Read CHAPTER XXIX - THE MYSTERY DEEPENS of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

It was a task I distinctly shrank from, but could not escape.

“Shall I not call in your father, and ask him to relate the story?”

“No; I would much rather hear it from you tell me everything.”

My heart throbbed at these simple words, and the thought suddenly occurred that possibly it was her loss of faith in me, rather than the death of Le Gaire which had brought such pain. If she had actually believed all the man had told her, it must have proven a shock, yet how could I now best counteract his story? It was not my nature to speak ill of any one, least of all the dead, but I must justify myself, win back her respect. Only the whole truth could accomplish this. There was a hassock nearby and I dropped down upon it. She did not move, nor turn her face toward me.

I began with my orders to report at General Grant’s headquarters, so as to thus make clear to her the reasons bringing me to the Hardy plantation. I told about our night trip up the ravine, explained my ignorance of who occupied the house to which I had been, despatched, and how circumstances compelled me to remain concealed on the balcony, and thus overhear her conversation with her father and Captain Le Gaire. I even referred to our quadroon guide, and then it was she suddenly turned her face toward me.

“A quadroon and claiming to have once lived here? Who could that be?”

“A servant slave of Le Gaire’s.”

“Oh, yes! Charles. I remember now he ran away.”

Somehow she seemed more like the Billie of old now, and I went on with greater confidence, barely touching on my sudden determination to prevent her wedding, the capture of the house, and our subsequent conversation together. As I approached the unpleasant interview in the parlor she sat up, brushing back her hair, and with questioning eyes on mine, exhibited the deepest interest. I told the rest, word by word, act by act, determined to thus impress upon her the full truth of the narrative. I could tell by her aroused interest that I was succeeding, while her questions gave me some inkling as to what she had been previously led to believe. After my account of the duel and Le Gaire’s escape I stopped to ask,

“Miss Billie, do you believe all this?”

“Oh, I must! You surely would not dare say what you have, unless certain my father would sustain you.”

“But is it hard to believe?”

“Yes and no. I I wish to believe, because well, because it is so disagreeable to lose confidence in any one who has been esteemed as a friend. Perhaps I am too loyal, too easily convinced. But but I was told such a different story, and it seemed so real, and every fact with which I was acquainted appeared to confirm it. If all you tell me now is true, Lieutenant Galesworth, I hardly know how I dare look you in the face.”

“Forget that, and let us understand fully. Will you tell me all, how you came to protect Le Gaire, and what it was he told you?”

She was silent, her eyes shaded, and I waited, wondering if she meant to speak.

“Perhaps if you consent to do this,” I urged, “it may help to clear up the mystery of his death.”

“You have not told me about that.”

“I know little beyond the discovery of the body,” gravely, “and should prefer to understand all that passed between you before going on with my own tale. I have taken you already as far as I have witnesses to corroborate me beyond that you will have to trust my word alone.”

Her long lashes uplifted, the blue-gray eyes looking directly into my own.

“What is all that firing?” she questioned. “The house fairly quakes; is it a battle?”

“Yes; the contending forces have been gradually drawing nearer ever since daylight. The Confederate lines are being forced back, and when Chambers arrives in support this point may prove the centre of struggle. I am eager to get away, Miss Billie, to protect the lives of my men, but I could not leave with you feeling as you did believing me a coward, a murderer.”

“But I am ashamed to tell you ashamed to confess I could ever have thought it true.”

I touched her hand with my fingers, and she did not shrink away, or seem to observe the action.

“I am bound to learn sometime wouldn’t you rather tell me yourself?”

“Yes, for, perhaps, I can make it seem less bad, more natural. I was angry when you left me, locked here in this room. I was indignant at what you had said and done, and did not realize the military necessity for making me a prisoner. I resented your taking everything so for granted, and and I believe I almost hated you. I know I lay down here on the couch and cried myself to sleep. I could not have slept long, and when I awoke my mind still retained its bitterness. I began to wonder what I should do; how I could turn the tables against you. I was not really locked in, because this side door into the next room had been left unfastened. Finally I decided on a desperate venture. There were horses in the stable belonging to the captured cavalrymen, and if I could steal out of the house, and reach the Confederate lines, a rescuing party could be guided back here. The idea more and more took possession of me, and at last I mustered sufficient courage to make the attempt. I slipped on an old riding skirt, and stole out quietly through that other room into the hall. I thought I could get down the back stairs unobserved, and then out through the kitchen. I had no idea you had placed a guard back there in the ell until I saw him.”

“A guard!” I broke in. “There was no guard up here.”

“But there was just beyond the head of the stairs. One of your men too, for his jacket was pinned up, without buttons. I was close enough to see that.”

“That’s strange; I gave no such orders, and do not believe Miles did. Did you see the fellow’s face?”

“Only in shadow he was young, and without a beard.”

“Go on,” I said, realizing that here was an important discovery, “I will ask the sergeant.”

“Finding the passage blocked I returned to my own room, but left this door ajar. The disappointment left me angrier than ever, but helpless. I could only sit down and wait, knowing nothing of what was going on below. I finally heard the two shots out by the stable, and went to the window. Three horsemen rode past the corner of the house, and then, a moment or two later, I saw a man running along, crouching behind the fence. I could not tell who he was, only he had on a gray uniform, and he suddenly turned, and made for the house. Once he tripped and fell, and got up with his hands to his head as though hurt. That was the last glimpse I had of him from the window. Perhaps five minutes later I heard some one moving in the next room. I supposed it was the guard prowling about, and kept still. Then the door was pushed open, and Captain Le Gaire came in.”

“But where was the guard then?”

“I don’t know. I asked, but the captain had seen no one. I cannot tell you how the man looked, acted, or exactly what he said. The first glance at him awoke my sympathy, before he had spoken a word, for his uniform was torn and covered with dirt, and his face all blood from a wound on the temple. He was trembling like a child, and could hardly talk. I washed his wound out, and bound it up before I even asked a question. By that time he was himself again, and began to explain. Is it necessary for me to repeat what he said?”

“I would rather you would; don’t you think I ought to know?”

“I suppose you had, but but it is not a pleasant task. I could not help but believe what he said, for he told it so naturally; he he almost seemed to regret the necessity, and and I never once dreamed he would lie to me. Then father said just enough to apparently confirm it all, and and other things happened.”

“Yes, I know,” understanding her embarrassment. “You mustn’t think I blame you. You have known me such a little while.”

“But I should have sought after the truth, nevertheless, for I certainly had no cause to believe you capable of so cowardly an action. I surely knew you better than that. But this was what he said: that you came into the room below promising to release the others, but threatening to take him prisoner with you into the Federal lines. He protested, and and then you referred to me in a way he could not stand, and blows were exchanged. As a result he dared you to fight him, and you couldn’t refuse before your own men, although you endeavored to back out. That you chose pistols for weapons, and compelled their acceptance. On the field, he said, you fired before the word was spoken, and while he was still lying on the ground, shocked by the bullet, you flung the derringer at him, cutting his forehead; then drew your own revolver. Unarmed, believing he was to be murdered, he turned and ran.”

“And you actually believed all this of me?”

“Why,” bewildered, “he was a soldier, and my father’s friend. How could I imagine he would run without cause? His story sounded true, as he told it, and he was hurt.”

“He must have got that when he fell his head struck something. And is that all?”

“Yes; only we talked about how he might get away. He was here until father came for me, and then stepped into the other room. When I came back, he had gone. A little later I heard you searching the rooms, and went out into the hall believing it might be he.”

“You saw nothing more of him?”

“No.”

“Nor of the man you mistook for a guard?”

She shook her head positively.

“Only the once.” Then, after hesitating, her eyes uplifted to mine.” Lieutenant Galesworth, you did not encounter Captain Le Gaire alive in the hall?”

“I never saw him alive after he ran from the field. The noise you heard was when I tripped and fell, my revolver dropping to the floor. It was then I discovered his dead body. You will believe this?”

“Yes,” and she extended her hand. “I have been very wrong; you must forgive me. But how could he have been killed? Who could have had a motive?”

“Had Le Gaire no enemies?”

“Not to my knowledge. I know little of his life, yet surely there could be no one here in this house who would deliberately seek to kill him. No one would have opportunity except one of your own men.”

I confess it appeared that way to me also, and the fact only served to make the mystery more baffling. I knew personally every soldier under my command, and was certain no man among them had ever so much as seen Le Gaire previous to the night before. They could have no reason to attempt his life, no grudge against him. Yet every Confederate was under guard, and the fellow Billie had seen in the hall wore our uniform, even to the detached buttons she had noted that. If the man had been on guard, merely performing his military duty, there would have been no secrecy; he would have reported the affair long before this. But Le Gaire had been murdered, treacherously killed, without doubt struck from behind, and there must be some reason, some cause for the act.

“I understand this no better than you,” I admitted finally. “I shall have the house thoroughly searched, and every one of my men examined. But I am afraid we shall be obliged to leave before the mystery is solved. Hear those guns! It almost seems as though the fighting was already within sight of the house.” I stepped across to the window and looked out. “However it is all to the north and east, and there is still opportunity for us to get safely away into the ravine. I cannot understand why our forces have not taken advantage of it in that way they could have struck the enemy a stunning blow on the left. There’s a blunder somewhere. But we can hold the house no longer; only before I go I must know that you believe in me.”

“I do,” earnestly.

“And I am going to clinch that faith,” opening the door into the hall. “Major Hardy, just a moment.”

He turned back from the open window, his face flushed with excitement.

“The stragglers are beginning to show up,” he exclaimed pointing, “and the boys are fighting like hell out there beyond those woods. And and see that dust cloud over yonder; by all the gods, it will be Chambers coming up at last!”

“Then hurry here; I want to ask you just one question for your daughter’s sake: Were you my second in the duel this morning?”

“Certainly.”

“Why didn’t you tell me, papa? Why didn’t you explain that Lieutenant Galesworth was not to blame?”

“Well, I didn’t want you to feel any worse than you did. You and Le Gaire were going to be married, and I supposed you cared a good deal for him. Someway I couldn’t make myself talk about it, Billie; that’s all.”

Her eyes sought mine, but just then Miles appeared in the hall, halting with a salute as he caught sight of me.

“Nobody in the attic, sir, but things are getting pretty warm outside,” he reported anxiously.

“The way is still open toward the ravine, Sergeant. Get your men together in the front hall at once. Never mind the prisoners; the major will release them after we have gone.”

His heels came together with a click, and he strode to the head of the stairs.

“By the way, Sergeant,” I called after him, “did you have a guard posted in the upper hall here this morning?”

“A guard? No, sir.”

“Were you aware that any of our men had been up stairs since last evening?”

“None of them have, sir; I’m cocksure of that.” “That’s all, Sergeant; be lively now.” My eyes turned toward Billie, and she held out both her hands.

“If we never know the truth, Lieutenant Galesworth,” she said softly, “I shall believe all you have told me.”