the evidence of your father and Captain Bell. I am not asking you to believe me, but surely they have no occasion for falsifying. Why have you not listened to them?”

“Listened!” startled by my words. “I would have listened, but they have said nothing. They have seemed to avoid all reference to what has occurred. I thought they were trying to spare me pain, humiliation. Is there something concealed, something I do not know?”

“If I may judge from your words and action the entire truth has been kept from you,” and I advanced a step or two nearer. “I am not the one to come with an explanation, but your father has failed, and I am not willing to go away until this matter is made clear. Whether you believe, or not, you must listen.”

She stared at me, still trembling from head to foot, and yet there was a different expression in her eyes puzzled doubt.

“You you will have much to explain,” she said slowly. “If if I were you I should hardly attempt it.”

“Which must mean, Miss Hardy, that you are already so prejudiced a fair hearing is impossible. Yet I thought you, at least, a friend.”

A deep flush swept into her cheeks, to vanish as quickly.

“You had reason to think so, and I was,” earnestly. “I was deceived in your character, and trusted you implicitly. It seems as though I am destined to be the constant victim of deceit. I can keep faith in no one. It is hard to understand you, Lieutenant Galesworth. How do you dare to come here and face me, after all that has occurred?”

She was so serious, so absolutely truthful, that for the moment I could only stare at her.

“You mean after what you said to me last night? But I am not here to speak of love.”

“No,” bitterly. “That is all over with, forgotten. In the light of what has happened since, the very memory is an insult. Oh, you hurt me so! Cannot you see how this interview pains me! Won’t you go go now, and leave me in peace.”

“But surely you will not drive me away unheard! not refuse to learn the truth.”

“The truth! It is the truth I already know, the truth which hurts.”

“Nevertheless you are going to hear my story. If I have done a wrong to you, or any one, I want it pointed out, so it may be made right. I shall not leave this room, nor your presence, until I have uttered my last word of explanation. I should be a coward to turn away. Will you sit down and listen? You need not even speak until I am done.”

She looked at me helplessly, her eyes full of questioning, yet, when I extended a hand, she drew back quickly.

“Yes I I suppose I must.”

She sank back upon the couch, these words barely audible, and I drew a deep breath, hardly knowing where to begin.

“I am a Federal officer, Miss Hardy, and my uniform is no passport to your favor, yet that is no reason you should be unjust. I do not think I have ever been guilty of but one ungentlemanly act toward you, and that was unavoidable I mean listening to your conversation with Captain Le Gaire.”

She shuddered, and gave utterance to a little cry.

“I loved you; with all my heart I loved you,” I went on swiftly, driven by a sudden rush of passion. “What you said then gave me a right to tell you so.”

“And was it because I was unwilling to listen that that you did what you did later?” she broke in hastily.

“Did later! You mean that I consented to meet Le Gaire?”

“Yes that you compelled him to fight you; that you Oh, God! Why bring this all up again?”

“Merely because nothing occurred of which I am ashamed. Without doubt it was my love for you which caused the trouble. But I was not the aggressor. Did you suppose otherwise? Le Gaire deliberately struck me across the face.”

She rose again to her feet, her cheeks blazing.

“It was the answer of a gentleman to an insult given the woman he was to marry,” proudly.

“The answer to an insult! What insult?”

“You know; I shall not demean myself to repeat the words.”

So this was what she had been told! Well, I could block that lie with a sentence.

“Miss Hardy,” I asked soberly, “are you aware that your father refused to act for Captain Le Gaire, but went to the field as my second?”

“No,” her whole expression indicative of surprise. “Impossible!”

“But it was not impossible, for it was true. Captain Bell had to be send for to second Le Gaire, and he did it under protest. Do you imagine your father would have taken my part if I had uttered one word reflecting upon you?”

She attempted to speak, but failed, and I took advantage of the silence.

“Major Hardy is in the hall, and will corroborate all I say. Perhaps I ought not to attempt my own defence, but this misunderstanding is too grave to continue. There is too much at stake in your life and mine. From what you have already said it is evident you have been deceived probably that deception did not end merely with the commencement of the quarrel.”

“Did did Major Hardy truly second you?” she interrupted, apparently dazed. “I I can hardly comprehend.”

“He did; he even volunteered to do so. Le Gaire charged you with being unduly intimate with me, and your father resented his words. The man began threatening as soon as I entered the room, and finally struck me across the face, daring me to an encounter. I am no duellist; this was my first appearance in that rôle; but I could never have retained my self-respect and refused to meet him.”

“You you forced him to accept pistols?”

“In a way, yes. Your father convinced him I was an expert swordsman, and consequently he chose derringers, believing they would be to his advantage. The truth is, I am not particularly skilled in the use of either.”

She looked at me a moment as though she would read clear down into the depths of my soul; then she leaned over against the head of the couch, her face hidden in her arm.

“I I will listen,” she said falteringly, “to all you have to say.”